An arc of glossy semi-spheres are loosely configured around the entrance of Savage Art Resources. These seductively colored orbs appear to push out from the wall, violating the boundary that separates gallery from the outside world. It's a fitting introduction to Jacqueline Ehlis' show, at once giving the viewer a playful wink while slyly indulging in formal exploration of the relationship between painting, surface and the white box.
In her current show, entitled Vigor, Ehlis delves further into some of the explorations seen in her previous solo show at Savage's former Pearl District space in 2002. In the excellent DVD that was produced in conjunction with this exhibition, Ehlis poses the question of whether or not paint is a sophisticated enough medium in the 21st century. She eloquently answers this question by embracing a studio practice that is as rigorous conceptually as aesthetically. Ehlis, who is one of the most articulate artists I've encountered in Portland, is masterful at combining the depth of her intensive studio practice with more cerebral content in a way that never fails to deliver immediate visual pleasure. A former student of Dave Hickey at UNLV, Ehlis avoids dwelling on the more conceptual aspects of her work, although I find the depth of her formal investigations to be even more rewarding than her very likeable visual sensibility.
The three series of work installed in the front room all share an interest in breaking down the normal relationships between paint and surface. The six Laughy Taffy works are configured as a vertical column comprised of rectangular panels, each treated with a different color from Ehlis' signature palate of fluorescents. A slab of thickly layered paint is awkwardly mounted atop each panel, extending beyond the edges, but leaving parts of the background panel exposed. Here, the component parts of painting are broken down into the simplest distinctions of paint and ground, taken apart, and reconfigured to emphasize these layerings. The series of Necessary Abstractions on the adjacent wall deny us the pleasures of the Laughy Taffy works, from their satisfyingly sculptural presence to their fluorescent radiance. These six digital photographs document gestural paintings using what we are led to believe is the same set of colors we see in Laughy Taffy. These colors, inadequately rendered through the photographic process, have lost their luminosity and the illusionary mounds of white paint are revealed to be photographic manipulations of light and shadow.
The most extreme example of breaking apart the layers of painting occurs in Ehlis' series of planks, arrangements of freestanding slabs of chalky white paint with Plexiglas and wood, casually leaned against the wall. The separation of surface from grounds is complicated by the insertion of clear, and in some cases fluorescent pink and neon Plexiglas. If these are sculptural equivalents of painting, then the Plexiglas could be imagined as a stand-in for a number of things - pure color, gloss finish, the transformative effect of fluorescent pigment on the surrounding space, or perhaps even some sort of non-material aura.
Works in the back gallery rely on this notion of a painting's aura. Large, airy canvases retain a very gestural touch through their use of layered washes, referencing the hand of the artist more overtly than any other work in the show. A series of sparse canvases with metal appendages make use of a literal aura due to the use of fluorescent paint, as well as the metaphorical aura referenced by titles like Lifted Love, Lifted Emotion and Lifted Universe. While the sculptural metallic sheets literally lift off the canvas, lifted also seems to refer to the notion of transcendence. The reflective metallic surfaces that extend into the gallery space serve as mirrors that capture the image of its surroundings, and sometimes the viewer, involving the artwork, viewer and white box in some sort of abstracted otherworldly communion.