Sunday, December 09, 2007

Most contemporary art, critic Robert Hughes once observed, is clumsy, narcissistic and obscure

A humanist philosophy for art Posted by D.K. Row
The Oregonian December 06, 2007 08:22AM Categories: Seminal NW Artists, Visual Arts Top Stories
Most contemporary art, critic Robert Hughes once observed, is clumsy, narcissistic and obscure. Which is why the sure-handed, unequivocal work of Portland artist Debra Beers is so refreshing and important. From her well-known images of downtown life to her newest works of gnarled, barren trees and natural life near her home in Southeast Portland, Beers paints and draws with an uncommon authority and a feeling, clarity and commitment that are also increasingly rare.
In her latest show of drawings at the Mark Woolley Gallery opening tonight during First Thursday, Beers has moved away from her unofficial documentation of downtown life to the natural world that has inspired countless Oregon artists. Despite the shift from urban to rural subject matter, the new work still powerfully showcases Beers' artistry and affirms her standing as one of this city's more accomplished, if under-recognized, artists.
Since arriving from Washington roughly 20 years ago, Beers has charted a career path that's been both praised and elusive. On one hand, each show has marked a deepening exploration of subject matter and technique. On the other, wide public recognition and sales have eluded her.
There are reasons for this paradox. When she started showing her paintings and drawings in Portland, Beers' subject matter, in the most general terms, was the socially and politically oppressed: homeless people, at-risk youth and other inhabitants of a pre-gentrified downtown where Beers lived for 17 years. Often made on slate, tin and other salvaged materials that symbolized the discarded nature of her subjects, the portraits refused to objectify. They were deeply felt, poignant interpretations that reflected influences as far-ranging as Asian art, the British graphic artist Sue Coe, mid-century expressionist Mark Rothko and the socially minded artists of the Ashcan School.
Beers' subject matter gradually enlarged to include portraits and scenes of those with little connection to the world of social services. These lively street scenes, images of war protesters and portraits of downtown denizens extended the scope of her art, which has never been driven by the art-world dialogue of the moment but has instead aspired to something more enduring and personal: to penetrate people's souls.
"It's the rare person and collector who wants to put up a painting of a homeless man in their home," says Linda Tesner, a friend of Beers' and director of the Ronna and Eric Hoffman Gallery of Contemporary Art at Lewis & Clark College, where Beers teaches part time in the art department.
That humanistic philosophy isn't surprising if you know something about Beers. Born in San Diego and raised in Phoenix and the Tri-Cities area in Washington, Beers, 53, is like her work: dignified, free of irony and sarcasm. A protestor of the Vietnam War, painfully shy and a vegan who doesn't use leather, she has also worked and volunteered at the soup kitchens and shelters that have influenced much of her art.
Her newest work is inspired by the foliage and nature surrounding Johnson Creek, the urban watershed immediately behind her house. Instead of street kids, Old Town shopkeepers and homeless people, she has drawn majestic, looming cedars, muscular branches and rugged vines, tree-cutters in the midst of dangerous business and assorted hanging roots. Beautiful without flirting with prettiness, these drawings in one respect remind us of the fine tradition of drawers that exists in Portland, one that includes George Johanson, Bob Hanson and Lucinda Parker, among others.
In another respect, the drawings reveal an essential characteristic of Beers' work, no matter the subject matter she's addressing: She's always been rooted formally in an exploration of the human figure. The writhing, sinuous trees and branches, for example, outline a bodily presence. They're human, alive.
In Beers' paintings made on found detritus, there had always been a tension between the materials used and the finished image, one that often left viewers too focused on her choice of unusual surfaces.
But in these drawings, the drama between materials and image has been eliminated. Drawing, which is art's version of poetry, has allowed Beers to work directly, to follow without distraction the line from her head to her hand. In the show's several drawings of an immense Port Orford cedar suffering from root disease, Beers also shows us why some fellow artists compare her to Albrecht Durer, the Northern Renaissance master of prodigious skill.
Drawn from several fundamental points of view inside the tree, the drawings crescendo brilliantly from whiteness to darkness and then back, while capturing, piece by piece, the evolution of a death.
Beers chose to make these new drawings about nature partially because of circumstance. About three years ago, she left her downtown studio because of rising rent. Then, she and her boyfriend bought the house near Johnson Creek. Those events, as it turned out, also coincided with an internal shift in her thinking.
"I was becoming less engaged," Beers says about living and making art in downtown Portland. "I was tired of living in a world of concrete. I found myself spending more time in Washington Park."
Now, she lives away from downtown and has a studio next to her home. The garret-like studio is pure Beers: It has few of the creature comforts or idiosyncratic flourishes that animate many art studios.
In January, Beers will be part of a faculty show at Lewis & Clark, where she'll exhibit a single series of drawings that collectively are about 70 feet long. The frieze of drawings documents the recent death of Beers' father from multiple myeloma.
Beers says viewers might be compelled to make a connection between those drawings of her father at Lewis & Clark and these pieces of nature at Woolley's gallery, especially the drawings of the diseased Port Orford cedar. They would be right, she says. Both bodies of work are about reverence.
Which returns us to the existential core of Beers' work. From protesters and street kids hanging out downtown to proud, dying trees, the artist is reminding viewers of something that's easily forgotten in a world in which self-examination has evolved into a form of New Age mumbo-jumbo and plain old narcissism: Life is fleeting and fragile. And she's reminding us that art, while not a religion or an official school of spirituality, can connect us to a feeling, a recognition, in which, even for a moment, the limits of the physical world hardly matter. Permalink (Learn More)

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