The conceit of the Pacific Northwest as Edenic natural utopia (witness ubiquitous media coverage trumpeting the region as exemplar of all things green and sustainable) extends back to the Manifest Destiny and even further. But the strain of Northwest utopianism that painter Laura Ross-Paul mines in her latest solo show derives from her native Oregon’s history as a hippie haven in the 1960s and 70s. That is when Ken Kesey, Ken Babbs, and others among the Band of Merry Pranksters settled in the bucolic environs of Eugene, far away from the political and cultural hubbub of Berkeley and New York. Just down the road from Eugene is Veneta, Oregon, where Ross-Paul took her inspiration for these oil and encaustic works on canvas. The town is the site of the annual hippie bazaar known as the Oregon Country Fair, where last summer the artist snapped verité-style photographs that she later collaged, then adapted into the paintings that comprise her new show “Northwestopia.” The loose, sometimes blurred images that resulted have an Impressionistic quality that captures the dappled light of Sylvan Central Oregon at the height of summer. The show could aptly have been subtitled “Étude on a Dapple.”
In works such as Chumbleighland, the artist uses asymmetrical composition to highlight a trio of enigmatic figures: a female gazing into the distance, an angelic waif with downcast eyes, and a white-haired man whose face is turned away from the viewer. It is hard not to see the grouping as allegorical, although Ross-Paul wisely leaves the allegory unstructured and unexplained. In Garland, a figure wearing a Renaissance-style headdress speaks to the romanticism of an earlier time. Second Creek, Pipes, and Junction play off the motif of figures standing close together but looking in opposite directions: one to the ground, the other to the sky; one to the left, the other to the right. Throughout, horizontal swaths of impasto are punctuated by dark vertical trees. The figures’ garments pick up the colors of trees and sky, positing a transcendentalist melding of human being and nature. The painting Coast, with its flat lighting and beach scene, does not come from the Country Fair collages, lacks that series’ mystical atmospherics, and does not particularly cohere with the rest of the show.
“Chumbleighland,” 2008, Laura Ross-Paul, Oil and wax on canvas, 40" x 36"
Photo: courtesy of Froelick Gallery