A Complete Eye of Water: A Summer Show at Ampersand Gallery
Report from Portland
The River Keeps Talking at Ampersand Gallery & Fine Books
July 30 to August 25, 2015
2916 NE Alberta Street, Suite B
Portland, OR, 503 805 5458
“The River Keeps Talking,” Ampersand Gallery’s recent summer exhibition, was an engaging one in what seems to be a string of impressively curated shows to grace Portland’s Alberta Arts District. This was a show of ecological and geometric forms carrying with them iconographic meanings both straightforward and conceptual, featuring work by Matthew F. Fisher, Clayton Cotterell and Ellen McFadden.
Walking up at just the right hour, 5:30 pm on my most recent trip, I was pleased to be greeted by the shadow of palm fronds projected by the sunset via the gallery front window. Palm trees are uncommon in Portland, and for this particular show’s sequence of paintings and prints, the tree’s image is the perfect invenzioni when combined with what it provisionally flanks: the last in the sequence of Fisher’s surreal beachside acrylics.
These paintings are thick with saturated, bubblegum pop hues, nostalgia and style, recalling early summer heat and its light hazes. These and another thing: water, which is in itself becoming a rarity. (Is this an implicit reason for its center-stage position in this show?) Where there is water, it can be said, there are people there too. But not one bather is seen here. This, along with an occasion to test perception of image production, is part of the exhibition’s charm.
Looking at the paintings and what they might tell or ask of us, let’s also say that the appearance of the aforementioned palm-shadow has not only the one meaning, that the sun is low in the sky and what’s in its way’s been pinned up on the wall as a dark gray projection, but a second meaning, like that of the removal of one’s hat at a passerby to signal a hello. This show, at first glance, is just as good humored, and we can accept this meaning as a friendly handshake, paying attention to what is both obvious and also what is unknown. This was a good setup, at least for me, for the imagistic and (however loose) narratives found in Fisher’s paintings.
Taking the show on in reverse, the first acrylic is the show’s final one: Meaningless September (2014). The painting is a suitable point of entry for both Fisher’s own works and those of Cotterell and McFadden.
If Fisher’s subjects are maritime (though not specific to any era), they remain in limbo between loose and tight, specific and abstract, atmospheric and microscopic. In Meaningless, Fisher’s layer-by-layer process of painting is revealed through the curious buildup, or rollup, of the water’s edge up to a very granulated beach. This feature of water is highly strange, in that we can deduce its being water, though it also looks like something else. Plastic or rubber, in any case something you could peel away, roll back up and tuck under your arm. This version of the sea looks like daytime starlight as it ripples back toward the horizon line so famous in all of Fisher’s paintings. Fisher’s approach is presumably no-ideas, which leads him to certain subjects that might be precluded by more deliberation.
Another of Fisher’s apprehending canvases, Silly Boy, 2014, shows a single blade of seagrass as the tallest plant around. The simple leaf in this last painting, by this logic, takes on the importance of any subject ever painted. Here, by virtue of the shoot’s being presented in apparent reverence, the artist allows us to overstep the limits of
merely formal perception and imagine the ordinary as extraordinary or even otherworldly.
Likewise, the two large “drops” of water in Meaningless, hung magically aloft, loom large, and appear as mystical presences. In this way, Fisher’s simple subjects appear to us without much relation to his forebears or reference to painting itself and the impedimenta of career. In its stark everything-and-nothing, the painting recollects The Glass Bubbles (1850), by English poet Samuel Greenberg, who wrote:
The motion of gathering loops of water
Must either burst or remain in a moment.
The violet colors through the glass
Throw up little swellings that appear
And spatter as soon as another strikes
And is born; so pure are they of colored
Hues, that we feel the absent strength
Of its power. When they begin they gather
Like sand on the beach: each bubble
Contains a complete eye of water
Water is by now the overarching motif in this exhibition, and it shows up in various guises. The former imagistic synchronicity found in the Greenberg poem perhaps allows for some of the subtler and uncanny aspects of the element represented in all three of these artists’ works.
Fisher’s new imagery is cool, fun, and highly attractive to anyone keen on ocean views and graphics, and furthermore it is decisively mellow. These paintings give a more mystical sense, and, when juxtaposed with the comparatively more intense prints by Cotterell on the gallery’s facing wall, they look pretty dreamy.
Cotterell’s four collaged photographic pigment prints, in their flat-out dazzling compositional simplicity, make their subjects — water and landscape — full of surprise. In this first pigment print, Untitled (2015) Cotterell has made what looks like a wave in black, white, and silver, look like a tide is turning into a frozen tundra bedecked with stars. What appears to be the surf at another glance could then also be a snowy mountain range with charred stumps of trees at its further melted base. The prints depict movement while being compositionally static (being the prints they are), because of their effect upon the eye, which makes one guess again and again at what’s being shown. These works are reminders that what is commonly known can always become unfamiliar through experimentation, and thus contain the possibility to baffle, in a good way.
In another untitled print by Cotterell, the largest in the show, we get a mid-ocean view with the horizon abandoning itself for the sky. Looking at this I get the feeling of standing on the edge of a high cliff, or on a boat out to sea, that the world has taken on a characteristic of limitlessness. It’s what people since the Ancient Greeks (as far back as we have record) felt when they looked out over a cliffside, overwhelmed at all there was to take in, with simultaneous doubt with regard to possibility or passibility. We either can’t believe what we are seeing, or it’s too much to take in.
Standing as close as allowable to the print, starting at its left hand corner, one has the desire to take in the composition little by little to know its very details. Is it wind that causes the more intense wavelets in this area of the water, or has it something more to do with the chosen medium or some other texture collaged in? Moving the eye upward toward the sky, the water’s calm is described by both its smoothness and this portion of the print’s lightening shade.
Cotterell’s third untitled print is a splash, in the same black/white/silver of the previous two. This is all the intensity and energy of the second print, condensed to 18 x 22 inches. The flow is green, white, and incensed. In person, this print looks like the splash or whirlpool it is, except with the strange detail that the edges appear to be glass or plastic. What is water? It is temporarily rechanneled through what amounts to experiments with forms and mediums, into the perceptions of this show’s viewers.
In the back room of the gallery are three large acrylic paintings by McFadden. They’re brightly hued and geometric, belying a pure abstraction that they only partially contain. This exhibit is McFadden’s third exhibition in the span of a year. These works reflect McFadden’s memories and perspectives on Northwest waterways, which are in her words “nearly dead today.” Do I know this because I read the leaflet? Only partially, as this “information” is also translated into her paintings.
In these vibrant configurations of line and color, McFadden shows the icon of nuclear effect upon water, in a creative direction she describes on her website as “constructive.” For McFadden, “the paintings serving a purpose of two dimensional surface as the basis for tension and interaction with shape and the four outside edges. Color is a part of that interaction,” but because these aren’t pedantic ecological narratives, the viewer is also a part of the interaction, adding to an already congenial aesthetic experience.
In Solkuks Wanapum and Wanapum (both 2015), river water cools as the rectangular shapes (representing water) change from jasper red to salvia blue and violet, the further away they get from toxicity. In the former composition, skinny, black rectangles represent the nuclear plants the water flows among, “not unlike the confluence of the Snake and Columbia Rivers, downstream from where the Wanapum Indians once lived and fished before being displaced by dams in the 1950s,” McFadden says. Work and life are apparent in these canvases, but you have to take a good look. As the hues and geometries change and converge from painting to painting, a concern for the occupied, precarious, and sublime states of water are displayed and enter our experience. Ellen McFadden’s ecological concerns and keenness to the problematic of production began early on, when she worked at a cannery as a young child. This combination of idea and practice makes McFadden’s paintings part of a dialogue.
If the emblem of Modern Art was to abandon formalist conventions, then the art of our era (whatever you want to call it) takes reference in lieu of illusionist figuration, fragments in place of “clear” statements, questions over answers, and dialogue instead of solitude: all of which can be found in the pictures seen in the above exhibition. One of the pleasures of recognizable subjects like these in The River Keeps Talking, is their ability to be riven, abstracted, rearranged, and collaged all while remaining perceptible. To me, this is what accounts for the hospitableness of shows like this; there’s point of entry but we’re not told exactly what to see or how to see it.