State of mind

A short examination of three artists toward a general note of caution

In Part One of this two-part look at the La Grande and Baker City art “scenes,” I briefly mentioned the course my adventure took. My wife called it my “vision quest,” because even though I would be sleeping in the back of my truck with its canopy between me and night critters, I would be alone and on my own, deprived of both the conveniences and distractions of home. What I was really hoping for was to get the “flavor” of the area and find a context for much of the art I thought I would be seeing.

Not that I really needed context, for even though the center of our state, between Bend and Baker City, is considerably more wide open and with considerably fewer humans than the Willamette Valley, the populated areas are similar to what I experience every day. Both La Grande and Baker City are larger than the town I live near, and their sensibilities are quite similar. Of course, there are folks who are exceptions to this generalization, and I really hoped to find them.

My first night found me sharing a campground with a single group of three people. They were young, and while initially loud, eventually quieted down enough so I could sleep. The Super Moon had put a damper on my plans for a star-filled sky, so I doused my campfire and climbed into the bed of my truck. It was a cold night on Slide Mountain (in the Ochoco Mountain Range) and I opted to sleep in fleece sweats and fingerless wool gloves. It wasn’t until I crawled into my new sleeping bag that I discovered it was a tight fit making it nearly impossible to shift sleeping positions, but at least I knew I’d be warm. When I finally quit squirming, I was surprised at how absolute the quiet was around me.

I did not sleep well. I first woke after a couple hours and opened my eyes to have a look around in the bright moonlight. I was not prepared for what I saw. The windows of my canopy seemed to have several large, red parameciums affixed to it. Accustomed to an occasional visual anomaly such as “stars” or colors, I didn’t get too excited about this event and fell back asleep. I awoke again a couple hours later to find all of my windows decorated with large, pale white dogwood blooms. This time I became a bit more perplexed but figured it to be a matter of sensory deprivation—not lunacy—and made a mental note to have a radio softly playing the rest of my nights camping (a choice between country and religious but it worked) and sleep with my bag unzipped.

I suppose in the realm of possible hallucinations, I should take comfort that I only experienced protozoans and flowers. But should I consider this the outcome of my vision quest? It happened so quickly, the first night out; but as the rules for such matters seem to go, I guess I must have been ready for it and have to accept it, even though at the time I saw no real significance and I still think I got off easy.

****

I started doing research for this trip back in early May. That led to contacting Cory Peeke, a collage artist who is the director of the Nightingale Gallery at Eastern Oregon University. What I was hoping to find, I wrote him, were “artists in the state who are working in a manner that breaks with traditional forms of expression, outliers, if you will, or perhaps eccentrics. Conceptual artists will fit the bill as well.” Again, this was early in the planning of this trip and I would hope readers will now forgive my naivete.

Still, Cory’s response indicated he knew what I didn’t want to see and provided me with a list of several artists in the area, along with their websites. Perhaps not surprisingly, a good number of them were connected to the university or arts organizations in the area. While none could be considered outsiders or purely conceptual, a couple stood out in ways that suggested a suitable theme for an ArtsWatch article.

Susan Murrell is Peeke’s colleague at EOU and a board member for the Union County Art and Culture Center, one of the organizations I wrote about in Part One. A painter, I was initially taken with photos from Murrell’s exhibit, “Instinctive Inquiry” at Portland’s GalleryHomeland in 2008. A sprawling, mixed media show, it appeared to take full advantage of what can sometimes be a challenging, if not difficult space to hang art. She accomplished this feat first by suspending and placing her large pieces about the massive space, and where that was insufficient, she used black tape to create a flowchart between the distinct pieces, a relevant decision as her painting at the time heavily referenced scientific phenomena while critiquing categorization/order. She created an immersive experience, as have all of her exhibitions since.

Susan Murrell, "Shell" (installation view)

Susan Murrell, “Shell” (installation view)

Murrell moved from Hood River to La Grande three years ago for the job at EOU. Her studio is in the finished basement of the house she rents just steps away from the university. Because the floor is carpeted, she has taken great care to cover it with tarps, and it is easy to see why: When Murrell paints, she often works with very diluted medium and the paint moves around the surface largely of its own accord. One can see how “accidents” might happen.

Chance does play a significant role in her process, and it would be tempting to classify her method as letting chaos reign were there not evidence of her hand in the work as well. These more linear yet abstract marks serve to complement the more organic processes at work. Hanging on a wall was a work in progress that measured about five feet across and demonstrated both aspects of her technique. The experimentation with evaporation gave the piece a topographical feel while her more intentional mark making provided additional depth to the picture plane.

As with her show at GalleryHomeland, and again last year in the Shehan Gallery at Whitman College, Murrell often employs sculptural elements. These elements sometime erupt from a wall, thereby claiming the whole space as her own. Other times her three-dimensional pieces force viewers to question at what point in the process can something be considered a painting. Do bags of medium arranged on the wall constitute painting? If paintings are hung in mid-air or made to fit in a vitrine, what spaces are fair game for painting where does surface end ? This is where Murrell shines.

Susan Murrell, "Substance and Circumstance" (installation view)

Susan Murrell, “Substance and Circumstance” (installation view)

We had a chance to talk a bit after I looked at her work. I had noticed on her CV that she had done several quality residencies, most recently at Pendleton’s Crow’s Shadow, Ragdale in Lake Forest, Illinois and Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York. She told me that she enjoyed doing residencies, especially because of her relative isolation from a larger art community. As any artist will tell you, while dialogue with and feedback from other artists is very important, opportunities to exhibit often arise because someone knows someone who knows someone who… You get the idea. Otherwise, she worried, she might run the danger of “out of sight, out of mind.” Aside from faculty in her program at the university and a few other artists in town, there isn’t enough happening as far as community goes and residencies offer her a lifeline of sorts.

****

Another artist who caught my eye from Peeke’s list was John Mueller. In fact, judging from some of the more recent work on his website (unfortunately, not updated since 2009), Mueller was as close to what may be considered a conceptual artist as I might have hoped for.

The night before meeting Mueller, Peeke and I had dinner at a restaurant called Ten Depot Street, named after its address. The street itself might qualify as downtown La Grande’s gentrified, historic and nightlife area. The restaurant and a few other buildings have been restored, there is a microbrewery/restaurant, a couple of bars and what may pass for a nightclub on the short street. Peeke and I took a walk down the block and passed a building that Peeke said once housed a contemporary gallery called Satellite Gallery. It had been run by Mueller.

I asked Mueller about the gallery when we met. In short, it was initially conceived to be an extension of Mueller’s communal studio/workspace, Waypoint Studio, but quickly took on a life of its own. Open from 2007 to 2009, he primarily showed local and regional artists, with one national juried exhibition. Peeke said it had been the best thing going in town for art; Mueller thought the economic downturn caused its closing.

Mueller’s Waypoint Studio is still around. It is a sprawling, perhaps 7,000 square foot building, that appears to be a former auto or truck mechanic’s shop. At least four artists share the space, with Mueller having what might be the biggest piece of it. He works as a general contractor and the building also functions as his business storage area.

John Mueller, "Letters to Sarah" (detail)

John Mueller, “Letters to Sarah” (detail)

Mueller was ready for me when I came a-knockin’. He had some of his framed work hung on the walls of a back room that could have doubled as a small alternative gallery (Mueller has since informed me that it has functioned as such from time to time). A large, vertical piece was presented on a plinth. The works on the wall were pieces I had seen on his website.

Mueller has a background in jewelry making and it shows. His craft is excellent and his construction precise and flawless. Imagine what it would take to weld three links of a bicycle chain between the blade and handle of a table knife so that it looks factory-made, as he has done for his piece, “Futensil: Knife” (2007) .

The knife is one piece of a group of such tableware and is indicative of the wry humor Mueller brings to the table. Yet, he has created some very lyrical pieces as well, including “Letters to Leah” (2005), for which an old typewriter has been destroyed and mounted to look like it might have been discovered beside a lizard fossil in an archeological dig.

But these pieces were made some time ago. More recently, Mueller seems to have slowed down his production, something that might set off alarms in a larger art world context, until you speak with him. Instead, it may be more a matter of an attention to process that has taken the forefront.

John Mueller, "Sutured Soap"

John Mueller, “Sutured Soap”

He has recently been washing with bars of Ivory soap to a point where, if a bar were to be used one more time it would break. The act of washing and the resultant sliver is the art. However, sometimes the thinned bar of soap does break, and in one case he has sutured a bar back together to be used in a more involved piece that included a sink and medicine cabinet set up as an infirmary for toiletries.

Mueller clearly makes art when time allows or when he has sufficiently mulled over an idea. He’s not in a hurry, and while this might be partly due to having to run a business, I left with the feeling that it is more his personality combined with virtually no pressure to exhibit.

****

Both Murrell and Mueller expressed a desire to connect with other artists, as did Peeke, which made the La Grande segment of my trip very pleasant. The second evening of my visit, Peeke arranged for a group of locals artists to meet at a favorite hangout, The Longbranch Bar & Eats. (I had breakfast there that morning and took great pleasure in watching the short order cook make omelets, hash browns and four slices of bacon into three matched rectangular shapes before putting them on the plate.) The bartender knew what everyone except me drank.

Of course, that’s the way it is in smaller towns. Folks see each other more often and get to know each other rather well, which in some ways may put constraints on behavior but then again, pretense doesn’t seem to get very far in these close quarters either. The same holds true for where I live, and I would imagine in Baker City as well.

Aside from what hung at Crossroads Carnegie Art Center, I didn’t see a large concentration of art in Baker City. There is a cooperative gallery, Short Term, where I might have been able to meet some local artists and see their work, but it was closed both days I was in town. I did stop into Peterson’s Gallery and Chocolatier, and besides the featured sculpture of Shawn Peterson, there was some work of other artists about the gallery walls. Being a chocolate junkie, I did want to sample the offerings, and as I made my way toward the counter at the back of the space, three small paintings caught my eye.

The paintings were light-hearted, or at least I thought they were. Then again, maybe not. They reminded me of similar work from artists whose intentions I knew were to portray an ironic look at authenticity via self-effacement or purposeful inauthenticity. My hesitation probably said more about me than the art. Given their five-pointed stars, hearts and vivid colors, the paintings likely stood a better chance of being pretty straightforward. Still, I knew I had to find out who/what was behind these paintings for they were different from anything I had seen on my trip. I asked Alyssa Peterson, the chocolatier, about the artist.

Hillery Lay, "Lumberjack"

Hillery Lay, “Lumberjack”

Her name is Hillery Lay. Peterson said she and Hillery went to high school together, and I then asked that Lay contact me if she was interested in a studio visit on such short notice. (The chocolate was very good.)

Lay called me a couple hours later.

“I really don’t have a studio.”

“Well, you have a kitchen table, right?”

Lay later told me that she often paints in her bedroom because it has a window she can look out to watch her two children play in the yard. We didn’t meet in the kitchen because dinner was in the oven and it would be too warm. Instead, we met on her front porch where she had 17 small canvases hung on the door, the windows and the front wall of her house. This kind of presentation certainly was a first for me, and I found it delightful.

Hillery Lay's art on her front porch/Patrick Collier

Hillery Lay’s art on her front porch/Patrick Collier

Lay has been painting seriously for the last two years. Essentially self-taught (aside from the three Bob Ross videos she admits to owning), she paints local life, friends and events with frivolity, and speaks of her technique as a preference for silhouettes, layering of color and textures she gets by applying things like CDs and bubble wrap while the paint is still wet. There is also a fair amount of adornment, which tends to make the work decorative, yet this is balanced with the treatment of the figures in her paintings. While her silhouettes are colorful, the experimentation with textures within these forms provides a certain displacement of these central figures that I found compelling.

I will pause here for a moment to assure readers that I am not masquerading a subtext that can be read as less than positive. When someone says to me, “Magenta looks different when used against a blue than it does alongside a yellow,” I know she is not merely painting to paint but is paying attention as well.

Maybe that is the case for any dedicated painter, which would still make the case for Lay. No, what first attracted me to these paintings was something else: I had seen more accomplished, more degreed and more polished work over the course of my visit to La Grande and Baker City. Add to that the very many landscape and portrait paintings all over Oregon, and back in Illinois. Paintings of barns, cows, cowboys, fields of wheat, rolling hills, purple majesty, flowers… But in actuality, no matter the genre, hackneyed or cutting-edge, or degree of professionalism, Sunday painter or art star, I have come up against an attitude that the act and creation was to be taken very seriously, a ponderous weight put upon the practice and the vision. Quite often it shows to both the artist’s and the work’s disadvantage.

Lay is having none of it. The act of painting is a “heartfelt joy.” Her words.

****

Lay told me that she was first approached to show her paintings by the owner of the local restaurant, Earth & Vine Wine Bar and Art Gallery. Then Peterson asked her to hang a few pieces in her gallery. She has a two-person show at the Crossroads Carnegie Art Center coming up in February. In her unassuming manner she wondered aloud if she was moving too fast. Perhaps not for Baker City as there seems to be a fairly good stream of fresh eyes in the way of tourists. On the other hand, as she amasses a larger body of work, she might find showing at local venues to be not fast enough.

If any of the above artists solely or primarily relied on local exhibition opportunities, they would saturate their market quickly, if much of one existed at all. It would be easy to write this off as living with the supply/demand problems of a smaller town, yet I see the same thing in Portland, just as I witnessed it in Chicago (and it apparently continues). Sometimes it takes a little longer for it to happen in a bigger city than in a small town, but eventually the more successful artists find the motivation to step out of their various comfort zones. Saturation manifests, for example, in a rotation of showing the same work to the same people or the same artists over and over in a series of group shows. (One might do better to rent out a space and have a vanity gallery, list one’s work on every available online art retail site, or succumb to the temptation to become a recluse.) Yet, the very act of stepping out of this closed circle has a cumulative, beneficial effect in that it raises the bar with fresh input, and if one is really paying attention, a set of new questions to consider.

The same goes for us who write about art, and by association, all who look at art. It’s about potential: Struggling to see something that is not yet there. You know: The quest.

 

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