Virgil Grotfeldt and Terrel James

Froelick Gallery

Katherine Bovee

Terrell James, Plants and Animals 10, 2007; monotype; 22 x 14 inches; courtesy the artist and Froelick Gallery, Portland

Virgil Grotfeldt, R-Tex 76, 2001; coal powder, watercolor, acrylic on found paper; 12 ½ x 7 ¾ inches; courtesy Froelick Gallery, Portland

Biological associations abound in an otherwise haphazard exhibition pairing work by Virgil Grotfeldt and Terrell James. Links to the natural realm manifest in a literal sense in James’ expressionistic renderings of underwater life and Grotfeldt’s ambiguously organic, gestural paintings. Grotfeldt often works with a mixture of coal powder and paint; hence, organic matter is literally infused into the work. But both artists—each engaged in a decades-long exploration of biomorphic abstraction—also allude to the biological in indirect ways. Overall, the works function like artifacts—like residual evidence of encounters with the natural world.

In Plants and Animals, James conjures memories of visits to the Gulf Coast as inspiration for a series of monoprints and drawings. Although the series is primarily concerned with the movement and weightlessness of aquatic life—qualities deftly explored by an expert hand—it is also the most representational work the artist has done to date, leaving little to the imagination. In contrast, two series by Grotfeldt avoid direct references to nature. His brushwork resembles soft fleshy folds, plant fronds, microorganisms, beaks, tendrils and tentacles, which insinuate without insisting on representation.

Grotfeldt’s relationship with the natural world is mediated, complex and layered. In Shadow of the Hand, a series of digital pigment prints, his monochromatic brushwork, executed in delicate washes of semi-translucent aqua-hued oils, plays atop the surface of enlarged found photographs of microscopic particles. Reference numbers hint at the scientific origin of these inky stains and encourage a variety of associations: X-rays, lab samples, bodily fluids. Numerical labels convey a sense of objectivity, as does the presentation of these images as digital prints. Although the process of capturing documents photographically, digitally manipulating the images and reproducing them large-scale allows for a certain precision, the final prints are still soft and sensuous. The viewer can luxuriate in nuances that would not be possible on a smaller scale. Interaction between the human hand and nature—the act of recording and recoding biological forms into a language of abstraction—allows Grotfeldt to recontextualize rather than replicate. This act is also present in his untitled series of small paintings in coal powder, watercolor and acrylic on an assortment of found documents, some with spidery script enumerating cash balances on old business records. While some texts seem linked to the biomorphic forms painted upon them, most simply exploit the rich but unknown histories of these mysterious documents. This does prompt free association, but in many cases, it also detracts from the simplicity of the forms that grace each page.

James’ approach to abstract drawing differs from her monoprints to welcome effect. Fields of earthy pastels form a backdrop for spontaneity. With their Twombly-esque quality of mark-making, her drawings are particularly successful, striking a fine balance between abstraction and representation by using the void of the page to full advantage. However, like Grotfeldt, James’ work requires one to confront individual pieces in light of a larger whole. Each stroke is merely an instance—a specimen that represents the deep, ongoing relationship these artists share with the material and expressive properties of their media. In the most successful moments of this exhibition—in Grotfeldt’s Shadow of the Hand and James’ drawings—one can concurrently enjoy the subtleties that individualize each work while never losing sight of the significance of interconnectivity.

Katherine Bovee lives and works in Portland.

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