Eric Stotik enters the long stretch

The Portland painter's 45-foot-long reflection on fragmentation is like a WPA mural with a shot of Dali

Opening crowd at Stotik exhibit. Photo courtesy Laura Russo Gallery

Opening crowd at Stotik exhibit. Photo courtesy Laura Russo Gallery

It’s a Saturday morning at Laura Russo Gallery in Northwest Portland, and as Eric Stotik stands in front of his latest painting he seems both dwarfed and as tough as a stump: a slim wiry guy with close-cropped receding brown hair on a crisp football head. He’s dressed more for the studio or a day in the fields than a coffee-and-snack talk to a room of art enthusiasts and potential collectors: jeans, sneakers, plain brown tee beneath a faded short-sleeve plaid shirt with the tails hanging out. He rocks a little on his feet as he talks, and he makes it ruefully plain that as much as he enjoys making paintings, he’s less fond of articulating what they mean. “I just don’t like to question it all too hard,” he remarks at one point. “I just go for it.”

Stotik’s work has been speaking industriously for itself in Portland (mostly), Chicago, New York, and elsewhere for close to 30 years now. He’s what the business likes to call a “mid-career artist,” which means someone who’s been around long enough to have developed a personal style, a solid following, and a mastery of technique, and who has a reasonable expectation of another good 20 years or more of deepening and broadening and producing at a high level. Born in 1963, he’s been an established Portland painter since the 1980s: he graduated from the Pacific Northwest College of Art in 1985 and was picked up almost immediately by the influential Jamison/Thomas Gallery. He was raised in Papua New Guinea and Australia before coming to the U.S. for college, and now he seems very American, and specifically very Western American – hale, laconic, grounded, practical with his hands. A craftsman and an artist.

Floating and thinking: Detail.   Laura Russo Gallery

Floating and thinking: Detail. Laura Russo Gallery

From the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to a Claes Oldenburg giant typewriter eraser or towering tube of lipstick, the art world likes big, and in his newest work, Stotik has given it big. The unnamed painting that sprawls across the gallery wall behind him stretches an audacious 45 feet in 11 connected sections, each 5 feet tall. It’s reminiscent of a 1930s WPA mural, one of those post-office-wall historical scenes that the Roosevelt administration financed to help jog the country out of the Great Depression. But it’s like a WPA mural shaken or stirred with a shot of Dali, or maybe a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. The painting’s expanse suggests a rootedness that is firmly physical yet also physically and psychologically unhinged, somehow out of whack. Things seem real, in isolation, but they don’t fit together in a realistic sense, and that’s the one thing that does seem to fit. “I thought about fragmenting a lot,” Stotik says. “The world is fragmented.” A friend, he adds, argues that, no, the world is crystalizing – “but I feel the fragmenting more.”

The two-year process of creating this vision, Stotik says, was a little like changing an ap on your iPhone and watching as your whole lineup of aps begins to wobble: “This is what this painting was like. At night it would all float in my mind.”

Drama and apprehension: Detail. Laura Russo Gallery

Drama and apprehension: Detail. Laura Russo Gallery

Here’s what was floating. On the far right, an austere Indian-looking woman stands in a green coat and a long red scarf wrapped around her head and neck, the scarf’s twin strands draping like a cape. She seems to be holding the wisp of a cigarette between two fingers. One end of the red scarf shoots out like an arm, gesturing rightward to a scatter of dried broken tree limbs, lengths of two-by-four, a discarded wooden window shutter, and other detritus. Crows hover and flock. Faces float, disembodied. Other things also float: Knives. Ropes. A hand, fingers splayed. A woman in bondage stretches out prone. A strange cat with a flesh-and-fur head and a skeletal body built from mechanical gears curls up and stares. A 1950s ranch house tips over the edge of a red cloud. Horses and riders pull up on the range. A reflective native woman in a striped blanket fingers a rope in front of an adobe hut. To the woman’s right, a rough wooden ladder rises to the roof, as in a Hopi village. Another cluster of figures gathers, intense. Mountains rise. A lake or river runs. At last, the rolling scene ends: blank wall.

This isn’t Thomas Hart Benton or Grant Wood. And if a mural implies by its nature that a cohesive visual story is being told, it’s not really a mural, either, even if it has the look and feel of one. “I don’t understand when people talk about narrative and art,” Stotik says, in answer to a question from the audience. “I don’t know what that means. This just happens in my head.”

Anchored on the left: Detail. Laura Russo Gallery

Anchored on the left: Detail. Laura Russo Gallery

A lot of Stotik’s work is highly detailed and somehow mechanical – which in this case absolutely does not mean soulless – and some of it’s on view at Laura Russo along with his non-mural: birds painted on a circular sawblade; a woman captured inside a densely packed prison-maze of medical equipment. (This latter one, though it’s a separate painting, relates to scenes in the big central work.)

Stotik’s 45-foot vision seems built from reflection, impulse and technique. “There are a lot of historical references here,” he remarks: he reads compulsively, and collects what he calls “worthless picture books,” which he devours in a sort of visual osmosis. But he pays very little attention to other contemporary art (“I find my inspiration elsewhere”), and although his work is informed by current events, he dislikes making pop-culture references. His view, if purposely fragmented, is considerably longer, and as detail-oriented as he can be, he doesn’t lay it out like an engineer; he lets it rise on its own from the loam. Some images explain themselves: “Everyone knows what a rope means.” Others are surprising. The woman on the horse who seems like a can-do frontierswoman turns out to be “some minor Norwegian royalty of some sort.”

Stotik talks freely about technique. He painted this work on watercolor paper, because he could roll it up and put it inside a tube, which made storage easy. Because his studio space wasn’t big enough to stretch the whole thing out, he worked in sections and didn’t see the whole thing at once until it was installed at the gallery. He doesn’t like the way acrylics look like plastic, so he puts on enough layers  so the paper will hold all of the paint, and then stops, thus achieving a softer, settled-in look.

Houses and horses: Detail. Laura Russo Gallery

Houses and horses: Detail. Laura Russo Gallery

He’s much more reluctant to talk about specific meanings, maybe because he doesn’t think the painting should be read for information, but rather absorbed for its view of the world. “We read history as a line,” he eventually says. “We read time as a line. Time is not necessarily a line. We think of ideas OR beliefs. But maybe it’s ideas AND beliefs.”

An audience member prods. I understand about the fragmentation, he says, but within the fragmentation, is there a thematic consistency?

“I don’t understand your question,” Stotik says. The man repeats it. Stotik thinks, then nods. “Oh, sure. It’s the human condition.” He pauses; thinks some more. “It’s not about human nature, really,” he elaborates. “It’s the human condition.”

The whole 45 feet. Laura Russo Gallery

The whole 45 feet. Laura Russo Gallery

 *

 Eric Stotik’s exhibition “New Works” continues through September 28 at Laura Russo Gallery, 805 N.W. 21st Avenue, Portland. Viewing is free. Buying, obviously, isn’t. But feel free to look. That’s why the art’s there. And galleries know that sometimes, lookers become buyers.

 *

 Also at Laura Russo through September 28, in the back galleries, is “Ceremony,” the latest show from Anne Siems. Siems, who was born in Germany, lives in Seattle, and she’s developed a solid reputation for her diaphanous, almost ghostly images of child-women in dreamy, vaguely mythological settings. This show strengthens her latter-day connection with the flat-planed portraiture of colonial and early American itinerant folk painters such as the Beardsley Limner, and is well worth spending some time with.

Anne Siems, "Bells and Birds," 2013, acrylic on wood panel, 30 x 30 inches. Laura Russo Gallery

Anne Siems, “Bells and Birds,” 2013, acrylic on wood panel, 30 x 30 inches. Laura Russo Gallery

________________

Read more from Bob Hicks >>

Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments are closed.