Transfer Station, 2007, Oil and wood burning o birch plywood, 53" x 53"
Photo by NessPace, Courtesy of Laura Russo Gallery
Tom Cramer portrait by Gus Van Sant
Like his artwork, Tom Cramer is a study in complexity and paradox. He is known for his dazzlingly intricate wood-relief paintings, his brightly colored murals, which are part of Portland’s urban landscape, and his glamorous appearance—all sunglasses and vintage suits—at show openings. But for all his visibility, Cramer also has a reputation for enigma, reclusiveness, and quirky self-sufficiency. This is a man who builds his own furniture, grows his own produce, and eschews central heat, television, and cell phones. Interviewed in his sprawling home, which he has painted floor to ceiling with dizzying abstract shapes, he comes across genial and erudite, zipping between ruminations on David Lynch, Alan Watts, Richard Nixon, and Arthur Schopenhauer in the first five minutes of conversation alone.
Amidst these flashing tangents, biographical details emerge. A native Portlander, Cramer was born in 1960 and began drawing at the age of 12. He was energized by a high school art class with Louis Bunce pupil John Lawrence and later earned a degree from the Pacific Northwest College of Art and studied further at Pratt Institute in New York, where he encountered the East Village art scene at its heady, early-1980s zenith. Back in Oregon, he was commissioned to paint murals, ballet sets, even motorcycles and cars, in a jaunty mash-up of graffiti and German Expressionism. He alternated between phantasmagorical figurative works and a unique semi-abstract mélange of sculpture and painting that has since become his signature style. In these works, Cramer draws and painstakingly carves into wooden panels, then paints and glazes in multiple layers until rivulets of color fill the crannies and gulches between forms. The relationship between the individual shapes and the larger composition stems from his fascination with the dynamic between microcosm and macrocosm. Cramer wants the viewer to shift awareness between these elements, as a means not only to visual pleasure, but also to a kind of intellectual and spiritual epiphany that verges on the psychedelic.
A pivotal trip to India in 1998, which he calls “the most impactful four weeks of my life,” filled the artist with new ideas. He began incorporating more curvilinear, mandala-like forms, fastidiously carving and re-carving the shapes with the aid of double-magnification jeweler’s goggles and customized tools and sharpeners from Europe. He also began overlaying selected pieces with gleaming gold, silver, and copper leaf, yielding an opulence that evokes the gilded Buddhas of India and Thailand. More recently, Cramer has incorporated pyrography into his repertoire in a series of painted wood-burnings that pop and jostle with bold colors and rhythms. Across his output, he is intent on marrying the works’ broad conceptual overtones with the sensuality of their craft-intensive execution.
Cramer’s working method is monomaniacal and hermetic. “I can’t work with any interruptions or anybody around,” he says, “kind of like Jack Torrance in The Shining. Sometimes I’ll go into my shop around 1 pm and work solid till 5:30 the next morning.” He describes his process as a trance-like state, in which fastidious pre-drawings give way to improvisational riffs. With their lush vegetal imagery harkening to an Easternized reimagining of Art Nouveau, his large-scale panels can take as much as 450 hours of drawing, painting, carving, re-carving, glazing and gilding to complete. It is as if the artist, intent on pulling out every available stop to achieve his material and thematic ends, will not be satisfied unless the viewer experiences full-blown sensory overload and psychic revelation. “What I’m trying to do,” he says, “is to use the maximum amount of elements I can get away with, and stopping just short of the whole thing falling apart.”
Tom Cramer’s newest work will be shown this fall, from October 1-31, 2009, at Laura Russo Gallery, Portland, OR