Figurative painter Laura Ross-Paul combines a free, neo-impressionist technique, an interest in Jungian symbols and archetypes, and a transcendentalist’s love of nature. These elements integrate seamlessly in “Seasons,” as her current exhibition is titled. With loose, but never sloppy brushstrokes in oil paints and encaustic medium, she lends to her figures a John Singer Sargent-like sense of aristocracy and idealization. Most often her subjects are young and they are adorned in contemporary garments. Sometimes she depicts them nude or semi-nude, allowing them to speak of timelessness rather than Zeitgeist. Ross-Paul is inspired by the Oregon coastline, yet her depictions of frolicking beachcombers and surfers, as in “Wave” and “Soup,” sometimes cross the line between the halcyon and the sentimental.
It is in her other major body of work — her forest fantasias — that the painter’s most affecting gifts come to the fore. Her pictorial and poetic sensibilities are activated by dappled light, tangled undergrowth, and the interplay between fir and deciduous trees. While her ocean idylls reveal all contours in flat, midday sunlight, her forest paintings withhold their potentialities. Embraced in verdant habitats, teenage models, who might in lesser hands come across as displaced mall rats, take on allusive overtones. The skateboarder becomes a forest sprite; the girl in fifth-period algebra transforms into a water nymph.
In “Early Spring” a shirtless boy wields a large branch that is curved like a scythe, its contours alternately following and bisecting the lines of the blossoming tree behind him. He is, we sense, more than a boy holding a stick. Regarding the viewer implacably, his expression too cagey to be serene but too beatific to be sinister, he challenges us to divine his identity, his narrative, and the implications of his prop. This motif, the bare-torso adolescent as angel or reaper, is a vision Ross-Paul explored for many years, then set aside. In several other works in the current show, among them “Spring Tangle” and “Early Fall”, she revisits this motif and finds much fresh nuance to mine.
Another of this veteran painter’s talents is the invention with which she communicates a mystical reverence for nature through her handling of background atmospherics. The fiery aurora borealis in “Celebration,” the shimmerings of water and sky in “Fall River,” the swirling dance of snow flurries in “Scarf” and “A Light Dusting,” and the opulent textures and pastel hues of the flower petals in “Early Spring” all create dizzying backdrops that, rather than distracting from the foregrounds, impart a pulsating, magical quality, heightening compositional and thematic drama. She has written that she titled the show “Seasons” because she wanted to evoke those imprecise moments when something changes in the air and one senses that the season that has been is giving way to the season that is to be. It is a phenomenon well-suited to the generous sfumato of her technique. A longtime associate professor of painting at Portland State University and later Lewis & Clark College, Ross-Paul recently retired from teaching, renovated her studio, and plunged into painting full-time. The current work is her most vital in years, invigorated by dueling impulses to portray dark mysteries and illuminate metaphysical truths.