'A Single Tree,' 24x36 acrylic painting by Jon Jay Cruson / Courtesy White Lotus Gallery

Road Trip

Painter Jon Jay Cruson shapes the world east of the Cascades into exquisite and detailed abstraction

The way Jon Jay Cruson tells it, his best work grows out of regular fast-paced solo road trips. He gets in his nearly 10-year-old Toyota RAV 4, heads across the Cascades and drives to places such as Dufur, a small town in Oregon’s wheat-growing country along the Columbia River, and Pendleton, in the state’s far northeast corner.

Along the way he examines the landscape with a keen artist’s eye, taking note of shapes, colors and textures, sometimes stopping to look carefully for a moment, perhaps jotting down a line or shape in a notebook, but rarely getting out of the car. After as few as three days examining the landscape from the road, he returns to his home studio in Eugene and begins assembling notes and memories into complex compositions worked out with acrylic paints on canvas.

“These road trips are very important to my work,” Cruson says of these journeys, which he makes at least twice a year, in the spring and fall. He calls them a catalyst for his art. “They give me a chance to look and think. And there is a freedom to road trips outside the studio.”

You can see the results of this artistic travel in Contemplate: New Works, which opened April 7 at the White Lotus Gallery downtown.

In the large paintings in his show, Cruson uses bright acrylic paint on canvas to combine images from his travels, sometimes incorporating source material from as many as five different locations in one painting. None of the paintings, as a result, shows an actual place; instead they create abstract patterns, almost like a collage, often with a noticeable passage of pure white running through the image.

Cruson is one of those rare birds in today’s art economy — an artist who works full time at painting and makes enough money to live comfortably. 

After growing up near Sacramento, Cruson studied art at the University of Oregon, where he got an MFA degree in 1967 after working there with David McCosh and Andy Vincent, two of Oregon’s leading artists of the mid-20th century. A stint in the Army took him to Vietnam, where he worked as a graphic designer; when he returned to the U.S. he taught drawing, painting and design at Oregon State University.

Cruson’s work is in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Portland Art Museum, the Hallie Ford Museum of Art and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the UO. Besides White Lotus, he sells work through the Hanson Howard Gallery in Ashland and the Lawrence Gallery in Lake Oswego.

Walk into the current exhibit at the White Lotus, and the first thing you notice is a lot of white. Cruson’s paintings are all framed in simple, modern wooden frames painted white, a color that echoes the white shapes in the paintings that seem to dominate the room. Each seems to combine various perspectives looking down on a stark but colorful landscape below.

In “Contemplation No. 4,” a 24×48-inch panorama, a pure-white highway cuts into the frame heading up and left from the bottom before turning back to the right, twice, to isolate an area of flatland that’s a uniform tone of burnt sienna. In all these works, Cruson uses earth tones as if they were primary colors, creating intricate abstract compositions with the flat shapes — always accented by something in white.

Over much of his long career, Cruson has worked relentlessly with the same material — abstracted desert landscapes — that in lesser hands might become repetitive. Even for longtime fans of his work, this show seems fresh. 

Contemplate: New Works by Jon Jay Cruson runs through May 20 at White Lotus Gallery, 767 Willamette Street. Hours are 10 am to 4 pm Tuesday through Saturday. More info at WLotus.com.