Eugene Weekly : Visual Art : 3.20.08

A trinity of smart takes on the world

Art from nature: The very words might make any Northwestern art critic groan. After all, the resplendent and overwhelming beauty of our area causes almost everyone with a camera to believe she has a nature-given right to exhibit digital photos at willing galleries. But there’s no moaning this month when three exhibits head into the wild and find humanity.

Frost Catcher II, by Jamie Newton
Re-emerging Forest, by Justin C. Williams
Gorge Birch, by Antonia Lindsey

The first — and at first glance most traditional — arrived at La Follette just in time for First Friday. “Images of Western Oregon,” Justin C. Williams’ photography show, might better be named “Images of the Coast and Coast Range near Eugene.” True, many Eugeneans have pictures of Shore Acres, the beaches at Yachats, Sunset Bay and other coastal beauty spots. But not like this. Williams’ eye for curious patterns combines with his skill at processing black and white film (yes, film, from nondigital cameras) to create powerful images that reveal the determined human behind the lens.

After viewing this show, a movie fan might be moved to ask why Peter Jackson didn’t shoot the Lord of the Rings trilogy in Oregon. Our scenery’s glorious and complicated, even — though I hestitate to say this — a bit magical in Williams’ show, where the natural world provides dramatic mystery. Coastal Mist, a fascinating shot from Yachats State Park, serves as a perfect example as Williams combines an otherworldly sensibility with the familiar ocean-drenched rocks of the coast. Re-emerging Forest haunts the water with rocks stretching in a slippery, tentative gesture toward the great unknown of the Pacific. In pieces like Cliff Grasses and Mill Pond Reflection, Williams turns his lens on patterns. The spiky grasses echo in cracks of a cliff near Perpetua, charmingly poking out like tentative arachnids from the wall of earth and stone. And the shot of the mill pond near Coos Bay provides a perfect mirror reflection with a bit of additional mystery since the water side reflects farther than the camera captured at the top of the frame. This devotion to pattern abstracts in The Cut, a slice of a tree trunk that shows a remarkable natural effect in which three trees grew together as one. Williams takes the familiar and infuses it with an aura of the unusual.

Walk downtown from La Follette to White Lotus, where Portland artist Jamie Newton (read a Q&A with the artist in a web exclusive) mounts a show of his new work, also inspired and influenced by the natural world. Newton mixes sumi brushwork and the appeal of the abstract with Asian influences and the world of the outdoors. His interest in play and chance, which comes partly from his attraction to Fluxus art and artists, combined with an experience with a heavy Ashland frost in the winter of 2006 led him to create a variety of small Frost Catchers. Those sculptural pieces, one of which is in the White Lotus show, use found objects to interact with the capricious world of winter. And they inspired several quirky Wind-aided Solar-powered Drawing Machine sculptures, which are on display in the show next to the drawings they made. Unfortunately, the solar panels aren’t strong enough to use window-filtered winter light and start the process inside the gallery, but a small DVD player displays the workings of one of the machines. As Newton notes, the machine — set outside and moving quickly — doesn’t merely draw but also makes musical clinking and plunking noises as the wires and other parts respond to each other.

Paintings like Wind Hills, Landscape and Ridge provide a pleasing mix of abstract, Asian calligraphy/Abstract Expressionist-like brushwork and the sense of the landscapes where Newton lived in Ashland. And the Chinook and Coho duo mix the color of salmon with floating signs, a common theme that former EW art critic Sylvie Pederson referred to as “idiosyncratic cartographic markers.” Indeed, Newton maps his various interests and artistic obsessions in the different types of paintings and sculptures in this show. He moves nature and the human environment closer together by using Minimalist techniques like grids and etchings in some of the paintings, including the brilliant Across the Straits and Knoll. This left brain-right brain mix informs much of Newton’s work. His delicacy, wit and scientific approach ask the viewer to engage both whimsy and logic while enjoying the cool calm of a mind responding with curiosity and joy to the dual worlds of nature and art.

Then it’s but a short EmX ride and walk to BRING’s Planet Improvement Center, where the gallery hosts Portland-area artist Antonia Lindsey’s show, “A Dialogue with Nature.” Like Newton, Lindsey reuses materials in her artwork; unlike Newton’s black and white paintings, Lindsey wields colors and torn patterned paper in joyful yet controlled collages. One of the more imaginative reuses in her work comes from titanium tailings (left over from airplane manufacturing), which provide shine and random metallic shapes while also giving these environmentally problematic leftovers a safe home. And in many of her collages, discarded watch parts play a role in focusing the eye, referring to the sun and the moon and anchoring the lively interplay of paper colors and shapes. These pieces are pleasing, make good use of recycled materials and generally would be at home in any Northwest room.

But Lindsey has a more purposeful plan: “I like materials that would otherwise clash, like paper and metal, to show how to see, as in ‘see differently’, how things might work after all as a whole.” As a rule, her accomplished collages give weight to Oregon’s beauty with their slightly altered lens, the oddness of tailings and watch pieces coalescing with the precisely torn or cut paper to create surprisingly detailed pieces.

The largest work, not a collage, is Cloud by Cove (On the Willamette), which stands out in the large gallery space. This piece resembles a Tiffany window in look though not in composition; the artist created this mosaic with recycled glass. Of the paper-based works, the strongest are Gorge Birch, Willamette Moon and the lovely Strait in the San Juans. Both Deschutes Storm and Tide or Time (What Moves You?) suffer from too literal an interpretation, with Lindsey’s words on the second pounding the message far too bluntly for a professional artist. A light touch goes a long way. But don’t miss the show (which also includes jewelry, small tables and jewelry stands) while you’re buying new (used) windows, bathtubs or pianos.

Humans are not separate from “nature” — we are nature. And culture. Check out the combo during March.

“Images of Western Oregon” is up at La Follette, 931 Oak, through March 31; “Work by Jamie Newton” is up at White Lotus, 767 Willamette, through April 15; “A Dialogue with Nature” is up at BRING, 4446 Franklin Blvd. in Glenwood, through April 10.

Read an interview with Jamie Newton to find out how he gets lost on the Internet, why he loves Matisse and how he’s not influenced by Andy Goldsworthy.