James Lavadour’s Recent Findings at Cumberland Gallery through July 1
WORDS Noah Saterstrom
This is the artist’s routine: Enter the studio at 3 a.m., the world still dark, the mind still dreaming; begin to paint. In those silent hours, the boundaries between movement and the unconscious remain briefly permeable, rendering the cosmic aspects of painting close at hand. For James Lavadour, painting is an intensely personal act. Once day breaks, the phone rings. Errands need running. Relationships need tending. Thus the artist finds the precious speechless vortex of pre-dawn his best time to work.
The resulting work is abundant. Lavadour keeps a couple hundred pieces going at once, accumulating layers of oil paint on two-inch-thick gessoed Baltic birch panels—a surface that can take rough working, scraping, pouring, scratching. The surfaces develop like this for years.
“I don’t know how it happens,“ he says, “but every couple of years there’s a group that reaches some sort of repose.”
Repose—a wonderfully precise choice of word. He could say they are finished, they reach completion, or are resolved. But repose implies they have arrived at a state of restful tranquility. The spiritualism in Lavadour’s work is not a conceptual veneer but is at the core of his art.
The most recent paintings to reach this repose will be seen at Cumberland Gallery in May, while the remaining pieces continue to transform in the chrysalis of his Oregon studio, perhaps for several more years. It’s a natural, evolutionary, almost gestational process.
At first glance, one recognizes these as landscape paintings. The drama of nature in J.M.W. Turner’s work springs to mind, or echoes of the moody, operatic countrysides of German Romanticism. But take a closer look and the scene vaporizes into painted mark. Without the tenuous reference to topographic panorama, these are more in the company of Gerhard Richter, Per Kirkeby, Pat Steir, or even the earlier gestural abstraction of Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler. These are action paintings where landscape is a phantom—if unequivocal—presence.
Lavadour is frequently described by others, though (notably) not himself, as “self-taught.” At best this trope is somewhat dubious; often an artist is referred to as self-taught not to highlight the absence of an art degree, but because it lends a certain mystique, a folksy spiritualism, an air of curated anti-intellectualism to their work. It’s a description that can be used to deflect criticism as it ropes off the “self-taught” artist from current artistic trends or discourses and to distinguish an autodidact as outside institutions of art or centers of ambition. This appellation seems hardly appropriate for Lavadour; he was included in the 2013 Venice Biennale and has shown widely in galleries and museum collections.
Lavadour is an eloquent and inquisitive artist who has a keen grasp of both his own artistic process and how it intersects with his influences. John Coltrane, a perennial inspiration, was also a warm, mystic intellectual, an artist who didn’t traffic in concepts, but in sensations. Like Lavadour, Coltrane explored his improvisational utterances—sometimes guttural, sometimes shrill, often multidimensional and primal—within a tight modal structure. Consistent forms and grids serve as such a modal structure for Lavadour. He occasionally installs collections of paintings in a grid, as in his nine-piece I Remember Everything (oil on panel, 90” x 102”). A stable framework is capable of holding unstable content.
The painter Francis Bacon, in his conversations with David Sylvester, said it is a “difficult thing to know why some paint comes across directly onto the nervous system and other paint tells you the story in a long diatribe through the brain.” Lavadour’s artistic impulse is solidly the former. His paintings are all about the gesture: the first mark, and the subsequent accumulation of marks. The experience of the work is propelled by one sensation informing the next.
As he works on the surfaces for years on end, the paintings turn and reorient while Lavadour keeps scraping, adding, scraping. At some point in the process, a landscape is insinuated. One wonders: Why bother? Why not give completely over to abstraction and release that stubborn old-fashioned landscape reference? Why not let them be the abstract action paintings that they clearly are? Lavadour himself seems to ardently resist the depiction of landscape. He walks a line between the tumultuous substance of paint and the strong reference to, not depiction of, landscape. He walks that line but maintains it rigorously. These are definitely not abstracts or landscapes. Clement Greenberg, champion of abstract painting, once said: “You like it, that’s all, whether it’s a landscape or abstract. You like it. It hits you. You don’t have to read it.” The resistance to and simultaneous insistence on both is peculiar, intentional, and, to use Bacon’s terminology, appeals to the nervous system and crystallizes in the uniquely human dilemma of whether to feel the great outdoors or study it. Whether to be one with the land or see it as real estate.
In the limited canon of Western art history, we are taught that depiction and narrative ruled the day until the 19th century when art and artifacts from China, Japan, Africa, Native American cultures, and South America drifted into the European frame. Familiarity with cultures that use materials for their own sake—to “be” rather than to “describe”—triggered an emergence of forms new to the regional tradition. According to Lavadour, his lifelong home on the Umatilla Indian Reservation and strong connection to his cultural heritage inform his desire to have materiality and action, rather than classical modes of representation, at the center of his practice. He has developed, from his experiences as an artist in a particular world, a direct line to the “objectness” of painting. As the artist says, “Paintings are a refuge from thoughts and interpretations: not meaning, but energy.”
Recent Findings by James Lavadour is on view through July 1 at Cumberland Gallery. For more information, please visit www.cumberlandgallery.com.