'Reallegories' at Belmont Factory

By Pat Boas


A stronghold of abstraction, Portland also harbors a healthy subculture of figurative artists devoted to the timeless practice of telling stories. Such artists mine traditions of folklore, religious iconography, theater, the family photo album, fashion and comics. They engage in an intimate, alchemical process--what Cezanne called "thinking in images"--that twists imagery into a language imbued with cultural codes and cues. Reallegaries: The Poetic Narrative in Painting brought together the work of nine painters who share a knack for spinning contemporary experience into captivating tales. the exhibit, curated by painter Andrea Borsuk, was part of Core Sample, October's citywide art extravaganza.

A standout in a field of formidable competition, Ryan Boyle's mixed-media Company Chode employs Victoriana as an organizing principle. Boyle paints miniature dramas involving slug-like creatures on dilapidated, antique book covers. Here they act out a kind of "boy's life" allegory in which the hapless squirts rebel against the obligations of civilized life. There are boy chodes brawling in beanies and long johns, a mother chode pinched into a corset and doctor chodes performing mysterious operations. Wooden stumps, old jar fids, crumbling finger protectors and a fusty red ear syringe protrude here and there, framing a world that is ridiculous, contentious and entirely captivating in its attention to arcane detail. Equally outstanding are Erik Stotik's large acrylics stacked with snaking, distorted figures that morph between animal and human form even as they merge into pieces of architecture from a hodgepodge of cultures and periods. The staggering mix of imagery, solidly held together by Stotik's technical mastery, evokes at once the spirits of Diego Rivera, Max Beckmann, Giorgio di Chirico, M.C. Escher and the Count de Lautreamont.

Paul Green embraces the allegorical impulse without reservation, rolling out delicately tinted Venetian landscapes behind his languid young men and shorthaired women. Steeped in an updated religious iconography, the easel-sized canvases press an idealized nature into service. Even so, disjunctions of scale and odd juxtapositions suggest that more than one tale may be hidden beneath the surface. Jumping only a few centuries ahead in art-historical influence, Stephen O'Donnell brings the tradition of royal portraiture to center stage. O'Donnell reconfigures himself as a diva or prima ballerina, relying on the obvious visual gap between the trappings of the femme fatale and his male attributes. But it is the finely tuned craft of his jewel-like panels that keeps us involved in the masquerade. Borsuk likewise examines gender stereotypes and standards of feminine beauty. The show's curator paints exotic landscapes sprinkled with cameos and fetishes, beads and lots of breasts, as if the female of the species were a grab bag of trinkets and charms. The paintings operate as whimsical compendiums of the represented female form, mixing the contemporary with the ancient, the demure with the pornographic.

Sara Dochow's work suggests that the key to one's present behavior may be found in a simple undressing of the past. She isolates small groups of children from fifties-era family photos against stark, white grounds. One series shows boys dressed up as tramps, slouching and lounging, another girls and boys posing with bows and arrows in their Sunday best. By leaving only stark shadows attached to her figures, like a page out of Peter Pan, Dochow seeks to throw the posturing of the children's games into high relief. Trude Parkinson, also working from family photographs, concentrates on color and abstract form as she attempts to dissect memory and build a sense of personal myth. The small, square canvases, each with a central adolescent figure progressing along a path are hung in an arch toward the gallery's corner, like a climb to a summit. Interested in paintings as objects that take up space, Parkinson adorns their backs with diagrams, diary entries and bits of poems, inviting viewers to thereby glean another kind of knowledge.