A week ago Wednesday evening, the night before the official First Thursday opening at Gallery 114 of the artist-run gallery’s March show, InkBodySkinPaint+Fire, the basement space at Northwest Glisan Street and 11th Avenue was hopping. It was the pre-opening opening, insiders’ night, and the place was packed. Actor and longtime theater teacher Bob McGranahan was outside at the corner, an early bird just flying off after checking the scene. At the stairway entrance a vendor for the weekly homeless-advocate publication Street Roots, which had a cover story by Emily Moore on the exhibition, was offering papers for sale.
Down the stairs to the landing a photograph of actor/director/producer/tech whiz Rusty Tennant hangs like a vivid greeter or bouncer at the door, tattooed as ornately as the stage set for a Victorian drawing-room comedy with a tree-earth mother gracing his brawny upper arm. Inside, a congenial and varied mob of theater people, art people, and friends of the artists was milling around, chatting, sipping wine, taking in the work of the two artists: painter David Slader, a gallery member (he also has a large long sculpture in the show), and his invited guest artist, photographer Owen Carey.
The idea for the exhibition was born, Slader said, when somebody told him that his paintings – which tend to be large and dancerly portraits made up of geometric shapes in bright blocks of color, almost like superheroes in flight, and often come crashing through the constraints of the traditional rectangular frame – looked like tattoos. He and his longtime friend Carey, the godfather of theater photographers in Portland, thought about it. Carey, they decided, would do portraits of people who have made their bodies canvases for tattoos (one of his subjects, as it turns out, is his own adult daughter). Slader would exhibit his tattooish paintings, which depict the human body in impossibly stretched and stylized and reconfigured forms. They would mix and match, playing off each other, in a sort of celebration of human adornment.
Immediately around the doorway in the first of the space’s two galleries hangs Slader’s the cow catcher on the train of commotion, a crayon portrait in quick scribbles of a nude woman, and the first work I saw closely. It’s quick and loose, with sharp outlines but an interior of squiggly conjectures, and the hasty markings on the woman’s skin do, indeed, seem like tattoos. The portrait amounts to a pivot point in the exhibition, connecting Carey’s crisp tattoo portraits and Slader’s more abstracted, Pop-inflected pieces. Cow catcher began as a quick preparatory drawing, Slader noted, but sometimes a piece just says, stop: I’m done.
Sometimes Slader’s markings come in the form of words worked into his images, as in As Evening Touches a Forest of Redbirds Around Her Song, a long image of a woman swimming through a sea of foil, with writing scrawled on her arm, shoulder, and thigh: “Suppose the lions all get up and go,” her thigh declares.
Slader is, in fact, adept at words, whether elliptical or straightforward, as in his explanatory text for hold the pizza order, his 8-x-2-foot lowslung sculpture, made of charcoaled arborvitae hedge, that neatly divides the front gallery, creating a natural traffic flow around the room’s four walls. It’s the “+Fire” part of the exhibition, a legacy of a moment when a mark became a mar, the burnt and muted evidence of a particular trauma. “My stepdaughter, Jillian, and I were heading to lunch,” it reads. “We could smell the legacy of the fire before we could see it: A freshly gutted pizza restaurant. Immediately to its north was a sculpture of charcoal skeletons, the remains of an incinerated hedge, line up in military precision. All I could do was stare. But Jillian urged me to act. So, after lunch, I went back home and got my bow saw and went to work.”
Artists aren’t supposed to know how to write, too, I commented jokingly to his wife, Cantor Barbara Slader. “He has a degree in journalism,” she replied.
More than that, as it turns out. As Deborah Moon noted in a 2017 profile in Oregon Jewish Life magazine, Slader spent a career as an attorney, including time in the 1970s as a public defender representing child-abuse victims in juvenile court. Later he represented victims of sexually abusive priests in some landmark cases that led the Portland Archdiocese to file for bankruptcy protection. His July 2017 exhibit at Gallery 114, Moon writes, included work by three Oregon prison guest artists – as he told her, “some of the most intense, brutal, from the heart art that I have ever seen.”
The subjects of Carey’s tattoo portraits, and their tattoos, have their own stories to tell. Tennant’s are about their (the pronoun they prefer) nonbinary sexuality and what they, and many literary historians, believe to be Shakespeare’s homosexuality. The tattoos on the chest of Domeka Parker, artistic director of The Deep End improvisational theater, mark her route through cancer and chemotherapy and double mastectomy. Lives, and life decisions, are written on these people’s skins.
Carey has been a theater photographer in Portland for decades, equally adept at capturing the dramatic movements of a group of actors onstage and, in his professional headshots for performers, the dramatic range and possibilities within them. I’ve watched him in action, shooting hundreds of photos during tech or dress rehearsals, with the enviable and even astonishing skill, shared by many news photographers I know, of being able to work right in his subjects’ faces and yet remain, somehow, unobtrusive; almost invisible. (Portland’s a small town: Carey also, more than 30 years ago, shot my wedding, quite splendidly. And Slader lives a block south from me, although I learned that relatively recently, after I’d begun to take note of his artworks around town.)
Carey’s tattoo portraits split the difference between the posed and active, maintaining a carefully balanced formality but also finding the latent drama, the little stories, within his subjects’ lives. Salim Sanchez engages the viewer with a speculative gaze: strings of beads hang from his neck and offer a target for the long lean archer seared onto his muscular shoulder. Daniel Steward presents as an illustrated novel to be read head to toe. Gwyn LaRee, peers from behind the ornate plumage of a feathered mask in colors that match the engravings on her skin. Tennant is a subversive, mischievous, captivating, liberating figure, leaping joyously into the air or, in one black-and-white sequence, emulating an Eadweard Muybridge running horse.
Life and art mixed easily and pointedly during the evening, which was about, after all, life and experience and the visual telling of life stories. At the rear of the back gallery, standing next to the wall with a handful of newspapers, was another Street Roots vendor, Aileen McPherson, who happened to have a poem, titled Rains, Before and Now, on Page 6 of the edition with the cover story on the Gallery 114 exhibit. She stood to the side of Carey’s three images of Parker, a comedian who is also, in these photographs, a figure of pride and persistence and reserved dignity.
In one portrait Parker is quietly formidable and strikingly theatrical, wearing a fur cap straight out of Siberia. In another, much more close-up photograph, her hair flies upward, wildly, as if she’s leaping from a great height and it’s caught in an updraft. Carey was standing nearby, and I asked him, did you have her jump to create that effect? “No,” he replied. “Look.” He took the picture off the wall, turned it upside down, and revealed the original perspective: Parker lying down, head back, hair dangling toward the floor. He found the image more interesting and perceptive, he said, turned, as it were, on its head. Then he returned the portrait to the wall, took out his smart phone with its carpenter’s-level app, and made sure it was hanging square.
In their own ways, Carey’s and Slader’s work in InkBodySkinPaint+Fire is at once boldly declarative and mysteriously elusive: We see “what,” and get only glimpses of “why.” Do we know what compelled Carey’s subjects to turn their bodies into galleries, or why they chose the art they chose to have seared on their skin? Not really. Can we parse the title, let alone the image, of any of Slader’s paintings – perhaps the one he calls, like an open-ended and quizzical short story, Take it to the top with puzzles toggling between nothingness and a match thrown across a dark room? Unlikely. I find this apt and comforting. The artist’s role is to explore the mysteries of life, not solve them. A little taste, a door opened, a new perception, a new possibility. That’s art. That’s life.
- InkBodySkinPaint+Fire continues through March 30 at Gallery 114, 1100 N.W. Glisan St., Portland. Hours: noon-6 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays.
- Rusty Tennant will perform the one-person play The Importance of Being Frank, exploring the thesis that Shakespeare was gay, at 4 p.m. Saturday, March 16, at the gallery. Donations will be accepted, with proceeds to Fuse Theatre Ensemble.
- The Invisibility of Visibility, literary readings by Street Roots vendors, will be at the gallery 6-7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 26.