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May 13th, 2009 RICHARD SPEER | Visual Arts
 

Mary Henry & Ellen George PDX Contemporary

A one-two punch of transcendental abstraction and elegant sculpture.

     
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Mary Henry’s On/Off 8A On/Off 8B at PDX.

In four years, painter Mary Henry will be 100. The California native, who now lives on Whidbey Island, Wash., only recently stopped making art as a concession to her age, but her work on display at PDX defies time—and space, for that matter—and makes for Portland’s best solo show this year to date. In the 1940s, Henry studied with constructivist master László Moholy-Nagy at the Chicago Institute of Design, and was influenced by the Op Art movement of the 1960s. Somewhere in the middle of those complementary influences, Henry’s synthesis took root, and her career, mostly concentrated on the West Coast, took flight.

In works such as Metaphor, she updates De Stijl in jaunty rectilinear blocks, while the dual bullseyes of On/Off 8A On/Off 8B, painted in 1967, are resplendent with that era’s bright commingling of pop, op, and minimalism. If Bridget Riley were commissioned to paint Dolly Parton’s décolletage, this is what it might look like. But it is Full Moon Over the Mendocino Headlands that best illustrates Henry’s gifts—not as a channeler of larger movements, but as a force in and of herself. Elegantly symmetrical, the piece’s concentric circles grade from white to pastel to inky black, imparting a near-phosphorescent glow onto the simple horizon line below. You look at the painting and hear the hush of nighttime, you feel the coolness, smell the pine and redwood, and simultaneously you’re dwarfed and elevated by nature in that gloriously hokey way that’s unfashionable to admit to. The piece is a quintessentially Northern California expression, whispering of Eastern mysticisms channeled into Western sensibilities. There are no words to describe its beauty.

Also showing at PDX are Ellen George’s polymer clay sculptures. Wall pieces like Oleander betray hints of chartreuse, forest green and tomato beneath translucent surfaces, while spinelike vertical études such as Cloud Climbing cast shadows on the wall, doubling the elegance of their presence. Taken together, Mary Henry’s and Ellen George’s shows add up to the most exhilarating double bill a local gallery has put on in years.


SEE IT: PDX Contemporary Art, 925 NW Flanders St., 222-0063. Closes May 30.
 
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