Art Around Portland, April 2023

April showers bring May flowers unless you are in Portland, where rain showers accompany flowers in a forever spring. That pouring rain, however, did not dampen the enthusiasm in the First Thursday Art Openings in the Pearl District. 

Ronna Neuenschwander’s Survival of the Fittest

At Blue Sky Oregon Center for the Photographic Arts, a big crowd came to see the 59 artists selected for the 2023 Pacific Northwest Drawers. Although not officially on the gallery website, Ronna Neuenschwander’s Survival of the Fittest… and Others, tucked in a project room, captivated our attention with her whimsical and misfitted figurine sculpture pieces. Each is made of mostly ceramics, or more precisely, broken shards. The title borrows from her experience in Mali, West Africa where recycling and repurposing materials are the ways of life, and the means of survival. The mosaic shards are from her friends around the world, of a variety of cultural heritage. I have spotted German beer steins and Chinese porcelain, to name a few. The shards form the luminous hoop skirts, typical of the 19th century. If that does not pique your interest, a pair of antelope horns on top of each figurine adds more eccentricity. By weaving historical, personal and fanciful aspects of repurposed ceramics together, Neuenschwander has fulfilled her promise to give each gifted ceramic piece a new life.

At Waterstone Gallery, David Haslett features his recent stone sculptural works, titled “Force of Earth.” That force happens slowly, but majestically, as evidenced in layers found in Arizona Onyx stone. “It’s said it takes a million years to form 12 inches of granite. So you have a few thousand years of history here,” said the artist. 

Most of his material is locally sourced. “Olivine is from Mt. Baker, northern Washington; the Basalt from central Washington. The granite is from the Cascades.” The force of the earth cannot compete against the will of the artist. Haslett is able to carve, chisel and sand down hard stones to as thin as less than an inch. Collectively, Haslett’s works defy the unyielding nature of the stone material. They crouch, twist and spring as pliable as a rubber eraser, and as airy as a ribbon in rhythmic gymnastics. Yet, the stone grains constantly remind us of the perpetuity — its very existence came long before us. The idea that such artwork will out-live whatever owner will be is a bit frightening.  With that thought in my head, they started to feel weighty, no matter how springy the art may look.

The force of the earth cannot compete against the will of the artist. Haslett is able to carve, chisel and sand down hard stones to as thin as less than an inch Waterstone Gallery

Interestingly, our favorite is a piece of work he chose to spare more raw material because of the natural beauty of the stone. He even left part of the surface unpolished to draw viewers’ attention to the intricate texture.  The grain in this brucite stone has a web of dark lines swerving upwards like tree branches. And a semi-transparent jade-looking layer on the back only adds more mystery to its title “Owl in the Amazon.” “That is sourced from Japan. I just cannot get it anymore.”

Russo Lee Gallery, Lucinder Parker, Fiji

At Russo Lee Gallery, Lucinda Parker has an interesting exhibition featuring her paintings during her annual winter vacation in Fiji, a tradition that lasted 15 years. For the last nine visits, the artist, with her husband, stayed in Namenalala island, with no electricity, no bars, no roads and no cars. Her artist supply seemed to be limited to gouache paint and paper of modest size. But the landscape, the people and the tropical fish offered enough visual excitement for her to keep coming back. And that excitement is palpable and contagious in the show. Tropical fish, with their colorful but predictable patterns, seems to be at odds with Parker’s free-spirited style and her outsized imagination. It made me wonder if the artist has given more personality than what such fish could be credited with. The landscape, especially on the roundabout motif, has interlocking shapes of dark and light that energize the pictorial space. But it was the portraits of staff members through direct observation that brought the most joy and surprise. In those portraits, Parker was able to document the local people with whom few of us would have the chance to interact while capturing a vitality present in human beings. 

The exhibition is dedicated to the artist’s late husband of over 50 years, who passed away earlier this year. 

Wayne Jiang’s current show at Guardino Gallery opened at the end of last month. So it is fitting to be mentioned in the April openings as well. Most of Jiang’s works are small, intimate and quiet. Small paintings naturally draw people in; and in doing so, invite a closer observation and a more direct dialog. Although all works are in the still life genre, there are two different styles. 

On the one hand, there are a few (much less in proportion) that are reminiscent of street photography. The haphazard arrangement of condiments on a diner table echoes the cinematic off-kilter quality of Robert Frank’s photojournalism. Knowing that it is only quiet for now and any visitor may walk in to break that magic silence creates a sense of drama.

The other category is staged still life. Jiang cites 17th-century Dutch still-life painters as his inspiration. Like Dutch painters, he layers paint with translucent glazing, a feat much harder to achieve in acrylic. Unlike those Dutch Protestants who painted the material culture for the patrons, Jiang favors everyday objects with mundane roots – Donuts, grapes with crackers, oranges with a hot sauce bottle. Even in the Flowers series, one can sense his humor with interesting props he has placed with flowers, like a hammer or a teacup as a container.

I paused at the work titled “Late Afternoon in the Diner.”  I could be overreading it. The juxtaposition of red, white and blue and its diner identity speaks of the hallmark of small-town America. “Oh, that diner is in Albany.”  I looked up google maps and felt relieved that he probably meant Albany, Oregon. But that did not really help locate the diner. The good news is that the artist is giving a talk at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 15. Maybe that diner location will be revealed. 

Cover: Interactive display at Paralax Art Center

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