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Belles and Birds

December's First Thursday

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REMEMBER LAST WEEK? When it was First Thursday? It was raining. Yet with a mingled sense of anticipation and obligation, I still coated up and caught the bus downtown. "After all," thought I, "If I don't get out and look at this art, who will?" Since it's closest to my bus stop (and it happens to have pretty great art for a sneaker store), I started my First Thursday excursion at Compound Gallery (107 NW 5th), climbing their narrow stairs to take in their End of the World group show. I'd only begun to absorb a surreal, evocative ink drawing of a lady with a house jutting out of her frontal lobe (by Pat Perry) when the Law caught up with me: "The gallery doesn't open 'til 7 pm," said the terse Compound staffer who'd followed me through the curtain. My humblest apologies, gentleman, and please relay to your sneaker store's docents and trustees that I meant no offense. Moving on...

Up the road at Froelick Gallery (714 NW Davis), Ronna Neuenschwander's composite figurines (unwittingly?) riff on a motif that we've been seeing a lot lately: Southern belles. Last spotted at Reed's Cooley Gallery in Kara Walker's works, where they swooned under clouds of "the vapors" and fellated sexy slaves when the master wasn't looking, Southern belles seem overripe for sa-tire—colonial coquettes fluffing their ruffles and shirking the blame for slavery. Bless their bosomy little hearts! Neuenschwander's twist on the motif is carefully composed mash-ups of porcelain figures—most notably belles and figurines of black women (think racist artifacts akin to the lawn jockey). These hybrids' black arms brandish axes and snakes, while the white arms clasp teacups and apples. Heads and torsos are similarly mixed and mismatched. To complete the transformation, Neuenschwander mosaics a broken plate onto each figure's skirt. Most plate patterns seem merely decorative, but a few seem more politically pointed—particularly a piece of The King and I movie memorabilia glued to an Asian torso. (In the film, a large-skirted white lady explains to her adopted Thai brood that she does, in fact, have human legs like they do. Eye roll.) Oddly, Neuenschwander doesn't promote her work as controversial, saying in her artist statement that the figurines represent "a fresh look at who we are, and who we yearn to be." But I'd say juxtaposing ornate white ladies with oversimplified black ones seems like a formula for controversy, and makes viewing the exhibit a lot more interesting.

When I hit Augen Gallery (716 NW Davis), my first thought was, "Somebody had better tweet Portlandia fans!" One of Portland's most longstanding Bird-Putters, Trish Grantham is now undoubtedly groaning her way to the bank every time that bit is mentioned. Her latest menagerie of cute indie animals on newsprint decoupage wood panels includes not just birds, but also deer! Whales! Any other creature your roommate's last band was named after! Though Grantham's cartoonish fauna are as precious as ever, like most Portland residents, I've had enough exposure to this particular strain of avian art-flu to become immune.

After a couple hours at First Thursday, I was officially tired of pictures of things. Following an eyeful of cheeky forest critters, an orgiastic group show of butts (Cock Gallery at Everett Street Lofts), and a tear-jerking display of Afghan war photojournalism (Blue Sky), I sought relief in color-study abstraction. David Price's New Encaustic Paintings (Butters Gallery, 520 NW Davis) pair two muted hues per canvas, which Price divides with a smoky gray horizon, implying landscape just enough to evoke the pleasant feeling of gazing at a placid lake from a rented houseboat after having misplaced your contacts. Deep... sigh... of resigned... contentment.

Meanwhile, at Charles A. Hartman (134 NW 8th), Hayley Barker's The Prismatic Sun emanates bright, spackly daubs from a single center-point. Where Price's pieces are subtle, Barker's are bold—and yet the two share a trait that makes them way more engaging than, say, Molly Vidor's monochromatic "Piece by Piece" at PDX Contemporary Art (a faux Rothko that attempts to scream "Red!" as if it's never been said before). Both Price and Barker are borrowing a vitalizing trick from realism: the implication of a light source, which lends an internal glow and makes their work not only viewable, but also bask-able. Soak it up, 'cause we're in for a long, dreary December.

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