Cramer has been one of the Pacific Northwest's hottest and most visible
artists for some time now. It is a region in America with unique aesthetics.
The Northwest is a place where mountains explode, and Mother Nature
both rules and challenges. Even celebs are typically spared the crush
of unwanted attention on Portland's streets. Between the magma and
the rain out here, mankind gets reminded just how tenuous life really
is. It pays off though, it is a sunny green Garden of Eden for 7 months,
and people read voraciously. Portlanders also support art in a way
that the other major west coast cities do not, visual art is its prime
Tom Cramer Igor Stravinsky 2002, oil on carved wood relief
8 x 5 inches
Not surprisingly, Cramer's intensively carved and painted work is
unlike most of the stuff driven by post-structuralist critiques that
have dominated curatorial conventions for at least 30 years. His latest
show explores the cult of personality through tiny, often ghostly
heads of historical figures like Henry VIII, Frank Lloyd Wright and
Igor Stravinsky. In the Northwest his focus on the primal and eternal
instead of the fashionably uninvolved or marginalized has bemused
some of Cramer's critics. Instead, like Paul Klee his work draws directly
from the deeper continuum of history and roots of human civilization.
Cramer is engaged with the past through the lens of the present. Heads
is a show where he meditates on our inherited historical ghosts with
our need for new icons. What else could an artist do after 2001?
What's more, Cramer's work has undergone significant changes from
figurative, ironic pop to transcendent abstraction in 2000. In 2002
we find him coming full circle to the ghosts of figuration and portraiture
from memory. One of the best of these tiny muscular divisionist works,
"Arthur Stanley Jefferson", has that unsettling dissonant
pulse that Oscar Kokoschka used to such great effect. I particularly
like how he evokes and inverts those great medieval and Die Brucke
woodcuts, as if he wants to get away from mass production. Cramer
has publicly stated he wont do prints, and considers them a rip off.
Portland, like San Francisco in the 50's is a hotbed for iconoclasts.
Other "heads" like Arnold Schoenberg and Mozart have a similar
and appropriate unresolved quality. This is a show about the dead
whose influence and work are still with us in a palpable sense. This
discordant ghost presence separates Cramer from Chuck Close, and Julian
Schnabel whose work is less concerned with memory and civilization.
Thus, Cramer's less successful works like Freud and President Eisenhower
are much more recognizable but their handmade dissonance still makes
them interesting if not as haunting. Being too explicit can be a pitfall
As noted earlier, Heads is a complete change from previously sold
out and primarily abstract shows. This makes Cramer a welcome risk
taker. I've always felt risk was the characteristic that separated
the leaders from the rest of the pack and these decisive bas-reliefs
embrace risk. In fact many works like Martin Luther King were ruined.
Indeed, bas-relief is a missing link between drawing and sculpture.
The medium's formal metaphor reminds us that civilization is carved
from a wilderness and like the ancient but perfectly designed shark,
it's a hell of a lot more interesting than a something from an inland
trout farm in the freezer aisle.