Coming out of a fog: Tom Prochaska at Froelick Gallery

Tom Prochaska, "Oregon"/Photo courtesy of Froelick Gallery

Tom Prochaska, “Oregon”/Photo courtesy of Froelick Gallery

There is a Johnson City, Oregon. It’s in Clackamas County. But it doesn’t look anything like the town in Tom Prochaska’s painting with the same name (and title of the show). The buildings in Prochaska’s Johnson City have multiple stories. Johnson City, Oregon, was incorporated in 1970, and may hold the distinction of the only such municipality in the state to consist wholly of mobile homes.

As one might suspect, just as there is more than one Springfield or Salem, five Johnson Citys can be found in these United States, and, unlike our own, more than one is large enough to be thought of as a city as opposed to a town or village. Yet, given the hazy, blurry and smudged quality — and despite the descriptives, I do mean quality — of these paintings, this particular Johnson City may be nothing more than one constructed from Prochaska’s imagination. But ours is certainly as gray as the one in the painting, especially during our seemingly interminable rainy season.

Prochaska has been making black, white and gray paintings for a few years now, this after a fling with color. However, because of my newcomer status, I was not aware of his work until earlier this year when a couple of his small paintings were in an inventory-type group show at Froelick. His “Counting Salmon” hit me hard. I like to fish but that wasn’t why; after all, I counted (could make out) only one salmon in the piece. It was his painting technique — one might call it impressionistic — which created a nebulous scene as something like one experiences with recall or in REM sleep—hazy, fleeting and not “real.” I felt as if I had been let inside someone’s memory or dream.

As such, Prochaska’s paintings often better represent figuration from a distance. Faces exist as a simple brush stroke to indicate where the face belongs, and a figure’s garments are given a similar treatment. This certainly holds true for the bedridden person in the painting “Oregon.” From the front of the gallery the patient’s smile appears quite natural. Up close it is little more than a broad, upturned smear. I prefer the latter perspective, perhaps because it is the distance the artist himself had while painting, yet it also seems more fitting to the desultory feeling that pervades nearly all of the works in the exhibit.

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I suppose Prochaska wouldn’t have done himself any favors had he named this show, “Oregon,” for it’s a little too generic, even for local tastes; yet this single large piece among many smaller canvases commands attention. A person is sitting—perhaps more propped up—in bed. A hand shows out from what might be the sheets, and feet protrude from the end. These appendages are in black as opposed to the light shade of gray that is the face. Gloves and shoes in bed? Perhaps the figure has plans to take his leave.

What may be the bottom of a lamp shade or hospital light makes a halo behind the head; and there is something else (a face?) in white above the circle. There may be a body attached to the head, again in white, that spreads across the upper portion of canvas, yet it is hard to make out. An angel? A ghost? I want to make it benevolent: a reason to smile.

The lower left portion of the painting looks like it could contain the image of a crib. Cradle to grave? Then there’s that little bit of red and yellow at the very top center. No matter how dire things may seem in this painting, I leave it with a feeling that everything is going to be alright, more resolved than hopeful, so any outcome may be accepted.

Of course, things are never that simple.

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The first year we lived in Oregon we operated a booth at a small farmers’ market in a nearby town. We saw many of the same customers each week, and no more than three weeks into the season, a woman who regularly bought produce from us openly and unexpectedly shared that her husband had Seasonal Affective Disorder. I don’t think we even knew her name at this point yet she spoke so matter of factly about it. At the time, we had not experienced our first Pacific Northwest winter.

And now, here it is spring, and the recent seasonal gloom lingers at Froelick. Yet, not all of these paintings are necessarily winter scenes. Some are of interiors. In another the weather is pleasant enough for a street vendor to be selling rice and beans from an open-air cart. The harsh white surface of a wall in another painting could be imagined as glare from the sun. Still, a mood persists: one painting consists mostly of an empty chair (there may be a person’s legs still attached); ghostly figures and people in dark clothing like mourning attire populate many other canvases; and in “Ensor’s Boat,” not only is there a body in a casket, a skeleton stands in the wings.

Tom Prochaska, "Ensor's Boat"/Courtesy of Froelick Gallery

Tom Prochaska, “Ensor’s Boat”/Courtesy of Froelick Gallery

Above all, these paintings have a hallucinatory, otherworldly aspect to them. In the painting, “Well Now,” a dog holds a cane and sits in a chair next to an upended and partially dismantled old bed springs, while one of Prochaska’s ghost figures looks on in the background. (I could be wrong about all of it: the dog, the springs, and the apparition could be other things entirely.) There is no comma in the title, but there could be: Everything has turned out for the best; or, there are still questions, even though we are presented with or have made a determination or prognosis. For now, otherwise we can’t be sure.

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I cannot help but think these paintings are highly personal, not only because of the figuration, but also the brush strokes that avoid detail. The paucity of color suggests an air of despair. It is interesting that the artist, James Ensor, should be included in a painting, not because he has been an influence for many an artist over the last century-plus, but because Ensor’s own paintings are known for their vivid color and wild figures. (Prochaska’s earlier color work was largely pastoral.) It is also curious that Ensor’s career as an innovative painter effectively ended not long after he began to gain critical acclaim, and some forty years before his death. I would think to most artists that is a long time to take to die. Prochaska is not a young man, but his paintings still have a dynamic quality to them that shows he is not quite ready to give up the ghost.

Nevertheless, the stronger our sense of mortality becomes, the more important memories become. We insist on connecting with our pasts, our representative sum totals of meaning to our lives, when in fact, the dreams of our sleep, as fantastical as they may be, have more presence in the world. To compensate, we blend these iconic moments with wakeful ones of our hopes for the future.

It seems to me this is the sort of painting Prochaska makes: He gives us some idea of what’s going on but, then again, we can’t be certain. He shows us things that may have an importance in his life but they are a blur even to him. He is firmly resolute in his well-honed technique yet he knows there are contingencies and unanswered questions. A smear of paint can be purposeful while at the same time, as in life, a slip in the mud can take us in an unexpected direction. Yet through it all, perhaps the best thing to do is just keep smiling.

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