Storm Tharp

In a recent exhibition of eight gouache, ink, and colored pencil portraits, Portland-based polymath Storm Tharp vividly brought to life an array of imaginary characters. Melding influences ranging from Ralph Steadman (the Hunter S. Thompson illustrator, known for his “chrysanthemums” of splashed ink) to Richard Avedon, Japanese woodcuts to French Harlequinism, Tharp corrals bleeding ink into feathery, mottled images of men and women by turns gorgeous and grotesque in their self-presentation. Here, portraiture becomes less an art of resemblance than the making of images touched by a spark of animal personality.

In Eau de Toilette (all works 2006), for example, a florid, tropically hued dandy is captured midconversation—hands aloft, lips curled, buckteeth protruding. A bird is tattooed neatly on the man’s arm, and striped, tubular forms jump out from behind him. We all know a character like this, full of overripe charisma and sweaty boisterousness, but few of us will ever have seen him so attractively portrayed. The delicate ligature of calligraphic strokes that form his body elevates him to a certain flaming creaturehood and reveals an exquisitely balanced, multilayered formal improvisation. It is a performance that Tharp repeats frequently, building dilated moments of emotional grandeur from fussed-over details.

Thin Ann (After Evelyn), by contrast, depicts a wan beauty, blonde against a pale-blue-and-white background, wearing a crisply creased white peasant blouse with a peacocklike print on the lower hem, lending her a vague aura of ’70s California glam. She seems more guarded than some of Tharp’s other cast members, but her blankness carries its own burden. Even her smallest gestures, her pristine, picked-over cleanliness, and her brushed hair come across as gentle confessions of want.

Perhaps the unhappiest of the portraits, though, is Jerimiah Puckett, which presents a porcine metalhead wearing a sports jersey that reads simply HEAVEN. With his limp turquoise hair and slouching posture, he embodies a teenage gracelessness that seems unlikely ever to be outgrown. Other highlights include Einstein, in which a magenta-haired freak with a big, Zappaesque nose wears a saffron robe, and Rare Bird, in which an elegant, observant female head fl oats free from a red blanket of a body, anchored only by a gold geometric necklace. In all of these images, Tharp has invented subjects who appear unable to disguise their own disfiguration but who are periodically capable of glorying in it.

Tharp has made portraits and self-portraits before—in a range of media, from oil to ceramics to beaded fabric—and has experimented in such forms as installation and video. But in this show, he broke new ground by speaking in a more rigidly serialized voice, sizing each picture equally against similarly muted, nearly monochromatic backgrounds. The focused display device in some ways draws attention to the diverse materials in play—gold leaf in Rare Bird, smoky charcoal in Counselor (a virile samurai in a striped, open-collared shirt), tight graphite in Thin Ann. The pleasures here are largely of a traditional order. Fine hair. Fine lines. Fine shading.

How then does one contextualize this work? At once nonconceptual yet thoroughly cerebral; indebted to such admired but uncommonly utilized sources as John Singer Sargent, Francis Bacon, and Japanese printmaker Natori Shunsen; discernibly gay; vaguely West Coast; swooningly lyrical. It is just possible that Tharp has confected something entirely original.

Jonathan Raymond