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'Shape of the Problem'
at Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Portland, Oregon
Review by Richard Speer

This 30th anniversary exhibition shows this prominent Portland gallery to be impossible to pigeonhole.

Continuing through August 27, 2011

Elizabeth Leach’s taste has always been impossible to pigeonhole.  Since 1981, as one of the Northwest’s leading programmers of rigorous contemporary art, she has charted a course between the dialectics of conceptualism and beauty, mediating them, sometimes playing them against one another in an ongoing conversation that is never predictable. Her relationship with her artists is complex. As a gallerista she is neither a gushy, unqualified buttress nor a controlling Svengali. Her stewardship of her eponymous and by now iconic art space distills the essence of what she brings to the table:  savvy, guts, exactitude.  It is a spirit well-expressed in “The Shape of the Problem:  30th Anniversary Exhibition”.  

The show title is a takeoff of a 1999 suite of Louise Bourgeois lithographs (“What is the Shape of this Problem?”), which are included in the exhibition. The show encompasses a wide range of formal and thematic concerns facing artists in general and, in particular, the artists whom the gallery represents in its dual mission to highlight internationally known artists in a regional setting and to introduce regional artists to an international public.

The anniversary program actually includes three components. The first is a multi-channel video projection, “The Imaginary Country,” by Dinh Q. Lê that was on display at Reed College (Cooley Gallery, 3203 SE Woodstock Rd., Portland, Oregon, August 5-7). The second is a group show focusing on Northwest and West Coast artists such as Bonnie Bronson, Lee Kelly, Hap Tivey, and Sean Healy, currently on exhibit at the Pacific Northwest College of Art (Feldman Gallery, 1241 NW Johnson St., Portland, Oregon, August 6-22). Finally, the cornerstone exhibition of this celebration of three decades is held at Leach’s gallery, an expansive, high-ceilinged space designed by Randy Higgins and set into the bosom of Portland’s fashionable Pearl District.

The show effectively spotlights the breadth of the gallery’s affiliated artists.  As if to welcome gallery-goers into the foyer, Jaq Chartier’s “42 Reds” pulses with fuzzy-edged, saturated stains, the hallmark of this Seattle-based artist’s quasi-scientific approach. In the main space, Pat Steir’s monoprint, “Infinity II,” is resplendent with long, glitter-spangled vertical lines cascading into a loose oval of gold splatters.  

Sublimely minimalist, Peter Alexander’s “Cobalt Triptych” rises from the wall in three rectangles of cast polyester resin, their wafer-thin sides bowing out in the centers, gently toying with the viewer’s depth perception. Helen Frankenthaler represents Abstract Expressionism with her work on paper, “Sunshine after Rain,” a supremely elegant commingling of line, brushstroke, drip, and modulated chroma.  

Figuration appears courtesy Joseph Park’s quartet of sexy, stylistically eclectic female nudes, their contours morphing from realism to Cubist-style planar fracture.  Bay Area abstractionist’s Gregg Renfrow’s stunning “C.D.F. 11-12” sumptuously evokes the late Morris Louis, while Deborah Horrell’s “Red Wing” is a teardrop-shaped amalgamation of pâte-de-verre glass, each component pinned to the wall with copper nails.  The work is a fruit-colored riot of blood orange, lemon, cantaloupe, and honeydew.  It looks good enough to eat.  

Perhaps the show’s most striking piece is Isaac Layman’s photographic print, “Ice Cube Tray,” an enormous, 55”x118” close-up of a metal ice tray. The tray’s silvery surface and the play of light across partially melted ice makes for a disconcerting contrast with the tray, which, gritty and dirt-speckled, is clearly in need of a wash.  The piece — outsize, immaculate, aridly witty yet sensual, and above all thoughtful — is, like the gallery in which it hangs, an enterprise that simultaneously pleases and piques.

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