Michel Droge, “Night Harvest IV,” 2020 Images courtesy of Mayo Street Arts

By the time I moved to Portland, June Fitzpatrick had closed her galleries, following, as she put it in her Facebook farewell, “an extraordinary and a wonderful quarter century.” As I began connecting with the art community here, I heard her name again and again. Feeling like I needed to acquaint myself with Fitzpatrick’s indelible imprint on the Portland art scene in order to understand that scene better, I Googled and read as much as I could get my hands on about this much-loved dealer. What struck me the most was the democracy of Fitzpatrick’s tastes. She showed everything: sculpture, painting, weaving and other crafts, fashion.

Now the legendary dealer has come out of retirement to curate a pair of shows for the Mayo Street Arts pop-up space in the East End (current show through Jan. 22; second Feb. 5-26). True to what is clearly her natural openness to creativity, the exhibition embraces many forms. There is painting, printing, sculpture and installation, and the diversity of genres and themes has no discernible connecting rubric. Each artist represented, however, has something unique and interesting to say and is worth spending time with.

Immediately inside the door, visitors are subsumed into the showstopping lyrical abstractions of Michel Droge. Painted using oil and/or acrylic on huge expanses of birch wood or canvas, they appear as ethereal clouds of robust but blurry color arising from an imperceptible place deep beneath their surfaces.

Droge’s work often concerns itself with systems (environmental, social, political, capitalist, etc.) – specifically, how they are torn apart and might be reimagined in a better way. “Ore Mountain-Katahdin Ironworks” depicts a kind of system as ripped netting, out of which something new is being born. All the other paintings, however, seem to transcend systems of any kind, originating, perhaps, from the source of all things. They can feel like manifestations of boundless universal qualities – love, joy, strength, compassion, beauty – all bubbling up and taking form out of that mysterious primordial nothingness. They are at once powerful and soft, emotional and serene, dense and airy, fully present yet as asomatous as an apparition.

Justin Richel, “Untitled (Painters Problem No. 4),” 2020.

Two sculptural works by Justin Richel in this show are actually about painting, its process and its promise. They are ostensibly artist’s brushes, the tools for applying a medium that, he points out in his statement, “bears physical record to the expressions of the human hand. It conforms to the trail of the brush being driven by the impulses of the psyche.” No other medium, he writes, is “more permanently and intimately bound to the movement of the human body.” What flows from them conjures magical treasures – a landscape, an abstraction, a portrait, a café scene.

The sculptures, actually made of carved and painted wood, are titled “Refractory Period (Painters Problem No. 2)” and “Untitled (Painters Problem No. 4).”  The former is a brush that has gone limp and sags downward; the latter a red-handled brush with a knot in the middle. The brushes in this case have taken the physical form of the artist’s psyche – whose “problems” might be intuited respectively as lack of inspiration and blocked creativity – but the promise of magic still resides in the brushes as silver leaf (No. 2) and gold leaf (No. 4). They make the quotidian precious, elevating a humble tool to something potentially transformative.

Around the corner is an installation by Christopher Patch of mixed-media bats suspended from wires. Hung near an air vent, they quiver and oscillate gently overhead. Called “Chiroptera,” it is an homage to this oft-misunderstood creature, which, points out Patch, numbers some 1,200 species, “only a few of which actually feed on animals other than insects.” Sculpted in a variety of colors, moods and expressions, however, the larger message is one of diversity within groupings of any sort, and the value and subtle distinctions we miss when we generalize anyone or anything.

Shannon Rankin uses maps to express the constancy of change. Maps are fundamentally about charting and defining, fixing with exactitude some sense of place. Yet there are metaphorical maps as well: maps of the mind (where memory and experience are the sextants and compasses of a personal cartography), career maps (which navigate the path of our livelihoods), emotional maps (which bind us to expectations about relationships that don’t allow for growth and development), and so on. Yet boundaries keep shifting – glaciers melt, one country annexes another, we have revelations that shatter our identities, we get downsized, we grow apart and divorce. Rankin obscures and changes the neat grids, longitudes and latitudes of her maps using ink, salt and wax. By doing so, she captures the ephemeral reality and usefulness of any map.

Richard Wilson, “Professional Help,” 2020

Finally, Richard Wilson’s lithographs portray enigmatic, highly personal situations. They can be read in so many ways and still remain inscrutable. In one viewer an image might summon dread, while it will make another laugh out loud. For the friend with whom I visited the exhibition, “Professional Help” seemed to embody his personal narrative. A sabre-wielding angel-like figure descends on a cloud to sever the tie that binds two figures who are trying to escape each another. To my friend, the heavenly angel reminded him of the couples’ counselor who helped him and a former lover to finally part ways.

Wilson might have had a similar experience. But he has spoken on camera about his difficult relationship with his father. Is this a direct reference? Or is this a tug of war between a younger and an older self? It’s anyone’s guess. And what about “Conundrum,” an image of two Christ figures carrying crosses that seem to have unexpectedly bumped into each other on the street. It appeared hilarious to me, in the absurdly clever way of a New Yorker cartoon. But someone more pious than I might find in it a cautionary message about worshiping false idols.

The delight of Wilson’s work is precisely the way he creates images that elicit a “Huh?” We can feel the considerable effort and imagination that went into each one (he makes many preparatory sketches before screen-printing), as well as the playfulness or anxiety or discomfort – or a mix of these – from which they spring. Figuring them out is beside the point.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected] 

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