Oregon

Robert Colescott; Duane Zaloudek; Duane Zaloudek; “The Artists of Oregon”; Melvin Katz; Marlene Gabel

Portland Art Museum; Fountain Gallery

“The Valley of Queens,” Robert Colescott’s recent exhibit installed in the Portland Art Museum comprises paintings selected from work done in Egypt during his sabbatical from Portland State College (1964–5). Colescott’s subject is woman, and his method of revealing this universal She is like that of an archeologist: he goes about it as though he were depicting on a single canvas the various stages of a complicated disinterment, his movement back into history progressing from the outside edges of the canvas toward a central point. With turgid, expressionistic brushwork he strips away layers of clouds and sky, the numerous colors of the sun, sand, clay, and stone, all with a lyrical yet stern intensity. He reaches the sarcophagus, tears back the linen wrapping, and shows the strange crystallized face of each female. Judging from his approach, which is not unlike T. S. Eliot’s poetic approach to a similar problem in “The Four Quartets,” it is evident that Colescott’s particular esthetic is to capture outside of time those timeless qualities of life which are best exemplified in woman: joy and sorrow, serenity and suffering, humbleness and vanity.

In his Milarepa series of paintings, now on view at the Fountain Gallery, Duane Zaloudek is concerned with creation. He confines himself to an exploration of a powerful organic metaphor which becomes—in treatment—almost mechanical. There is in these paintings a constant symbiosis: arrested action (creating a tension that implies sheer violence) is caught against utter stillness (which is in no way peaceful); the hard-edge line encompasses and defines soft, biomorphic shapes; there is a disparate sense of innocence and knowledge—all of which is emphasized by the textural simplicity of the acrylic surface and colors (black, white, red, green, blue, tan, pink). While these paintings are definitely of this world, they generate a feeling of otherworldliness. In his blatantly austere subject matter, Zaloudek discovers a subtlety in statement and understatement; he achieves this largely through juxtaposition of primary forms with additional planes and the physical limitations of the canvas. The precision with which Zaloudek handles his medium and his scrupulously limited vocabulary of form and space and color, brought into balance by a strict syntax, leaves these Milarepa paintings with a hauntingly dramatic quality.

Taken as a total experience, The Artists of Oregon, Paintings and Sculptures, 1966, which opened recently at the Portland Art Museum, has two remarkable qualities about it. First, the evidence of a great deal of technical facility and competence in the works of most of the entrants. Second, the real dearth of originality, invention, and innovation. These, the evidence of study rather than spontaneity and the predominance of imitation over imagination (in the Coleridgean sense), make up a show that is at best mediocre and largely decorative instead of being vital and stimulating.

It is particularly disappointing to note the absence of basic esthetics in the works of younger contributors. Esthetics implies sensitivity and perception and not a facile reiteration of proved techniques and forms. The technical achievement of the young artists in this show does not give evidence of having gained its impetus from rebellion or experimentation. A good example of this can be readily seen in the untitled rhoplex piece by Frank Boyden; here the artist is working in what has been commonly termed the Northwest style, but his effort lacks the vitality, brilliance and spiritual depth that Morris Graves and Mark Tobey achieve in their finest moments.

There are, of course, exceptions: the most obvious are Harold Jacobs and Erik Gronborg. Both artists possess skill comparable to anyone in the show. In addition, they are inventive and highly imaginative and definitely in touch with the times. Jacobs’ The Shooting Gallery is an assemblage of mixed media, formal in its execution, which gains much of its power from an overwhelmingly rich texture and color. In the two sculptures Svantevit and Shrine for Absolon, Erik Gronborg’s skill as a craftsman goes beyond mere commentary on his materials. The surface and blending of different kinds of wood enhances their feeling of depth. And what emerges from these essentially monumental works is a human quality—the rigid height and hazy mirrorlike oval of Shrine for Absolon, the comic, stodgy demeanor of Svantevit. In this respect, Gronborg’s pieces share something that is fundamental in Saul Stein-berg’s drawings: through their wooden posturing these figures have something funny and profound to say about man—if he is willing to see it.

An exhibition at the Portland Art Museum of paintings by Melvin Katz, a young East Coast painter who now teaches at the Museum Art School, brought out how greatly an artist’s style is enriched by accretion. Working in generally the same vibrant reds, greens, and blues throughout, Katz begins with a formal, painterly preoccupation with interior and exterior shapes,foreground and background, surface and depth. At one point, he adopts the presidential shield. This is fragmented and generalized into a heraldic symbol to which is added a baroque serpentine motif and stenciled numbers. As he pursues his theme (with Numbers Game #2), Katz retains the basic form of the shield as a circle and tightens the serpentine shapes to produce tension and a sense of motion. Finally, in the later paintings an architectural arrangement of planes emerges to give a new emphasis to the fragmentary remnants of the symbols of the serpent and the shield. However freely he seems to move, Katz never seems negligent; he is an excellent draftsman and keeps his colors stridently alive by virtue of his meticulous brushwork.

The metal sculpture by Marlene Gabel installed in the Portland Art Museum demonstrates her feeling for paradox and irony. These raw pieces were fashioned from pieces of sheet metal and food cans. Using a mixture of oil, acrylic, gesso, and shellac, Gabel refines and softens the impact of the metals and concomitantly explores the ambiguities of surface and spatial relationship of these materials.

Douglas Kent Hall