joe thurston
april 2007 by richard speer

     “Making anxiety beautiful” is how Joe Thurston boils down his modus operandi as an abstract painter. The Portland-based artist, who has a show at Elizabeth Leach in August, says he’s “trying to get to the bottom of deeply based, primal anxieties about scary things like viruses and global warming and colliding galaxies.” In his gestural paintings on carved panel, Thurston explores the perverse attraction of nature’s menacing aspect. His fearsomely beautiful centrifugal splatters reference monster hurricanes spawned by climate change; his branching vines imply both the life-sustaining growth of plants and the malignant growth of cancerous tumors.

     For 10 years, Thurston made a name for himself throughout the Northwest with his unsettling portraits of women, painted in an X-ray-vision style that peered through his subjects’ skin, exposing their musculature and, metaphorically, their deepest insecurities and fears. It was a distinctive, harrowing style, but one that Thurston eventually felt had run its course. “Not to sound overly spiritual,” he says, “but at a certain point I was looking for something more organic, something in the deeper matrix of the world.” A conversation with a friend about printmaking and an online study of the Luttrell Psalter, a 14th century illuminated manuscript, eventually led the artist to draw scroll- and vine-like motifs onto linoleum blocks, later carving the shapes into the surface such that they stood out in relief to the picture plane. “It felt good in my wrist,” he says of the twisty, meandering motifs. “It was like the fiddlehead ferns that grow around my house. My wife and I started calling it ‘the squiggle.’” The whimsical moniker belied the more sinister undercurrents Thurston saw in the gesture, which reminded him of tendrils, tentacles, neurons, and cancers. Eventually the squiggle mutated into drips and splatters, which he saw micro-and macrocosmically as virus-and hurricane-like forces. “What I’m after is the interior and exterior at the same time: things happening in the body and things happening in the universe.”

     The process he developed in 2006 to accomplish this end begins with intuitive shapes that he splashes on the panel and subsequently traces in graphite. After wiping the block clean, he painstakingly carves each of the splatters into the panel. In the background he carves a dizzying, mandala-like field that radiates from a central vanishing point. “I think of the background as a net holding the shapes up—or to borrow a phrase from Hélène Cixous, ‘a matrix for meaning to form on.’” Next, Thurston paints the background and shapes in acrylic paint, sometimes in dramatically contrasting colors that pop and preen: hot pink, candy-apple green; other times in subtler shades: peach, forest green, pumpkin. He finishes the process by outlining the splatters in black, giving them a cartoony finish. These outlines superimpose a kind of Pop feel atop an Abstract Expressionist base, recalling Roy Lichtenstein’s Brushstrokes series in the mid-1960s. Like Lichtenstein’s, Thurston’s works are at once reverential of the past while also wryly distanced from it. Despite the microbiologic and environmental bogeymen they spring from in the artist’s mind, the finished paintings emanate a gee-whiz exuberance owing to their juxtaposition of spontaneous painterly gesture and time- and craft-intensive carving. In facing his primordial fears, Thurston has developed a formal language limited only by the permutations of gesture and color—which is to say, one that is boundless.

Joe Thurston’s work will be on display this August at Elizabeth Leach Gallery, 417 NW 9th Ave., in Portland. For more information (503) 224-0521

Apr 2007 by richard speer

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