S e p t e m b e r   2 0 0 1

Critical i

Fletcher, Marcel and Motherwell
Innocence, wit and great art
by Jeff Jahn

The Portland art scene in August had a nice selection of history, innocence and old-fashioned butt-kicking with shows by Robert Motherwell, Harrell Fletcher and Nathan Marcel.

Two works particularly catch the eye: Marcel's "Urban Avatar" at Blackfish and Fletcher's "Dog Made From Three Plastic Bags" at PICA.

At the mercy of context: Harrell Fletcher
Everyday Sunshine
219 NW 12th Ave., #100

Fletcher's "Dog Made From Three Plastic Bags"

Fletcher's overall exhibit has flaws. With overly clinical pastel wall colors and a lack of large works to anchor the layout, the exhibit allows the massive white space of PICA's main gallery to swallow and diffuse Fletcher's ambitious project.

This is disappointing since Everyday Sunshine evokes a sense of childhood wonder, need and parental custodial responsibility. I'm let down because these are some of my favorite subjects. I recommend a close look to tune out the space.

In particular I found Fletcher's "Dog Made From Three Plastic Bags," to justify the trip. The care that went into making this small work transforms basic, banal materials into (dare I say) love. In the context of his childhood photos with yellow whiteout, this work achieves poetic sunshine.

Fletcher's exhibit: Wonder-world or science lab?

I like the tonal difference between the handmade care of the dog and the more clinical works (seen at left). When cropped like this, the exhibit works. Too bad the clinical side is overemphasized by the expansive space – making Fletcher's wonder-world look more like a science lab. In a gallery with lower walls and hardwood floors the exhibit would have succeeded. It is simply the passivity of the show colors that tilts the exhibit towards an unfortunate deconstruction.

Basic human activities like caring are not something that can be reduced, poignantly showing why postmodernism is inadequate, especially for themes like innocence. Like a fragile sea creature removed from its environment, deconstruction gives a researcher a jar with some scattered tissue floating in it. I doubt this was Fletcher's intent.

His dog succeeds by making us forget the space by focusing our vision on something much smaller than ourselves.

Nathan Marcel
New Members Show
Blackfish Gallery
420 NW 9th

Marcel's "Urban Avatar"

Marcel isn't playing the reduction game – sometimes he legitimately overwhelms. Most of his works at Blackfish engage dada-esque wit but with updated media saturation more in keeping with our time.

Witty and illustrated like most classic dada wall works, one really stands out: "Urban Avatar" puts the busy eye in a blender and seamlessly combines witty stock epitaphs like "man-child" and "hero worship" with a fedora-ed Dick Tracey-ish male image. For good measure he adds enough eye saccharin to make Spielberg vomit (that is good).

"Urban Avatar" makes commentary on the 25-45 singles scene I see daily, exposing persona in a carnival for the eye. Every year, lots of other clever MFA grad students work on this coming-of-age subject. So far only Marcel's work has given me a convincing effect. Who knows where Marcel will be lead as he starts his MFA this year at Portland State. Sometimes, his work has a panache I haven't seen since Jim Dine's earlier days. Well done ... watch this guy.

Robert Motherwell
Augen Gallery
817 SW 2nd

"Barcelona, Elegy for the Spanish Republic," by Robert Motherwell

Usually, prints are pale impersonations of an artist's more serious work. For all but an obvious few, such as Albrecht Durer, Rembrandt, Picasso and die Brucke group, this rule holds.

Add Motherwell to that exceptional list. His warm black massifs have become proven icons.

"Barcelona, Elegy for the Spanish Republic" is part of a series which has become his trademark.

These elegies have primal mass, an engagement with history and there is something warm and inviting in addition to the threatening nature of the black shapes. In the elegy series, the matte black of his work transfers well to printmaking.

With Motherwell there isn't any real drop in quality between the paintings and the prints, only an issue of scale and the inherent fragility of works on paper.

Motherwell's "Monster," at right

This fragility makes up for the bombastic scale giving mid-sized works like "Monster" depth. Funny how monsters, like grizzly bears and other super-predators, are fragile things; they evoke myth and a tenuous philosophy of disbelief. Somehow we stare when we see one, even though we know that this was once bear country. Much like art itself, all constructs and assumptions can be shattered with a growl or the uncovering of a Loch Ness hoax.

Motherwell's work, much like a bear, shocks with its substantiality – something I miss in a lot of art today. As an artist, Motherwell was an important cultural bridge and his work has the philosophical polish of the Europeans like Tapies, with the American gusto of Pollock.

"Paris Review," by Motherwell

Still, without Pollock, I believe Motherwell would have gone a less-adventurous route with his collages and somewhat more academic and class brandishing pieces like "Paris Review."

It is likely Alfred Barr, the original director of New York's Museum of Modern Art, would have encouraged this side of his work had Greenberg not stolen his thunder.

Compared to "Monster," these "class conscious" works are pleasant but lack the charge that is so indicative of the first generation of abstract expressionists. Motherwell was a key part of the Europeans abdicating the throne of cultural importance to Americans.

Some hold that the center of the art world was already in America in the 1940s, due to the presence of European masters in New York. I disagree.

Although some Europeans did indeed wait out WWII, the people who spawned the school of Paris and the expectations that Parisians had for art, did not. Matisse and Picasso did not flee France. Instead, New York received a transfusion – not a heart transplant.

Motherwell was the American whom surrealist Europeans were grooming as a disciple. He gained their acceptance then proceeded to surpass their expectations. Greenberg (a critic who had even more intellectual cachet than Motherwell) and Pollock lead the charge. It is a poor student who does not surpass their master.

Motherwell was the best early example of a sophisticated American artist and helped establish depth in the New York scene.

But the question has to be asked: Why hasn't America produced any artist of real historical stature in the last 17 or more years while Europe has?

E-mail Jeff at pivotofjade@hotmail.com, don’t miss his recent columns and be sure to see his April essay, Art and Threat: Untaming Humanism.

site design / management / host: ae
© 2001-2005 nwdrizzle.com / all rights reserved.