In the art world, the business of being a visual artist can be all-consuming. The pressure to produce works that will sell, that will appeal to the market. The need to publicize yourself and your work. The struggle to find representation in successful galleries. The competition to be selected for solo or group exhibitions and the pressure even to produce enough work to sustain a show. It’s rare when artists are afforded the luxury of time and energy to explore new ideas, techniques, and directions.
For artists Cody and Laurel Bustamante, that luxury of time and new inspiration unexpectedly arrived with the Covid pandemic. Newly settled in an expansive home in the countryside outside of Jacksonville, Oregon, they found themselves in the lockdown of March 2020. For Cody, a professor of art at Southern Oregon University, the pandemic brought with it new challenges of teaching drawing and painting to art students via Zoom. For Laurel, it brought a welcome break from the wearying business end of being a professional artist.
But both of them were still making work. Really unusual, really interesting work.
A native of Los Angeles, Cody Bustamante is a first-generation Mexican-American, a heritage which has greatly influenced his artwork over the years. In 1981, he received his MFA from the University of California, Irvine, where he had flourished under the mentorship of the legendary painter, sculptor, and art educator John Paul Jones. A wood sculpture gifted by Jones is on display in Cody’s studio, where the teacher continues to provide inspiration to his student. Not long after graduating, Cody relocated to Oregon and joined the faculty of the art department at Southern Oregon University (SOU) in Ashland, where he would try to balance the life of an academic with that of a professional artist and father.
Cody has been exhibiting his paintings professionally since 1979, and his work is found in numerous collections on the West Coast, including the Portland Art Museum, the University of Oregon, Oregon State University, the University of Texas, and the corporate collections of Microsoft in Seattle and Bank of America in San Francisco.
His paintings have been included in two Oregon Biennials at the Portland Art Museum, including the 1989 Oregon Biennial curated by Mary Jane Jacobs, executive director of exhibitions and exhibition studies at the School of the Chicago Art Institute, and the 2001 Biennial curated by Bruce Guenther, the museum’s former Chief Curator. Cody’s work from the 2001 Biennial, “Sounding Angel” (2000) is now in the permanent collection of the Portland Art Museum, a gift from Laurel. He and Laurel were also both featured in the Portland Biennial Salon at Disjecta (now the Oregon Center for Contemporary Art) in 2016.
In addition, Cody was recognized by the Ford Family Foundation/Djerassi Foundation with an Artist Residency in 2016 ,and was featured in the publication “Connective Conversations | The Curator and Critic Tour,” produced by the Ford Family Foundation and the University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts in 2012.
In recent years, he has focused on his role as faculty at SOU, teaching all levels of drawing and painting, while exhibiting his work as opportunities arose.
Inspired by history, science, and nature
Since his earliest work, Cody’s art has reflected his love of the art of Mexico and Central America, areas he has visited frequently. And, in 2009, he was a visiting artist at the University of Guanajuato in Guanajuato, Mexico. Much of his work draws inspiration from the images and colors of those ancestral lands, with detailed, black drawings set against deep vermillion reds, cadmium yellow, and ultramarine and cobalt blues fields of background color. Strange creatures — birds, fish, mermaids — float in the seas of color, bringing to mind the carved figures and hieroglyphic texts from Maya stelae and Nahua (Aztec) codices. Submarines and rocket ships appear in others. “Figures that seemed to be from some place specific,” says Cody, “but were in very ambiguous kinds of spaces.”
In 1986, he had his first solo exhibition at Elizabeth Leach Gallery, which would become his sole Portland representation for many years. Around the same time, he was represented by the late Karl Bornstein at his eponymous gallery in Santa Monica, California. “In the ’80s, Cody’s images were primarily of birds and sometimes rabbits — they were amazing paintings,” recalls Elizabeth Leach.
His early paintings and painted sculptures were in high demand — he was the first artist the Elizabeth Leach Gallery ran an advertisement for in Art in America. “Cody’s work was magical and very painterly. It was very personal, authentic, and reflected his Mayan heritage. … Cody really knew how to push color and he [knew] how to paint.” There was also a whimsical element to many of his works that captured the viewer’s attention and engagement.
But over time, he was instinctively drawn to explore other concepts and experiment with new techniques, and directions not as appealing to the art market. “His paintings became fields of black with a little color — in the middle — the birds became more streamlined and abstract — almost like submarines in the dark,” says Leach.
A mid-career shift
Cody’s work became less narrative and more abstract and nonobjective as he tried to convey emotion and meaning rather than reality. Scott Malbaurn, executive director of the Schneider Art Museum at SOU, describes the work as “abstract/representational, in that he is abstracting representational imagery that has meaning to him.”
Guenther, the retired chief curator at the Portland Art Museum, who had included Cody’s work in the 2001 Oregon Biennial, notes that he “works in the visual arts with the tools of painting and drawing to explore his ideas and responses to cultural and scientific developments of the last thirty years. Bustmante’s paintings have operated at the intersection of the formal materiality of post-painterly abstraction and the somehow familiar, but jumbled structures of historic and scientific tools and inquiry.”
He adds that Cody’s work achieved a greater refinement and sophisticated level of finish in the teens: “He used his admirable skills as a draftsman to shape the shallow spaces of his compositions with roiling clouds of pattern and shadowy spiked structures into which the viewer’s gaze glides and tumbles.”
“Hill,” Cody Bustamante, 2011, 35 x 40 inches, conte on mounted paper. Collection of Southern Oregon University, Lithia Pavilion. Left: full dimension. Right: detail.
In the series “Emergent Forms / Unnatural Selection” (2011-2012), Cody created intricate drawings both organic and surreal. He describes the unsighted technique he applied in works like “Hill” (2011), using conte crayon, a hard pencil made of graphite and clay:
“To temper my ‘input’ into the system I work blind. Marks are made using a stylus that only embosses the surface of the paper, not leaving any media on the surface. These marks are only visible under a raking light source. I can only see the most recent components of the drawing. As I move across the drawing surface, earlier parts of the drawing become invisible. The normal visual feedback loop is interrupted; I have only my faulty memory and my ‘algorithm’ to guide the drawing to completion.
“The final ‘rub up’ of the drawing surface with charcoal or crayon reveals the resulting design motifs and overall form as well as how they have drifted from one end of the drawing to the other. This experiment is of course only pseudo-scientific, as complete ‘blinding’ and ‘control’ of my various inputs into the system is impossible. However, the process does generate new ideas, patterns, and over-all biomorphic forms.”
His paintings, as well as his lantern and decoy sculptures, between 2015-2017, began to further reflect his interests in nature, science, architecture, and the built environment. In one series from 2015-2017, called “Stacks — jet cars, milk trucks, counting systems, etc.,” he experimented with a variety of mediums, including crayon, acrylics, oil, ink, pastel, charcoal, and stabilo pencil, in paintings whose common denominator was repetitions of shapes — cars, whales, and wagons.
Cody Bustamante, 2017, “110 Blue Lakesters,” oil on canvas, 32 x 26 inches. Left: full image. Right: detail. Images courtesy of the artist.
The line drawings in works such as “110 Blue Lakesters” (2017) are drawn over and over, meandering, growing, and shrinking, becoming meditative in their repetition. At first glance, the repeated forms suggest pure minimal form. Moving closer, these forms reveal themselves as small cartoonish diagrams of cars, trucks, whales, or mermen. The work brings to mind Damien Hirst’s observation that you can get “meaning through repetition.”
In his artist statement in “Connective Conversations” (2012), Cody explained that he is “most satisfied when my work is experienced as compelling, complex, and slightly dissonant.” In an early review of his work at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery, he remembers an art reviewer commenting that his work was compelling and interesting, but they couldn’t figure out how to relate to it. Another tried to describe it as being like questionable hors d’oeuvres — you are skeptical, but keep going back for a little more. And yet another said it’s like if you took Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan and put him in Soho [in the eighties], these are the paintings he would have made. “I was fine with it. I want the work to be unnerving, disorienting,” Cody recalls. “You’re not sure what you’re being invited into, except that it was interesting and maybe you’d want to go back.”
In her essay accompanying his last group exhibition before the pandemic in 2019, “From Ignorance to Wisdom” at the Schneider Museum of Art, guest curator Blake Shell, executive and artistic director of the Oregon Center for Contemporary Art, describes Cody’s work as “a continual endeavor to bridge the physical and psychological with the holy. Wanting to evoke the desire for narrative without settling on a specific story, he puts us in the in-between as participants. We vacillate between the figural and the abstract. Inside tiny universes of his making, we view Aztec symbols alongside large spaces of color, leaving us to navigate without a specific plane to ground us. Instead, we wander in the space and are invited to think and meditate on what we find.”
“Cody’s work is difficult to describe because it is so multifaceted,” noted art historian Greer Markle, a close friend and longtime co-faculty member in SOU’s art department. In a recent conversation they had, he recalled Cody describing his work as research. “That is a good point. Over the years his work has changed subtly, and at times, dramatically. His research has become both a formal and conceptual path for him to explore new ideas, and he continues to probe the dimensions of his artistic vocabulary and intellectual depth.”
His interest in experimentation and innovation began to include multimedia collaborations with musicians, as he did in 2018 with Terry Longshore and Left Edge Percussion and his fellow SOU faculty member new-media artist David Bithell, also a member of Left Edge. Using drawing fragments by Bustamante, animated by Bithell’s generative programming code, the work creates an ever-evolving, intricate visual experience to accompany Left Edge’s performance from Michael Gordon’s Timber.
The result is a multimedia work that carries a common thread of a Bustmante signature, but of different formal and conceptual basis. “His best work in all media falls into that ineffable realm of the sublime,” adds Markle. “It is that realm of quietness, stillness, and perfection where all the parts of the composition come together. You don’t have to know what they mean. They are beautiful — poetic — mysterious explorations.”
Laurel Bustamante’s ephemeral realms
Laurel Bustamante’s acrylic and gouache paintings bring the viewer into her own magical and mesmerizing worlds of imagined flora and fauna. Small-scaled, usually 10 inches x 8 inches, but often no more than 3.5 inches x 6 inches, her work evokes both the tiny, intricate worlds of Persian miniatures and the grand, complex paintings of the Dutch/Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch. The intimate scale of the work is intentional, forcing the viewer to draw near and be pulled into the extraordinary landscapes and worlds she depicts.
Each viewer brings their own interpretation of the work, trying to discern what influenced these poetic, otherworldly landscapes filled with strange and exotic flowers and birds. Markle describes Laurel’s work as combinations of Persian miniatures with elements of Katsushika Hokosai compositions coupled with aspects of John James Audubon prints and even abstract expressionism. The results, he says, “are masterly rendered magical compositions that reflect pure visual pleasure. They are a delight to just explore her compositions with your eyes.”
Her paintings reside in private collections in New York, California, Oregon, Texas, North Carolina, and New Mexico. She was previously represented by the celebrated Lora Schlesinger Gallery in Santa Monica, California, which closed with Schlesinger’s retirement in December 2019, and Augen Gallery in Portland. She is currently represented by Hanson Howard Gallery in Ashland.
Laurel, who met Cody while he was on sabbatical occupying a studio in the Emeryville Artist COOP where she had her studio, moved to Southern Oregon, and graduated with a BFA from Southern Oregon University. She has had solo shows not only at Schlesinger’s gallery, but also at Augen Gallery in Portland and the now closed Davis and Cline Gallery in Ashland. In addition, her work has appeared in numerous group shows at the Schneider Art Museum, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and others.
Around 2005 Laurel shifted the focus of her work to the intense miniature format she is using to this day. Each of her works is meticulously painted, using the finest tip brushes, some with just a few hairs. In the past, she experimented with a mixture of acrylic and gouache to create the alchemical-looking paint flows which are the backdrops of her worlds. Currently she uses gouache almost exclusively and still manages to suspend spilling layers of light colors on top of deep velvety blacks.
Left and right: Details, Laurel Bustamante, 2015, “Elegy Blue Milk Honeythorn,” gouache and acrylic, 10 x 8 inches. Images courtesy of the artist.
“As beautiful as her paintings are, there is a tension in these worlds that she creates,” notes Élan Chardin Gombart, director of the Hanson Howard Gallery in Ashland. The paintings leave the viewer disoriented, but entranced. “The color wash of the background sets a primordial or cosmic stage in which plants reach and stretch, often unanchored, drifting. It can be ambiguous whether they are blooming or trying to root. In [Laurel’s] recent work, the plants seem to be contained in a vessel, but the matte black of the vessel creates a negative space which can become a hole. It has no flat base; it does not rest on a surface.
“Her use of color and light feels psychological as well. The light appears to come from the color itself, sometimes electrical, set against a dark background, sometimes against a mysterious chartreuse-yellow flow or a serene indigo. There can be a feeling of phosphorescence. No shadows are cast.”
Left: Laurel Bustamante, 2022, “Black Pot,” gouache and acrylic on panel, 7 x 5 inches. Right: Laurel Bustamante, 2011, “Blue Voyage,” gouache and acrylic on panel, 5 x 7 inches. Images courtesy of the artist.
Working with both gouache and acrylic was a challenge, requiring her to balance the paint and the water in tiny movements. And the painstakingly minute and repetitive manipulation of brushes was hard physically, as well. But the end result is a wonderful delicacy.
A pandemic pause
In 2019, the Bustamantes sold their home in Ashland and realized their dream of living in a more rural landscape, settling on a site just outside of Jacksonville, Oregon. The move gave Laurel the opportunity to pursue her passions of birdwatching and gardening, both reflected in her artwork. They were just beginning to meet their new neighbors and get involved in the Jacksonville community when, in March 2020, everything changed with the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown.
Cody continued to teach remotely, but found it increasingly challenging to teach drawing and painting online. “It was easier for me than for the 3D artists because a lot of what I taught was primarily 2D and we’ve grown accustomed to looking at drawings and paintings on flat screens. So that mitigated the challenges a bit, but the tactile, physical process of making things is as big a part of the creative process as any other. I thought I had it bad teaching drawing and painting, but I have enormous sympathy for the faculty who were trying to teach sculpture and ceramics, the three-dimensional arts that are both tactile and very, very physical, occupying real space.”
In 2021, after a year of remote teaching, Cody decided to retire from Southern Oregon University, after nearly 40 years as a faculty member. “The amount of psychic energy you give to your students isn’t easy to sustain, trying to inhabit the creative worlds of those students in a way that would allow me to slowly remove the barriers that they were stuck with or that they were imposing on their own work,” he recalls. “A big part of my entire teaching career was discovering enough about my students to know what they really believed in and what they had just been taught to believe.”
For different reasons, Laurel decided she was retiring, too, particularly after the closing of the Lora Schlessinger Gallery. “She doesn’t like dealing with the art business side of things,” Cody explains. “Or the publicity. We both have a problem where we’re mostly reclusive.”
Though she didn’t want the pressure of thinking about a career, Cody reminded her that her work was fantastic and should be seen, if only through Hanson Howard Gallery, with whom she retained a relationship. He reassured her that she could just continue to make her paintings and not worry about a career, to let the gallery see to the business end.
And so she sits by the big window every morning with her binoculars, watching the birds flock to the many bird feeders hanging just outside and letting her imagination run. She also gardens with a passion, manipulating colors, textures, and shapes creating landscapes with natives and plants as fantastical as her paintings — corkscrew willows and mondo grass.
A new sense of freedom
For Cody, in particular, the pandemic was a timely opportunity to pause and consider what was next. “For years I had been shifting from concentrating on big physical drawings and paintings and rethinking all of that heroic mythology. I was just thinking of intimate craftsmanship and little tiny spaces,” he says. “In 2016 it was like that became desperate. Working in ethereal realms of pure abstraction and poetic abstraction did not seem what the world needed.
“You know, it comes down to, my faith in the larger art world has been upended, as it’s become industrialized and can feel very corporate,” he muses. “But at the same time, I can still go see a play, read a book, see a painting, wander through the Schneider Museum, and go, ‘Oh, God, this is so wonderful. I’m really glad this artist is doing this and I wonder what their thinking is.’”
As he and Laurel took to watching British murder mysteries on television during the months of lockdown, Cody would distract himself by doodling in sketchbooks. There was some intention to the process, but a looseness, as well. As he half-listened to the television or science podcasts, he began incorporating little poetically resonant phrases that he picked up into the drawings. Soon he had sketchbook after sketchbook filled with drawings and doodles. He also started experimenting with Procreate on his digital tablet and began sharing them in a new way to him; posting them on his Instagram account, @cab97520.
Some of these works feel random, some playful and coy. Mostly there are simple line drawings of people interacting with paper airplanes, flowers, balls, dogs, and strange buildings and contraptions. Some bring to mind Louise Bourgeois’ 1947 series of drawings, “He Disappeared into Complete Silence,” with ladders, towers, and other mysterious constructions. The works, nine parables and nine engravings which marked Bourgeois’ own departure from painting, were originally published in a small, limited edition. In a review of a 2008 edition, the website Goodreads described the drawings as creating “a universe in which eternal loneliness converges with absurdity and miscommunication, but never with resignation. The parables and etchings articulate witty tragedies from everyday life, to form what could be described as a fragile metaphysics of the human condition.” Cody remarks, “If I were a good writer, I would have described my work in just this way.”
He then began manipulating those simple line drawings with virtual pastels, watercolors, and airbrushes using drawing software on his digital tablet. “The drawings looked interesting to me, but I didn’t know anything more about them. I was sort of surprised by them, and fascinated by them, and excited that I finally had a visual vocabulary for working figuratively, one that let me avoid some of the problems of dealing with figures. And I could do something with these interesting phrases that I would catch and collect from television or science podcasts.
“There was something there at that point, and I began to pay attention. As abstract and ambiguous as they started, I’ve had this yearning to try to make narrative work again. To do a little bit more storytelling with the painting, so I started to play around with situating these figures in different environments and scenarios,” he explains. “Gradually they’re starting to become more recognizable spaces.”
Using a 3-D pen his sister gave him for Christmas, he would draw some of these figures on a piece of paper, peel them up, glue them to little stands, and then photograph them. Soon the figures were joined by Ferris wheels, carousels, ladders, boxes, and backdrops. “I started making what I call my action figures. My dream girls: somnambulists or sleepwalkers, and my citizens, these little working guys.”
He has long had an affection for and fascination with old silent movies, particularly the German Expressionist films of the 1920s, including “Metropolis,” “Nosferatu,” and especially “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” which tells the story of a mad carnival hypnotist who uses a sleepwalker named Cesare to commit murders. The early filmmakers sacrificed realism for the emotional effects of dark, shadowy sets with extreme angles, flattened forms, and strangely oblique rooms, buildings, and landscapes. “I love their weirdness, because the pacing is not the same as modern movies. It’s slow and hypnotic, occasionally interrupted with frames of text that only hint at what’s fully going on.”
He built a theater with scrap wood, then began taking photos of the 3-D pieces in the theater. The eerie, wraithlike figures now have their own dramas. Even with the Ferris wheel and the carousel, the scenes can feel quite Shakespearean.
“There’s a thing about drawing that I like, which is that it’s this universe that has its own kind of physics. My simple drawings are very, very two-dimensional. Some of these figures you couldn’t look at frontally; they wouldn’t exist frontally; they only exist in profile. That creates interesting dilemmas and dissonances that are fun to play with and hard to capture with a camera.”
His latest experiments include setting the drawn figures and their dramas in time-lapse replays of their being made. “The viewer gets to see how the drawings are made, the fits and starts, revisions, etc. And I’m learning to manipulate the drawing process in small ways to actually direct and animate the action of the replay.”
When looking at the most recent work, Bruce Guenther notes that “by introducing a figurative element into his work both as two-dimensional painted subjects and small-scale sculptures, [Cody] has used the simple outlined figures to suggest narratives both familiarly domestic and disturbingly oblique to the viewer’s expectations of ‘normal’.”
Left: Cody Bustamante, 2023, “Kindness at the Park,” digital image, 5.5.x 8.3 inches. Center: Cody Bustamante, 2023, “Kindness,” digital image, 20 x 13 inches. Right: Cody Bustamante, 2022, “Unttled,” digital image. Images courtesy of the artist.
“The imagery that occupies these abstract spaces,” adds Guenther, “are no longer the invented vessels — seaworthy or outer space ready — set out by the artist on imagined voyages, but rather fractured architectural blocks of color and patterning with simplified drawn figures and situation-creating objects that suggest narratives oblique or rudimentarily humor-bound. It is as if his imaginings of voyages across the unknown had been hijacked by the dawning of a digital meta landscape. The paintings and large scale works on paper have now found places and forms that collapse culturally-referent symbols with and as patterning to set the stage for acts of whimsy and occasional laughter.”
The interest in Cody Bustamante’s work continues. “Curators, critics, collectors respond to Cody’s work”, notes Elizabeth Leach. “There is joy, imagination, and skill in work that brings a smile to the viewer as one is left to ponder the imaginative scenarios that he presents us. He challenges us to look, feel, see, and explore beyond the ordinary and maybe even revisit the world we felt as children.” As his current work continues to expand with an even more fantastical sense of play and wonder, Cody encourages the viewer to question what is real and what is imagined.
“The fantasy is the imagination, a trait that many lose touch with as we get older and adapt to modern life,” comments Scott Malbaurn on the work of both Bustamantes. “The imagination brings innovation and can influence and inspire audiences. It is one of the greatest attributes to art. With fantasy in art, the artist can create with no bounds to what we know as real or realistic. They are not bound to physics and existing technologies. They can dream and bring things to life.”
After Cody stepped down from teaching, Malbaurn adds, he is now free to loosen himself and tap into other areas he may not have permitted himself to do so, given the unknown amount of time it may take to arrive at something that feels right for the artist. “This is a creative mode of working where many artists may stay in a productive mode of producing work that they have arrived at many years ago. It takes courage to dedicate time to explore new ideas. There is only so much time in the day, week and month. Many artists may feel insecure about not ‘producing’ work and may feel like they are wasting time ‘playing around’. This is where discovery happens, and it looks like Cody is joyfully discovering new work for himself.”
“Laurel reminds me that we can do whatever we want right now,” Cody muses. “And, so, I’m thinking about, what would I really like to do? What would I feel excited about? What could I feel excited about making? I’m trying to come up with objects that would go into a gallery. I’m not retired from that. I would say we’re on more of an extended sabbatical. Or in Britain what they call their gardening leave. But it’s also a time that I need to figure out what it is I want to be making.”