Installation view Arm & Arm at PDX Contemporary Art 2008 (photo jeff jahn)
The train of a silken gown wicks up India ink from a bowl on the floor. Six
portraits of Diane Keaton, shifting like spastic film stills, hang in a grid
next to two quietly glowing color field paintings. Across the room is a monumental
series of panels bearing Ruscha-like text: "SIREN SOUND," and "WHOSWHO."
Abutting this arrangement are a lusciously expressive ink portrait and a video
sequence of banal domestic moments tinged with everyday beauty.
Storm Tharp in the studio, October 2008 (photo jeff jahn)
This is "Arm & Arm," Portland artist Storm Tharp's latest solo exhibition,
which opened on November 1st at PDX Gallery. It displays an artist in flux: working
with newfound focus and confidence, but never resting in the comfortable territory
of past success. Tharp is the latest addition to the handful of Portland artists
who exhibit internationally. Moreover, he has the rare status of having earned
this reputation from Oregon, showing repeatedly at PDX
and in local group shows.
Tharp, a native of Ontario, Oregon, has cultivated a solid local following
for his diverse oeuvre encompassing everything from quirky urbane portraiture,
giant sculptural eyelashes, and handmade clothing. Despite shifting media, Tharp
maintains a consistent technical facility (the clothing in the centerpiece installation
of the current exhibition is fastidiously tailored and wearable) and an aesthetic
continuity that owes more to Japonisme and classic cinema than to any regional
Tharp at Galerie
Bertrand & Gruner, Switzerland 2008
Appeal to Heaven," Tharp's last solo offering in Portland
, in 2007, caught
the artist at his most consistent: a gallery of uniformly sized ink portraits
and some peripheral text pieces. It was a successful cementing of his promise,
and many speculated that he'd found 'his thing.' At a solo show that closed last
month at Galerie
Bertrand & Gruner
in Switzerland, as well as a two-person show at Nicole Klagsbrun
in New York this month, Tharp has continued to develop and display
this tangent of his work. But in "Arm & Arm," Tharp ventures into other
realms, exploring a newly intimate and familial conceptual terrain.
Tharp's studio, October 2008 (photo Jeff Jahn)
The show makes me think that Tharp is ready for a bigger space: the works are
large and disparate, and command more room for reflection than even the airy
PDX Contemporary Art can offer. Some of the most beautiful moments arise in the space
between works-the reflection prompted by the urge to create thematic connections-
and I look forward to seeing Tharp's museum debut. The unexpected combination,
in these recent works, of threat and sweetness begins to build an atmosphere
of sunlit noir.
The Dresser (sftkbdp)
When I talked to Storm Tharp at his Southeast Portland studio, he was putting
the final touches on "The Dresser (sftkbdp)," a monumental piece of
furniture flung open to reveal the private lives of a fantasy couple. Dress
shirts, formal wear, and hats fill the wardrobe, which is modeled on a design
by the Austrian Dagobert Peche. A vase of feathers and a text-covered plug of
drywall are among the idiosyncratic details that populate this peephole into
an imaginary relationship.
Smaller cities can be cruel to those who find success. But Tharp's characteristic
affability and charm, along with his sincere work ethic, have won him the admiration
of any Portland artist I've talked to. In a nearby café, Tharp gave me
some insight into his busy creative life, along with some tips about his hometown.
RP: Over the past few years you've gone from being a local artist- showing almost
exclusively in Portland for over fifteen years- to quitting your job at Wieden
and Kennedy to make art full-time. What has this been like?
ST: Well, I've been doing something that I've wanted to do for a long time,
and it feels good to work it out, you know? It's a lot of work.
RP: Was this a sudden choice, like "Hey, I want to take this risk-"
ST: No. I've been working toward this since I was a kid. I always knew that
I'd have to have a job, but I also always knew that I wanted to be an artist.
And not really anything but an artist.
Tharp's studio, October 2008 (photo Jeff Jahn)
Well, when I was younger, I wanted to be a fashion designer. That's probably
the only job that I thought about- that I wanted, but decided not to do. I chose
art over that. I make reference to that inclination in the work I have just
completed. It's an installation of a dresser, and it includes many garments
that I made by hand. I think, on a few levels, that work is about the life I
didn't choose. My life as clothing designer. My life as a married man. Etc
It was really just a matter of time before I developed the courage to walk
away from my job. After college I realized that I was pretty much unemployable.
However, within my BFA, I concentrated on photography. The relationship between
photography and design was clear. Magazine work was interesting to me, and I
spent time at Interview Magazine in 1990. I thought maybe I could be a photo
In 1994, in Portland, creative jobs were few and far between. Or I didn't know
where they were. Wieden and Kennedy was an entity that I had heard about and
I knew that they did a lot of photo-based projects- not just advertising- but
that they had a photo library and stuff like that. I went from working in a
deli to working for them, and that turned into full-blown art direction eleven
But I always pursued art while I was working on paying the rent, so it was
really about just eliminating one thing while keeping the other thing intact.
I still freelance. I still haven't figured out how to make art the lucrative
bread and butter. I don't have the credentials to teach, so advertising work
is not something I take for granted.
I don't know how to quite explain what it's done to me otherwise, though. I
mean, the creative process continues to be like the dark arts, in weird ways.
It's just like a battle, in the studio, to keep myself on top of all of the
doubt, and all of the horrible feelings that come up constantly. Creatively,
I don't feel like my life has changed, but my practice has changed, and it's
still hard. It hasn't made it easier; it's made it harder. But then, that is
kind of contrasted with the opportunities that have presented themselves. And
well, that has also made it harder because you have to work to not
fail at those opportunities. So I've been testing myself to rise to the occasion.
So, if anything, it's been more difficult than ever.
I changed studios in January. I used to work in my garage. So that has been
huge. It's a very fitting space. Except there's no heat. It's very cold in the
RP: Are there aspects of what you were doing at Wieden and Kennedy that are
now finding home in your work?
ST: I used to think I was working with two very different lobes of my brain,
and they were not influencing each other at all. In a relative way, that is
true. The amount of people that you have to impress and to get approval from
in advertising is not anything like working for yourself and being the only
person that gets to decide anything.
But I think I was incorrect, in the past, in saying there was no sort of meiosis.
There apparently was, and I feel it more now than ever. One of the hardest things
to do is to force yourself to conceptualize ideas around advertising, with a
partner, and a larger team approving those ideas. It's embarrassing beyond
can't quite explain to you how hard it is to say that stupid idea, and you have
to say that bad idea to know that is not what you want to do. There is probably
something very beneficial to me, as an artist, to have gone through those exercises
because it does to force me, in my own work, to also say the bad idea.
The part that some people might think would influence me- all the rapid eye
movement and the culture candy- that doesn't work in my studio at all. I like
to find one thing, or maybe just a small entrée of five things, and really
investigate just those things and not worry about all of the other stuff. And
that's very different than advertising. Advertising is about everybody, all
RP: Well this leads to another question: What is your editing or evaluation
process in your work? How do you decide what to present to the world?
ST: Sometimes it's not about the editing. Sometimes it's just about landing
in the right place and you're like (sigh of relief), I love that! But that doesn't
happen very often. More often than not you have to struggle to achieve it.
Tharp's studio, October 2008 (photo Jeff Jahn)
What I find really disturbing is when the artwork begins to have a life of
its own - when I am so freely putting ideas to paper, that I get kind of lost..
Like, "Is this me, or is this not me? Is this a fantasy of me?" I
find myself, on any given day, sort of confused about what it is that is meaningful.
I tend to be somebody that would rather find the right answer than move onto
another task or question or possibility. It's a real problem. So, in this way,
I edit as I go. I think I've been emphasizing, the last five years, to know
who I am, and to edit based on that.
RP: It seems like, at least with your ink portraits, that that would be a really
unforgiving way to work
ST: It is unforgiving. But I found a way to change it.
I'm a big proponent of the right materials. And the right materials for me
are the right kind of paper, and really beautiful ink. The ink is the fun part,
and it gets to do all the great stuff with water. But the paper is like the
foundation. The paper actually does allow me to make corrections.
I discovered in the last year that I can actually take low-grade sandpaper
and erase a mistake. I can't erase a bad idea. But I can erase a mistake. I
kind of like mistakes, you know? But bad ideas
are awful. And that process
is really unforgiving of bad ideas. A bad idea might be painting the entire
background the wrong color. Or giving a character a posture that is wrong and
to correct it involves an unbelievable amount of reconstructive surgery. It
is like oil painting that way; you have to really start over again. But I have
found a way not to have to destroy them. I can re-work them, but only once or
twice. It's nice to know that I can bring the paper back to white.
RP: It seems like there is an element of technical confidence in all of the
media you work in. Do you practice with new media before you begin a project?
Are there materials you would like to use that you haven't tried yet?
ST: I don't practice. Well, I practice in the trajectory of making things.
I dive in and make things, and it's through that making that practice is achieved.
RP: Have you been making videos for a while?
ST: No, I haven't been making videos for a while, and I am not a video maker.
I have made three, and the amount of technical assistance I have needed from
collaborators is pretty substantial. But I love video.
Celluloid history is a big part of what I make: Performances. Becoming a character.
Turning into something
the fantasy of all that. This is like the basis
of every single thing I've made. So, making films would appear to be a logical
step. I've been thinking that the combination of the clothes-making and the
video-making part of the show are just two of the arms of making a movie. And
I wonder if I'm leaning towards that. I hope not. I don't want to make a movie,
a feature movie. But I wonder if that's where it's all going. I'm more interested
in casting a movie, or doing costume design. But directing a movie? No.
But I think that answers your question, in a way. I would like to be better
at making video. Sculpture, in many of its forms, is something I would also
spend more time with. I would probably- I don't know, prefer to spend more time
with oil paints than to work with bronze.
RP: I've heard you mention literary influences before, such as Vladimir Nabokov
and Marilyn Robinson. What are some literary influences that are coming out
in the work you're making now?
ST: Lolita continues to be a huge influence. I had never read it because I
thought I knew it- I thought I'd already been there. I read it less than a year
ago and I completely freaked out. The language of Nabakov is awesome- I was
already aware that he was a wordsmith that way. It's the mirror he holds up
to contemporary society that is just astounding to me. The combination of formal
technique and maniacal storytelling is beyond traditional praise. It's like
I read "The Road," which I thought was really good. I read a book
called "Samedi the Deafness," by Jesse Ball. A really strange book,
but I liked it a lot. I have a really tall stack next to my bed. Huckleberry
Fin is on top. It's not the book for me right now, but I want it to be. I want
it to be like some Velasquez painting, and to make all other books make sense.
But I can't get to it. James Purdy. I want to know about James Purdy. And I
have a biography about Lincoln Kirstein that I think is probably amazing. And
I have the awful, filthy, disgusting Marlon Brando biography that I just open
up to any page and
it's so filthy. It's unbelievable
RP: Your work contains elements of surrealism and also of pop art. But it seems
not to be so grounded in contemporary popular culture as something more nostalgic
or dated. Is there any truth to that assessment? Do you consider yourself to
be making pop art?
Twins at a Funeral, detail (left), 2008
ST: I do. I do think that it's pop art but you're right in that it also isn't.
I don't think that the current popular vernacular is appropriate for the kinds
of portraits that I'm making. If I were to pick a very plain person, that person
might be able to work, because they might look like an August Sander photograph
But I think if my portraits start to become more referential of what we are
I think they would die. I think they would fail. I don't think it would
work. I don't think that's what they are about.
It's not just the past. Sometimes it's a bit of the future. There's a little
bit of the Terry Gilliam quality, of taking something old and making it new
and revitalizing it. David Lynch does it, too. There's a little bit of the future
involved- there's a little bit of something else. It's hard to reference the
now- Britney Spears, or Barrack Obama or Hilary Clinton, or a number of people
that make up our popular consciousness- I don't think that's what my work is
doing. So in that regard I'm not a pop artist.
But if the work is confused as such, I think it's because the portraits look
familiar. And they do reference a certain kind of glamour, a self-conscious
glamour that is very sort of 'magazine-world.' It looks like a presentation
of fashion or tabloid culture, but that's not what they are. It looks like pop
art but it's not.
RP: What keeps you sane when you're doing so much studio work? How do you stay
ST: I like to go running in Forest Park, Monday through Friday. I'm a better
artist and person when I can go running five times a week.
I also enjoy food and I love cooking for my friends so much, and that keeps
me sane. I go to great pains to make things in the kitchen. It could be a day
when the studio was really awful and I would loved to be cooked for, but when
I get the opportunity I'll still want to cook. It's a completely different kind
of pleasure. To concoct something, within a matter of hours, is awesome to me.
I cook a lot.
And friends. I have great friends. I love to be with them. I like to hear about
what they're doing. I like their lives, and it's totally awesome to know really
great people and to be able to leave yourself and be with them for a little
bit. And that's not to say that I don't completely monopolize the conversation
with my life, but I try not to
if I try to be sane and know what's going
on with the world, I hang out with people that have something to tell me about
what they're doing.
So, running, food and friends. That was easy.
And wine. I'm a big wino (laughs).
RP: So you're from Ontario, Oregon. Last time I was there it was during a huge
dust storm, with tumbleweeds and everything, and I just didn't know where to
go. Next time I'm passing through Ontario, what should I do?
ST: The thing I would do in Ontario is go to Burger West.
It's a drive-in. They have this hamburger called the Ranch Hand. It wouldn't
win a hamburger contest or anything, but it's a really peculiar hamburger and
it's really good. Secondly, I'd go to Casa Jaramillo and have tacos and enchiladas.
Third, I'd drive out to Malheur Butte, which is a really beautiful
Not a mountain. It's a butte. It's a strange thing to have a butte. I guess
a butte, geologically, would be like a small mountain?
RP: A flat mountain?
ST: It's not flat. It's a small mountain.
RP: Does 'butte' mean there are no other mountains around it?
ST: Yeah. There's nothing around it. I would go to Malheur Butte. And there's
a big water irrigation pipe that runs across it, that has every single person's
name in graffiti on it, from the past 30 years, and every expletive about who
that person is next to it, including some of my family members.
RP: I was struck by the overall themes of domesticity in your new show. Whereas
the last group of works seemed like a group of strangers (despite familiar attributes)-
a jury panel, perhaps- the work in "Arm in Arm" feels more intimate.
Any thoughts about that?
ST: I'm not sure exactly where that began. I mean, I was making a concerted
effort to think about American culture and how it was moving. And how it was
accelerating yet possibly not improving. American culture has been strange and
unsettling for some time now - but it reached this unavoidable level of absurdity
in the past year. From The War to Brittney Spears. From the feuding Democratic
primaries to the fact that my grandmother has a Facebook account. Polar ice
I was constantly blown away.
There is a palpable hum. A rev.
Granted, these thought are filtered through a personal lens and, in this way,
I automatically started thinking about my loved ones and my family. Almost like
a preservationist with a sense of worry. I wanted to keep things close and take
care as much as I could. In this regard, I began to gravitate towards ideas
about keeping company, family, relationships and disappointments. Amorous love,
loneliness and confusion.
These are thoughts that I have toyed with before in my work - but in the past
I have used them to express a kind of personal dilemma or a spiritual shortcoming.
These thoughts shifted into larger cultural preoccupations as well as domestic,
In a very quiet way, Seurat's
drawing, "Embroidery (The Artist's Mother)
" - had a deep impact
on the way the work came together.
I was on a plane returning home. I had just seen the Seurat Drawings at MoMA.
I was looking out the window listening to a soundtrack featuring a piano solo
- the clouds outside. I thought about my mom. I thought about that drawing.
I felt rather desperate.