“I don’t know the art until I know the artist.”
Art galleries have distinct personalities. Some are refined, quiet, and classy, where the art is so carefully curated that risk has been eliminated, and there is nothing not to admire. Always impressive, short on surprises.
Some galleries vibrate with street energy, thumbing their noses at convention, proclaiming a visual/sexual/class revolution, and exhibiting art with the trajectory of an Iranian drone in the culture wars. Applaud it or hate it.
Some offer subdued sophistication, going subtle to go deep like the classmate no one notices until the day they raise their hand and deliver an insight that silences the room. Except that sometimes they don’t get called on.
Chefas Projects, which recently moved a few blocks from its original location into an expansive timber-framed space in the Central Eastside Industrial District, is forging a gallery personality featuring graphic, color-drenched work by artists who have neither their fists nor their noses up in the air. The gallery’s founder and namesake, Los Angeles transplant Stephanie Chefas, seems drawn to art that is “accessible” in the best sense of the word, as if she is introducing you to an engaging stranger who you’ll spend the next hour talking to and can’t wait to tell your friends about.
Two multidisciplinary artists represented by Chefas Projects, Alex Proba and John Vitale, exemplify the gallery’s fresh and vibrant personality. Proba’s sculptures are paintings, or perhaps, her paintings are sculptures. River Boat Dream (below left) and Dinner for Four (below right) are standout examples.
Proba works fluently in murals, textiles, rugs, surfboards, and public sculpture, creating organic, congenial, stimulating art that begs to be petted. She smashes the wall dividing fine art from graphic design, but she does it with a velvet hammer.
Vitale, whose other business is designing skateboards, was featured last year at Chefas Projects in Riding the Ghost. His work similarly combines strong graphics with rich hues, as in Spawning Over Night.
I described my reaction to this painting in my Point of DepARTure, May 2022:
“In several [of Vitale’s] works . . . I found myself wanting to slide through an imagined gap between several layers as if a door was left ajar. ‘Explore,’ it tempted. Even when one shape or hue in a work is primary (as is black in Spawning Over Night), it is sensitive to its companion shapes as each politely pushes and pulls for a chance to be heard.”
Although some of the work on the gallery’s walls can veer toward the decorative, Chefas’ exhibits almost always reflect an upbeat vision with a touch of mystery viewed through a lens of saturated color and strong graphic design. Deep doesn’t have to be dark.
When I spoke with Chefas, she told me that she doesn’t fully understand an artist’s body of work until she gets to know the artist. The same is true of a gallery. To appreciate its personality, it helps to know the background and vision of its founder and director.
Chefas landed in Portland in 2014, opening her gallery a year later. Her deep dive into art began years before in Miami when she worked with the House of Blues Foundation, introducing school children to the rich tradition of Southern folk art. (I see the folk art influence still in the unselfconscious boldness of the work that Chefas is drawn to.)
Migrating to LA, she immersed herself in the local art scene as both observer and curator. LA has dozens of art galleries, many world-class. With them comes hype. LA is, after all, a city built around celebrity. Breaking in with her own shop would have been a steep climb. Portland, where the pastures were greener and the doors less shuttered, drew her north.
Chefas knew virtually no one in Portland: not artists, not collectors, not influencers. Undeterred, she opened her east side gallery in a third-floor space on a block she shared with homeless campers. And yet patrons came. Slowly at first but encouraged by social media and Jennifer Rabin’s Art Passport PDX, word spread of her fresh vision.
The gallery’s new space at 134 S.E. Taylor St. is in a transition zone where trendy shops are shoulder to shoulder with warehouses and wholesale distributors. Chefas is drawn to the area’s rough edges and street energy, reminiscent of the Pearl in the 1980s. The Israeli-style restaurant Shalom Y’all is across the street, and the stylish furniture storefronts of City Home Outlets are down the block. Spend a stimulating afternoon exploring this gritty-chic corner of Portland, but hurry up: Where the creatives go, the condos follow.