Sinuous tangles of vines, flowers, and lichen—dots of gold that gleam in the light, then suddenly congeal into stars and teem with insectlike forms...if Tom Cramer's latest paintings seem like tracer-streaked flashbacks to the psychedelic '60s, it's because they are. The artist conceived his show at Laura Russo Gallery as an homage to the 40th anniversaries of Woodstock and Altamont, the most famous and infamous music festivals of the late 1960s. Cramer knew the media would be covering the anniversaries—Woodstock's in August, Altamont's in December—so he planted his October show dead-center between the utopic idylls of Woodstock and the dystopia of Altamont, a train wreck of a festival where four people lost their lives. In the painted wood reliefs and pyrographic burnings that compose Tom Cramer: New Work, the artist counterposes sunny windowpane epiphanies with feverish nightmares that verge on the surreal, driving home the show's dialectical theme. "I was thinking of William Blake," he says, referring to the poet's Songs of Innocence and of Experience. "Woodstock represents the innocent, childlike wonderment at the raw beauty of the world, and Altamont is the experience that swoops down and corrupts it."
Born in Portland on February 9, 1960 (yes, that makes him an Aquarius), Cramer is both a child and a student of the '60s. His conversation zips between Timothy Leary, Jim Morrison, George Martin, and Alan Watts. In the era's living-off-the-land spirit, he grows much of his own food, builds his own furniture, eschews television, and waxes ecstatic over his three trips to India, where he found inspiration in the intricately carved marble temples of Ranakpur. To step inside his Northeast Portland home and studio—whose walls and ceilings he has painted with vertiginous abstract patterns—is to fall down a rabbit hole into an earlier era when artists were unafraid to be impolitic, eccentric and outrageous.
"I think Monet waterscapes and Art Nouveau were all about dick and pussy," he remarks, "and the decadence of nature." He turns to one of his own wood panels propped against the wall. The piece is called Landscape, and with its lush, botanical imagery, it's a study in organicism and fecundity. He explains that many of his latest paintings were inspired by the lily-flecked alpine lakes he visited last summer in Switzerland. Nature's effulgence speaks to his taste for the decadent, which also comes through in his luxurious gilded panels, gleaming with gold, silver and copper leaf. "I like a sense of excess in art," he says. "I hate the fact that art and design today are so austere and gray and quote-unquote tasteful. I like a Liberace element. I think it would be great if rich people rode around in Rolls-Royces covered with rhinestones."
Don't be misled by Cramer's talk of flash and glitz. He is a disciplined workaholic who routinely sequesters himself for 13-hour stretches, carving and re-carving his wood reliefs with the aid of double-magnification jeweler's goggles and sharpening tools imported from Sweden. His largest works can take up to 450 hours to complete. "The look and content of my carvings is directly related to the time that goes into them. It comes from the beat and hippie movements to slow things down and examine what we're doing. It was about going to ashrams and sitting and just being. Today our culture is too much about doing."
It is one of Cramer's many contradictions that his art is so meditative and calming when viewed from afar, yet so frenetic and jumbled up close. But paradox is part and parcel of this artist, who, despite his peace-and-love talking points, does not identify as a liberal Democrat but as "a libertarian anarchist." It is not uncommon for him to begin a sentence with a reference to Albert Hofmann (the inventor of LSD) and end it praising capitalist philosopher Ayn Rand. And while he calls his affordable figurative sculptures "very populist—making them is sort of my way of not being a snob," he qualifies that his work "is more rarefied and elitist now than it's ever been." These wild polarities fall under what he calls "the big Aquarian umbrella" of the psychedelic era's quest for border dissolution. "I want my art to show people that you don't have to draw big lines in the sand. In that way, my art is like a drug—a drug that I invented for people to hang on their wall and alter their consciousness. You don't need to take LSD; you can just look at my art and get high."
Portrait of Tom Cramer by Gus van Sant
opens at Laura Russo Gallery, 805 NW 21st Ave., 226-2754 on Thursday, Oct. 1. Show closes Oct. 31.