Storm Tharp's contribution to last year's Oregon Biennial, an untitled floral still life, was one of that exhibition's unmitigated highlights. Almost hidden within its luxuriant oils was a bizarre, bearded face: out of context, creepy, inexplicable and absolutely inspired. The unexpectedness of this haunting semblance in the middle of an otherwise benign floral study—and the juxtaposition of Old-World floral genre painting with an idiomatically postmodern sensibility—elevated the painting into a bracing historico-aesthetic duel.
Now, Tharp presents a solo show titled We Appeal to Heaven at PDX Gallery. The works, all on paper, are technically accomplished but lack the inspired stylistic pastiche that made the artist's Biennial painting such a masterstroke. Essentially variations on the theme of eccentric figuration, the ink, gouache and colored-pencil works are clownish in a manner reminiscent of Tharp's The Prince's Theater in 2003's Core Sample, and grotesque in a way that recalls curator Robert Storr's 2004 SITE Santa Fe Biennial, Our Grotesque. The odd-looking personages populating these works are sad sacks with distorted faces and hairdos: EINSTEIN sports wild fuchsia hair and an orange robe; THE DUKE OF ALBUQUERQUE a mammoth Afro with pigtails in back. THIN ANN looks like an emo Farrah Fawcett, if such a creature is possible; RARE BIRD like BjÖrk outfitted as a geisha, with an architectural necklace in gold leaf. There is much consideration and skill in the contrast between intricately detailed passages and looser sections where inks bleed into paper in dark sfumato puffs.
Ultimately, though, We Appeal to Heaven comes across as a one-note freak show of well-executed gimmickry. Certainly, this is art of a caliber you'd expect to see in the edgiest galleries in Williamsburg or Bergamot Station—which is simultaneously a compliment and put-down. The artist's visual ethos is archetypal and exemplary within the day's reigning Gen X/Y sensibility, owing much to illustration and anime, but that is where its appeal ends. Comparisons to Francis Bacon, scattered liberally through other quadrants of the local arts press, are overstated and off-base. Tharp is an ambitious artist whose Renaissance-man reach sometimes exceeds his grasp. When he critiques disparate paradigms, as he did in the Biennial, he is capable of sumptuous integrations; when he plops himself down in contemporary fads, his fizz goes flat.
925 NW Flanders St., 222-0063. Closes Jan. 27.