One of the basic questions artists face is whether to focus on social, political and spiritual concerns or the narrower purview of their own inner worlds. From antiquity to the Romantic period, artists often deployed human figures as stand-ins for mythological or religious conceits. In more recent times, painters such as Salvador Dalí, Frida Kahlo and Francis Bacon honed their focuses relentlessly inward, leading viewers on often harrowing tours of their own neuroses and psychosexual bugaboos.
Portland-based artist Kris Hargis, a staple at Froelick Gallery since 2002, has tended toward the latter strategy, turning a mirror on his own mind through the prism of self-portraiture. In earlier shows, his weary, sad-sack visages tried too hard to evoke the idea of the artist as a tortured, tragic hero. This undermined his solid technique with an overload of histrionic Sturm und Drang.
Then, two years ago, he undertook a new project, drawing and painting American servicemen and -women who had recently returned from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Opening his blinders from the self to include others, he titled the body of work, tellingly, me and you. Almost overnight his work widened correspondingly, his skill as a renderer finally matched by a vision beyond the solipsistic.
Now, in Vale la Pena (which he translates to mean "worth the pain"), Hargis returns to the self-portrait, informed by this newfound perspective. He reimagines himself as a haggard cowboy in El Vaquero, his open expression and ice-blue eyes inviting viewers to survey their own interior landscapes, even as they conjure the dusty vistas of Mesoamerica and the American West. His self-portrait as an alienlike androgyne, Mi otro Yo, has an eerie, transhumanist quality that recalls the star woman in Piet Mondrian's classic 1911 triptych, Evolution. But the real revelations in Hargis' latest outing are his haunting floral still lifes: desiccated irises and hydrangeas whose petals stretch out like impossibly delicate fingers, reaching for rain that will not fall. In their virtuosic detail, they impress the eye and guide the allusion-seeking brain to the ache of yearning and disappointment. These are tiny masterpieces: blooms from an aesthetic development that took nearly a decade to sprout, and make for Hargis' most affecting show to date.
SEE IT: Kris Hargis' Vale la Pena is at Froelick Gallery, 714 NW Davis St., 222-1142. Through March 2.