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Rothko and Frame

I spent the evening yesterday at the Portland Art Museum with my friend Darrell, viewing first the Mark Rothko exhibit on the main floor and then (in a startling shift of sensibility) the John Frame exhibit upstairs.



For those not into abstract expressionism and mid-century modern art and design, Rothko's this guy:

photo from the Guggenheim of Mark Rothko's untitled 1969 oil painting, the canvas horizontally divided, the top painted black, the bottom gray


You know, the guy whose works people tend to look at and think, Geez, gimme a roller and a coupla quarts of paint, and I could do that!. It's really tempting to think it. I thought it. Not seriously, but it crossed my mind.

The exhibit starts with a well-executed, realistic, rather boring little still-life from the 1920s, and progresses chronologically to the sublime late works, of which the piece pictured here was one, and my favorite. You see Rothko's increasing abstraction, his development of color mastery, and an enduring interest in classical perspective. The big rectangular areas, the horizon, the implied vanishing point are apparent all along the chronology.

I love abstract expressionist art, and Rothko's in particular, because it invites me in. Each of these seemingly simple paintings is full of ideas, feelings, depth of color, and complex brush strokes. Nothing is prescribed. Is that a figure I see receding into that glowing portal? Possibly. Is that 1969 painting about the moon landing? Could be, could be. Are those verticals a nod to classical Greek columns? Sure, if you like. Is it okay to feel a sense of peace looking at that horizon? Yes, it is, even though Rothko painted it in his final days of despair before taking his own life. These canvases are so full of things, all of them of my own choosing.

None of this high-flown analysis, by the way, dampens my new obsession the enthusiasm I now have for giving myself Rothko-esque living room walls.



Upstairs, the walls and plinths are all painted dark brown-aubergine, and the only lights are tiny pin spots aimed at the sculptures of John Frame.

Frame hand-crafts very small, articulated fantasy figures--hands, and heads, monkeys and skeletons, odd little people, magical boxes and furnishings, all with a funny-macabre twist that I'd place in the same general quadrant of the universe as Tim Burton, but more medieval and wooden, more handwoven, and with 100% more glass eyeballs. (One little fellow has a coat encrusted with glass eyes, and in the film about him, they blink. It's really cool.)

Photo of a John Frame sculpture, a fantastic male figure with a wooden head, articulated wooden hands, glass eyes, and handwoven garments, seated in a medieval setting


Frame poses his characters and photographs them in magnificent, dark settings so that the resulting portraits are grand and early-Renaissance-ish in feeling. Then he uses the figures to tell intriguing and moving stories using stop-action animation. One of his films was playing in the viewing room. You watch it, then wander back out to the exhibit and are startled at how tiny the sculptures are in their little dark glass cases.

I've heard the term "steam punk" applied to the Frame exhibit, but it's not apt. There are a few gears and bits of clockwork, and the pieces can be made to move, but their movements are string, cloth, leather, and wood, more marionette or puppet than machine.

The contrast between the monumental serenity of Rothko's late paintings, and the delightfully odd complexity and humor of Frame's work made for a really stimulating evening at the art museum.

Then we went to Higgins and ate delicious food and talked about art (okay, and work), and I didn't get back to Eleanor, parked in the museum's courtyard, till quite late.

Photo of my Dutch bike in the sculpture courtyard of the Portland Art Museum at night.



It was the kind of evening that puts all the little annoyances into perspective. Thanks, Darrell! It was wonderful.

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