If the Playboy Mansion were plopped down into the forests of Middle-earth and redecorated by Donald Trump, it would probably wind up looking and feeling like Tom Cramer's woodsy, sensual fantasia of a show, New Work. By a kind of aesthetic alchemy, Cramer has wedded pure hedonism with a reverence for art history and a thematic romanticism born of legend and fantasy.
Long known in Portland for his public murals and art cars, the painter and sculptor is at the top of his game in his latest body of work, which is more intricate, varied and materially sumptuous than ever. Abstract sunbursts such as White Star, laden with 24-karat gold, look as if they belong in Fort Knox, while the gilded, blindingly reflective Silver Sunlight would probably set commodity investors' hearts aflutter for sheer precious-metal content.
But Cramer isn't content to rely on flashy effects. He sublimates reflectivity to color and line in the lithe Wahkeena Falls and Morning Glory, organic paeans to the fecundity of nature. In Japanese Garden, Portland, Oregon, he allows a bed of luxuriantly carved mahogany to speak for itself, with only intermittent flecks of metallic overlay. Undulations in carved surfaces have long been a part of the artist's vocabulary, but in this show he takes them to topographical extremes, as in the welling, troughing grooves of World of Fog. And then there are Cramer's vividly colored wood burnings, such as Flashes of Light, which link his obsession with intricate, psychedelic-era patterning with the earlier "mod" period of 1960s design. He takes this stylistic integration and further time-warps it, stopping for inspiration in the distant past of ancient Egyptian funerary masks, then wormholes back around into the luscious, vegetal semi-abstraction of art nouveau.
A Portland native, Cramer is that rare artist who both defies and defines Northwest regionalism. While his work has been nationally reviewed and collected by heavy-hitters such as philanthropist Jordan Schnitzer and Andy Warhol scenester Paige Powell, it remains deeply rooted in the old-growth forests of the Cascades and waterfall-sluiced crevasses of the Columbia River Gorge. Poetic and mysterious despite their gleaming surfaces, his wood-relief carvings and burnings seem to inhale mountain air and exhale the fragrances of trillium, moss and golden chanterelles. They are at once exotic and familiar, and in this masterful exhibition, they show us what indispensable icons they have become within the Northwest's cultural landscape.
SEE IT: New Work is at Laura Russo Gallery, 805 NW 21st Ave., 226-2754. Through June 2.