Brian Portman

Hiram Butler Gallery

Viewing Brian Portman’s drawings is like scrolling through a mine shaft. They’re big and black, and etched with luminous shapes that seem embedded in fossilized strata. Figuration is immanent but it never emerges enough to match recognizable terrestrial experience. The outlines of globs and carapaces, feathering webs, and ragged tendrils drift through phosophorescent fields and charred patches. The result is a tangle of subterranean abundance.

Portman’s new works on paper include an immense drawing, Bower, 1990, covering an entire wall of the big pitched-roof gallery space. Portman has covered the surface with layers of architectural details overrun with organic activity. Pierced at the center by a floor-length window, the embellished surface suggests a chapel wall framing an altar or gateway. On the left side hover clusters of spheres with the weighty presence of seated deities, surrounded by an expanse of scallop-webbed crustaceans, exfoliating fans, and snakey-ribbed tubings. To the right, five skeletal columns are arrayed like attendants or witnesses, providing a static counter to all the organic turbulence.

Above the window large pincer shapes loom like yawning mandibles. Are they “Jaws” or is this the Mouth of Hell, a chiliastic warning of a snapping conclusion with NO EXIT writ large over the doorway?

Portman’s nocturnal fantasies have a miasmic transparency. With blacks, whites, and grays he conjures up an organic fecundity which seems real because it echoes a world made visible through the microscope. This sense of the spectral—of paleontological, biological and spiritual categories proposed and then rejected in order to reveal more clearly the dark magic of live matter—is developed integrally with the architectural ambience. The entire wall simultaneously suggests a decaying facade rampant with plant life, and a chapel fresco bearing narratives obscured by accumulated layers of pentimenti.

The Italianate, ecclesiastical aura in Port-man’s drawing is qualified by quirky draftsmanship. It’s antidextrous, a contravening of classicism, a parody of polish. Portman scrapes down his blacks with a power sander and pitches on talc for highlights. He insists on the grunginess of materials and the vigor of making to invoke imagery which fuses organisms and artifacts. Portman’s huge drawing is a tour de force in which the eye is never allowed to rest.

Joan Seeman Robinson