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Joe Thurston
at Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Portland, Oregon
Review by Richard Speer

Joe Thurston's "container" sculpture once more departs from recent carved relief works, just as those abandoned the grotesquely beautiful portraits.

Continuing through March 31, 2012


Joe Thurston’s installation "Nothing Leading Anywhere Any More Except to Nothing" shows the artist to be departing from the wall pieces that made him a well-known name in Northwest art. With this exhibition he embarks on a new journey into sculpture. The show consists of 35 brown-and-black rectangular sculptures made of wood, wood filler, chalk, glue, cork, nails, and bone char. Thurston, recipient of a 2011 Pollock/Krasner grant, calls the sculptures “containers,” and indeed, they look like storage containers or shipping crates. Glued together from smaller pieces, the works are crudely weathered-looking, with no effort to “pretty up” the scars left from their piecemeal construction and rough gluing-together. 


There is no danger these faux shipping crates will be mistaken for Louis Vuitton; they look as if they were sent on a slow boat to China that capsized in a tsunami, then spent a few decades on the ocean floor, only to be hauled up by some salvage team looking for gold doubloons. The artist has laid out the hulking rectangles in intuitive permutations throughout the gallery’s enormous main exhibition space. To venture through them is to walk through an abstracted hedge maze, graveyard, or assembly of monoliths à la Stanley Kubrick’s "2001:  A Space Odyssey." Like the monoliths in that film, these shapes do not easily give up their mysterious origins or implications.


There is, however, quite literally more to Thurston’s containers than meets the eye. Inside each is a single personal effect that was once significant to him for reasons he prefers to keep to himself: a Turkish candelabrum; a pair of reading glasses; a photograph; a book; a child’s signet ring; a lock of hair; a sketchbook; a bottle of Drakkar Noir cologne ...  Now, these erstwhile indispensables lie entombed. If you were to move the pieces, you would hear the items jostling around inside. That's because, at age 41, the artist has taken an inventory of things that once mattered, and perhaps still matter, to him, then boxed them up and offered them for sale, encased inside an objet d’art


The whole enterprise recalls the title of a classic Willie Nelson album: "Who’ll Buy My Memories?" With bittersweet wit, Thurston is toying with the commingling of sentimental value, aesthetic value, and commercial value, as he pits sentimentality against the Buddhist ideal of non-attachment. Freshly arrived at midlife, he seems to ask: Is a ring we wore as a child really essential to who we are today, or is is just so many grams of dust-gathering metal? He leaves us to walk the maze, pondering our own existential questions.


Thurston became known throughout the Northwest in 2002, when he first exhibited grotesquely beautiful portraits of women without any skin, in which the musculature of his sitters’ faces was exposed in a public display of their deepest vulnerabilities. In 2006 he discontinued this work and moved to relief paintings on panel, meticulously carving the outlines of gestural splatters and drips into wooden squares. These paintings jubilantly superimposed high craft atop the spontaneity of Abstract Expressionism. By contrast, the new body of work, begun in 2010, lacks the gestural paintings’ splashy sexiness but does tie into the contemplative gravitas and borderline moroseness of the early female portraits. Make no mistake, "Nothing Leading Anywhere …" is not an easy show to take in. A twisting avenue of mausoleums for the objects that once defined us, it also offers a grim harbinger of where we are all headed. In spite of — no, because of — this, it is one of the most gut-punchingly affecting installations seen in the Northwest in recent memory.

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