DAVID COHEN, Editor           
       month 2003  

 

Tom Cramer: Heads

Pulliam Deffenbaugh
522 NW 12th Avenue
Portland OR 97209
503 228 6665

April 30 to June 1, 2002

By JEFF JAHN

Tom 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 cultural product.





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 in portraiture.

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.

 

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