It’s gray and dreary out; political news is bleak. Even the twinkle lights on bare branches that look so cheerful when they go up in December lose their sparkle by February. It’s the post-twinkle winter slump.
In the face of all this gloom, I thought I’d be most taken in by color this month. Clearly, several Portland galleries thought the same way for February’s First Thursday. PDX Contemporary has paintings by Adam Sorenson—rocky waterfalls with glowing rocks, neon rivulets, or jewel-toned linteled posts. Froelick Gallery has a group show this month but entices gallery goers in the door with a large colorful work by V. Maldonado. Cheer is dashed a bit upon learning the title is Carcel de Niños (Jail of Children), but it was color that got me in the door.
Augen Gallery also embraces color this month with prints by the Eugene artist Tallmadge Doyle and the Austrian architect and designer Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000). Hundertwasser is known for a distrust of straight lines. He associated them with the built world, and his work is a tangle of undulating curves and colorful flourishes. The charming prints at Augen embrace this decorative exuberance, incorporating floating eyes and mouths within both built and natural environment.
Hundertwasser was a committed environmental activist who moved to Aotearoa, New Zealand, in the early 1970s. It wasn’t until seeing the prints at Augen that I recognized the influence that Maori modes of representation made on the artist. The eyes and noses of the compartmentalized faces in Night Train (1978) look unmistakably like Maori hei tiki. The striations in the face in the screenprint Green Power (1972) recall Maori moko, or facial tattooing. Viennese Secessionism is often cited as foundational for Hundertwasser’s work, and these prints also include elements familiar from this tradition —foil accents and tesserae-like squares—but clearly his sojourns to New Zealand equally shaped the artist’s signature style.
Doyle shares Hundertwasser’s environmental concerns: Her show at Augen is named High Tides Rising, also the title of a series of prints in the show. The prints are silhouetted plant and animal life on shades of cyan and sky blue. As is so often the case with art but especially with prints, these are lovelier in person than in reproduction. The digital versions give a good sense of the woodblock silhouettes and pleasing colors but don’t fully capture the etched lines lurking below. The etched forms are inspired by cartography and provide a human-made foil for the organic forms. The juxtaposition is poignant: Humans are causing the sea to rise, threatening natural equilibrium and ourselves, and we chart our demise and incremental losses through maps and data.
The preview materials for Dana Lynn Louis’ work, showing this month at Russo Lee, didn’t seem especially promising to me. There was a lot of gray, and I’m feeling pretty done with gray. The work caught my attention, though, even when I was just walking by the gallery and peering in the windows as the show was being hung on Wednesday afternoon (and it was raining).
Many of Louis’ compositions overlay gossamer materials—gauze or silk or even repurposed rice sacks with these patterns of tiny circles. I read the looping concatenations as abstracted chrysanthemums, but I think the artist regards them as lotus flowers. Celestial Fog II makes use of cellophane fringe, and several works list tea as one of the materials, presumably used as a dye. Branching capillary-like forms that recall algae or moss spread over the surfaces of several works; I felt reminded to breathe in looking at them.
Louis has done many larger, flashier installations than what is at Russo Lee this month. Though none of this work is small-scale—Whisper is the smallest, and even it is nearly 4 feet by 3 feet—I wouldn’t characterize these as installations, either. Most are two-dimensional. Weave is the exception, and the largest of the lot, a black horizontal scroll suspended from the ceiling. But appreciating it requires a closeness that I don’t typically associate with installation work. The immersive component isn’t the “being in” the space but the contemplation of the tiny circles. It’s smaller and more intimate than it seems at first look. Appreciating the larger form requires losing sight of the individual circles; stepping back to see the whole.
The gallery’s press release explained that Louis’s works in the show were made as part of an artist’s residency in Senegal and the local Gather:Make:Shelter, a community project of which the artist is the director. The residency program, Thread, is a project of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, and committed to the Bauhaus ideal of the fusion of art and life. Gather:Make:Shelter is Louis’s brainchild and was inspired by her Senegal residencies (she’s had two); it brings together artists who are housed and those experiencing houselessness for workshops and collaborative projects. In September, the organization held a celebration at Pioneer Courthouse Square and sold more than 500 bowls handmade by workshop participants.
Russo Lee is one of Portland’s swankier galleries, and the work is undeniably pretty, but it would be an error to underestimate the work’s potential because of this. Louis is clearly committed to understanding art as a means of community building and social connection. It fits exactly with the utopian ideals of the Bauhaus so dearly held by the Albers.
In a statement about her work, Louis says: “It is increasingly important to me that all my work, no matter its form, moves toward light, weaving us together and creating levity and beauty along the way.” The meditative qualities of Louis’ work, the repetition of circles or rhythm of stitches, seem an appropriate antidote to the February gloom. They serve as a visual reminder of interconnectedness: A single circle or stitch is meaningful as part of the larger whole, and one leads to the next. All gloomy February days lead toward spring. We’re moving toward the light.
If only political change were as certain.
This article was made possible with support from The Ford Family Foundation’s Visual Arts Program.