Portland Opera Puccini

Jordan Clark’s Portland is bright

The abstract paintings hum with an energy entirely befitting for their caffeine-centered display location – Stumptown Coffee Roasters.

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installation view of three paintings - black and white larger in the center above a green plant. Two smaller works flank the larger -these hang above yellow couches
Jordan Clark. Installation view of Nightshade. 2024.Image courtesy of the artist.

Portland-based Stumptown Coffee Roasters’ downtown location at 128 SW 3rd Avenue is where the coffee shop meets the art gallery. Their current exhibition, Nightshade, consists of seventeen non-objective paintings by local artist Jordan Clark. The work in Nightshade invites viewers to enjoy the bright colors and bold shapes of the surface level, but also to move closer and look at what lurks, faintly, just below that surface. Infused with a palpable sense of movement and surprising contrasts in texture, Clark’s tactile paintings bring exuberance and verve to the sprawling space. 

The ambiance at Stumptown is much more casual, and less sterile, than your typical museum or gallery environment. The earthy smell of coffee beans permeates the air, baristas and customers alike chat about their weekend plans, and on the day I sat down with Clark to discuss his work, the lilting voice of Mazzy Star’s lead singer Hope Sandoval cast a dreamy calm over the space. Clark’s paintings, with their references to the form and materials of street art, work well in this cozy setting. 

abstract brightly colored painting with vertical elements dominating the middle of the composition
Jordan Clark. Cambria. Flashe, acrylic, ink, and spray paint on canvas. 20 x 26 inches. 2024. Image courtesy of the artist.

Of the 17 works in the exhibition, only two are in a muted palette of blacks, whites, and grays. More typical is Cambria, in which bold strokes of green, orange, and red stretch vertically over a background of deep blue. Across the majority of works in Nightshade, Clark’s canvases practically hum with bright, saturated color. 

Born in Iowa and raised in Wisconsin, Clark’s 2015 move to Portland to pursue an MFA in Contemporary Art Practices at PSU directly impacted his color palette. Moving to the city without ever having visited, Clark was surprised and delighted by the confluence of urban and wild space, or as he puts it, the way that “Portland is a city, but surrounded by Doug firs.” He noticed that it’s also a city of bright colors, from the athletic wear of hikers, joggers, and cyclists to the traffic cones and safety vests of the area’s near-constant construction. 

Brightly colored abstract painting wit blue horizontally oriented semi-circle at the center of the composition
Jordan Clark. Downtown. Flasche, acrylic, spray paint, and KILZ. 46 x 52 inches. 2024. Image courtesy of the artist.

Clark’s current body of work features colors so bright they are practically neon. While they give the works a strong sense of energy, their matte quality keeps them from becoming garish. “The sheen of paint is really important in my work,” says Clark, noting that he spends a lot of time thinking about this surface luminosity. One of his preferred media, very much in evidence in Nightshade, is Flasche, which Clark likes for its “super matte, rubbery finish.” 

In Downtown, Clark combines Flasche and acrylic but also spray paint and KILZ to capture the feeling of an urban center, its vitality and energy as well as its messiness. Bright swathes of color create organic shapes that overlap and bleed into each other. Spray paint and KILZ,  a brand of house paint known for its ability to seamlessly cover other colors, seal building materials, and deter mold and mildew, are both direct nods to Clark’s background in graffiti and street art. 

As someone “very influenced by railroad culture,” Clark used to paint trains, a vital part of graffiti culture since the 1970s. Clark says KILZ is popular among graffiti artists because the paint “primes and buffs surfaces better than others. It covers and crushes whatever’s under it.” Given his penchant for “layering, masking and revealing,” KILZ allows Clark to make flat, white, “super-matte” areas of color that obscure layers of paint underneath and bring Clark’s brushstrokes to the fore, making the movement of his wide brush hyper-visible. It is a painting that makes evident the degree to which Clark sees his artistic practice as a “process of layering, masking and revealing.” 

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Clark’s painting Muskie Lunch, a standout in the show, presents the viewer with two distinct spaces: a gridded background and a colorful rectangle painted in the foreground. The background consists of what looks like unprimed canvas spray painted with red lines that form a sort of grid. “Grid” implies consistency and order, but Clark’s lines are deliberately imprecise, not quite straight or even, until the form seems to dissolve completely on the bottom right of the canvas, where a rounded diagonal line too far apart from the others no longer presents a grid but rather its dissolution. 

brightly colored abstract work - pea green ghost-shape at the center of the composition, mint green wishbone at the right
Jordan Clark. Muskie Lunch. Flasche, acrylic, spray paint, and KILZ. 48 x 54 inches. 2024. Image courtesy of the artist.

Against this scrawled background is a rectangle brimming with color, a space so different from its background that it feels like something separate, a space within a space. It structurally recalls the idea of a painting hung against a red-brick wall. This rectangle contains multitudes: huge, bold shapes in shades of green, a swathe of bright pink that looks scraped away to allow bits of dark green to show through, and lines on the top and bottom that echo the grid-like structure of the spray painted background. My favorite detail is an orange line wiggling on a diagonal across the bottom right corner. A bright pop of slithery color, it actually bridges the two “spaces” of the canvas, extending beyond the colorful rectangle to touch the background grid. The work is both flat and static, and yet Clark’s formal choices keep it from ever reading as such. 

It is here that I see the influence of Henri Matisse’s colorful paper cutouts, work that Clark says he loves. Produced late in Matisse’s career while the artist’s health was failing, the cutouts bring strong, simple shapes to life through the artist’s rich color palette and keen eye for arranging forms to maximize movement. The result is a sophistication and vitality far beyond what seems possible with such humble materials, a description that just as accurately describes Clark’s paintings. It is a thread that connects Clark to his other influences, chief among them artists like Jennifer Bartlett, Laura Owens, and Charline von Heyl who all showed in MoMA’s 2014-2015 exhibition The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World. “They were all looking at Matisse,” says Clark. He credits Bartlett’s work, especially her exhibition Rhapsody, for helping him understand the power of working in variations of an idea until it has been exhausted. Where Bartlett favored organized grids as a means of presenting her huge, installation-like paintings, many of Clark’s paintings in Nightshade present lines and grids as things that can be broken up, made malleable and imprecise.

Abstract, brightly colored work with blue and red parentheses-like shapes at the center
Jordan Clark. Serpent. Flasche, acrylic, spray paint, and KILZ. 22 x 28 inches. 2024. Image courtesy of the artist.

Clark was able to produce all of the paintings in this exhibition as new work funded by the Stumptown Artist Fellowship. Inaugurated in 2017, the program was the brainchild of May Barruel (of Nationale Gallery). Barruel was the founding curator and initially, the fellowship was  juried by a group of four. Pandemic upheaval changed the program: Wendy Swartz now single-handedly selects and curates work for the Portland Stumptown locations (and has a counterpart who does the same at the chain’s Brooklyn, NY stores). There’s no longer a website for the fellowship nor formal press releases, but it is still a source of support for local artists with a $2000 stipend and accompanying public exposure at Stumptown Coffee.  For Clark, this financial support was vital. “It’s the first time I had the resources and energy to have total creative freedom,” he says. 

Clark sees alternative spaces, coffee shops, record stores, and other non-traditional or pop-up galleries, as vital to the future of Portland’s art scene. In that spirit, he’s currently planning a conceptual exhibition and event, loosely scheduled for April, at Speck’s Records and Tapes in Kenton. The event centers on music as inspiration, as Clark’s idea is to create new paintings based on a specific playlist. He’ll listen to it while he paints, and it will be played and remixed in DJ sets at the exhibition’s opening. Like the coffee shop environment, showing work at a record store disrupts the carefully curated “neutrality” typical of most gallery and museum settings. It creates a scene–something that is noisier, messier, but also more intimate and comfortable. 

Abstract painting in gray tones, washes rather than identifiable shapes
Jordan Clark. Crow Bath. Gesso, ink, dye, and spray paint on canvas. 22 x 28 inches. 2024. Image courtesy of the artist.

Spread out across the bright, airy space of Stumptown’s downtown Portland location, the paintings in Nightshade offer up little worlds rich with color, shape, and texture. The surfaces are what draw viewers in, but the materiality of the work, its textures, its physicality, that’s what invites you to have a cup of coffee and stay awhile.


Jordan Clark’s Nightshade is on view at Stumptown’s 128 SW 3rd Ave location through April 23rd. The shop is open weekdays 7:00 am-3:00 pm and weekends 7:00 am-5:00 pm.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Shannon M. Lieberman is an art historian whose research focuses on art and gender, exhibition histories, and intersections between art and social justice. She holds a PhD from the University of California, Santa Barbara and teaches art history and visual culture at Pacific Northwest College of Art. In addition to her love of visual art, Shannon is an avid reader and passionate audiophile.

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