Tom Cramer, September 2009
Somewhat predictably, Tom Cramer's most recent show at Laura Russo Gallery
is his best to date (and it ends October 31st). It is an inventive mixture of
cosmic energy, German Romanticism and hard nosed discipline, which helps make his work both
unique and exquisite. In fact, for at least the last decade Tom Cramer has been
Portland's best selling artist and what's more with his art cars, murals and
totem statuary, no artist is more ubiquitous. Perhaps no artist represents Portland's
character more, being at once both hermetic and brash, Cramer embraces the contradictions
of making "earthier" art that is anything if not transcendent. He's
also a bridge between the Portland artists of the 60's and the latest tidal
wave young émigrés and was way overdue for an interview with PORT. We interviewed him in his North Portland home and here's what Portland's all
but official artist laureate had to say.
Tom Cramer's latest
(showing me around the house)
TC: A guy named Jack Eyerly gave me this Milton
from 1957. As you can see it is slashed up in the bottom. It's because
it was in this beatnik party and somebody go in a fight. So it's been that way
since so I just kept it that way.
JJ: Isn't it weird how wear on antique furniture ads value but damage degrades
the value of artwork
even though it might be part of the art's story and
life after it left the studio? In this case this is a painting utilized by real
beatniks in a fight.
TC: There is a Clifford
JJ: Below that it's...
TC: Walt Curtis
JJ: To start, yours such a fixture in the scene
so lets begin with how
you started as an artist?
TC: If you go way back it begins with my musical background. My mother emphasized
the arts and created an environment where I was surrounded by reproductions
of Picasso, Braque, Klee and Winslow Homer as well. It was in my blood, that
and classical music
and what I found in my early teen years I sort of
plateaued in music and couldn't progress any farther. It was sort of a process
of deduction where art was the area I got the best feedback. So in that way,
I sort of fell into it. I had a really great high school art teacher and eventually
I thought why go to regular college and I went to art school instead (the museum
art school, now PNCA). I didn't really fit into art school though because I
was always willful about doing things my own way.
Milton Wilson, 1957
JJ: So somewhat autodidactic?
TC: Well the one thing I really took away from art school was life drawing
and art history. Everything else you kinda have to figure out on your self or
you can read books. For that reason our school wasn't that big of a deal. When
I went there I was the youngest kid and I still call it The Museum Art School,
not the new name of PNCA. It's become a lot more serious. After the museum school
I went to New York (Pratt) in the early 80's, which had the East Village scene
and all that. By my last year at the Museum School there I kinda got it together
and got straight A's and kinda conformed by actually doing what they wanted me
to do. I'm glad I did because I actually learned a lot of discipline, it was
boot camp. It wasn't fun when I went there, it was rigorous and if you didn't
work you were kicked out. That was when they had all of the old school teachers
like Manuel Izquierdo and George Johanson. The professors were beat generation
and they taught modernism
so I kinda took modernism for granted as a completely
acceptable way of seeing. The result was I never made a distinction between
representational and non representational.
One of Cramer's early totems
JJ: If you grow up with something it stops being so loaded whereas a couple
of generations before you abstraction was almost a crusade by people like Hilla
von Rebay and her involvement in the Guggenheim museum's early days. Then by
the 50's it is everywhere... even in people's kitchen wallpaper patterns. Suddenly,
that becomes the orthodox position and you have to find a new periphery.
TC: That reminds me of a conversation I had a few days ago, where the discussion
was about FDR era art under the WPA. To make a long story short I preferred
the art under the Eisenhower administration. It seemed like the lack of government
involvement and a non allegorical art under Ike (Pollock, Still, de Kooning,
Franz Kline) was a lot more libertine and experimental. It was heavy duty almost
Ayn Randian patronage of the arts, also related to that Frank Lloyd Wright Taliesin
style workshop and self sufficiency that made it so strong. It was pro-elitists
yet paradoxically populist mentality that gave the Eisenhower era. I like those
a room in Cramer's house
JJ: For many the WPA was an age of development that lead to that later era
of triumph for American art. Maybe the Eisenhower era was a time that was hungry
for a very high level of achievement? They were willing to do the work because
they had already been through the depression and WWII. Nobody apologized for
trying to be the greatest artist on earth back then
I'm certain they knew
it was an impossible to define label, but it spurred those artists on. They
were a very serious, even Pollock
maybe especially Pollock because he
really had nothing but art. If you think about Frank Lloyd Wright's patrons,
most of them were not ridiculously wealthy. Instead they were people who had
made a little money and wanted to do something forward thinking.
TC: Just look at Frank Lloyd Wright's series of Usonian houses, it was like
his own private WPA thing. Still a lot of Government sponsored art was bland
and mediocre, a lot of 30's era artists just color me gray and it just sorta
drags me down. 50's art has excitement.
JJ: they were really whip smart back then
for example Bing Crosby. A
lot of people now thing of him as this soft, smooth crooner but if you listen
to his delivery and lyrics he's got an edge. On the surface it's calm and cool
but there's always this deep commentary and tension underneath, his
version of Thanks for the Memory
is emotionally desolate to
the point of going beyond bitterness
. He eats Beck for lunch. All of those
rat pack guys, Dino, Frank, Sammy etc
there was this intensely cutting
sarcasm that went along with being an entertainer. Noir fiction wasn't exactly
TC: not at all, Noir film especially. American filmmaking in the 50's with
Billy wilder and all of the German expressionist films influence American Noir.
And that stuff directly influenced European cinema of the 60's. Bonnie and Clyde
is essentially a remake of a European movie called Gun
from 1948. They were really violent B movies that were low budget
but were graphic, gritty depictions of modern urban life as it really was.
JJ: I think that is where Tarantino has reinvigorated cinema by taking these
low brow grind house genre films and by taking that genre both ultra seriously
as an exercise in cinephile fun he's able to create genius level lowbrow chop
socki kung fu movies like Kill Bill. He's a kick I the pants. Maybe that is
what's wrong with our era, everyone's trying to niche market so much they become
too aware of their constituency rather than challenging viewers. Tarantino asks
viewers to hang in there with him, he doesn't repeat himself. He isn't playing
to people's assumptions.
Wave (detail), 2009
TC: There's a lot to that, I agree that. That's why I was really affected by
an interview with Gary
, he's a native west coast person like me but he's got this great
thing, he rejects this idea of "The Northwest" entirely and he prefers
the term "Pacific Rim." "Northwest" is a Eurocentric term
and really the Chinese, Japanese, and native tribes were much more influential
on the west coast character. Snyder's idea is that people along the pacific
ocean from Baja Mexico to Alaska
then down to Japan, China and Indonesia
etc. share this sort of unifying oceanic mentality, less ably the self. And
related to that he thinks too many people today worry too much about what other
people think about them. Whereas you can isolate yourself and then a whole world
of possibilities can open up for you without the influence of other's expectations.
Paul Klee was into that
hanging out in the Swiss Alps, communing with
I'm skipping around a lot but what I'm getting at is that you are never lonelier
than when you are around people. On the pacific rim of the United States you
can get out into vast natural settings quite quickly.
JJ: I experienced the opposite in New York the other week. If you are constantly
measuring yourself by another person there is a certain existential dissatisfaction
in that mode of being. Whereas in Portland I get the feeling they aren't necessarily
trying to figure out who you are and what you want (it can be draining or you
just act like a rock star and put up a cold reserve). In New York it's like
everyone you interact with is tracking you, though some of them are very nice.
I get that in LA too but its much more relaxed
in San Francisco, Portland
or Seattle there is a license to be yourself. It's the most relaxed in Portland
people like Todd Haynes and Gus Van Sant can wander around without people throwing
scripts, doing impromptu auditions, or ideas for scripts at them constantly.
TC: In a similar vein, Mark Rothko, who is also a Northwest guy really identified
it well. What he thought was horrible about the art world was what he called,
"the competitive arena." In a similar way as I get older I don't want
to be a part of that arena
not that I'm saying I'm better just that I
want to get out of that box. I find it very bland and boring, it's much better
just to work and let that process bring out original ideas.
JJ: If you are calibrating your work for a perceived audience you are hedging
on the work of more established artists
there is always somebody more
established. Also, some artists try to control everything but it's your influences
that control you, you don't control them
so the conscious choice to limit
outside influences is about the only thing you can do. Being too self conscious
is really being too conscious of what others think and it can be paralyzing.
All successful artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers build up some walls
when they have arrived because the din of outside interests can drown out imperatives
that come from within.
TC: That's a good quote, did you just think of that?
TC: I've been thinking along those lines a lot recently. I wonder sometimes
when I'm talking to someone if I'm talking to the prescription drug they are
on or the movie they just saw? People are so permeated with media influences
you have to wonder who the real person is.
JJ: its patterning and persona
you can find out who you really are when
you get acquainted with the rhythms of your own heart, the sound of each breath
and how you respond under pressure. It's kinesthetic, existential and has been
explored in disciplines from eastern civilizations. Conversely, Postmodernism
was sort of about being part of those trends and how we buy into things on a
superficial level (related to globalism and marketing)... but what has invalidated
that outlook is the fact that people can "just unplug." It's why craft
has surged again, it's an engrossing activity. Getting over yourself to find
. It's probably why you do such exhaustive work yourself.
TC: Advertising really came into its own during WWII and then crazy invasive
during the 70's. Most advertising people are extremely talented artists that
simply wanted to make more money. I was pretty good friends with David Kennedy
of Weiden + Kennedy, he was a student of mine. He was a great artist but he
didn't pursue the fine art side
he was almost like Ed Ruscha. Ed Ruscha
was almost like advertising, but he's also almost a Haiku of LA
reductive distillation of life in LA.
Overall I reject the idea of northwest art. If you go to Iowa or Missouri you
can find artists who look a lot like Louis Bunce or Carl Morris. There's this
myth that Northwest art has this look but it doesn't, they are fine artists
of course but those same styles were present everywhere. Grant Wood looks like
Willamette valley. The stuff that does seem regionally unique like Ed Ruscha,
paradoxically often ends up becoming international. Ernst
looks like northwest art; with his alpine scenes
don't have a proprietary claim on trees.
Multicolored Grotto (detail), 2009
JJ: Lets talk about your latest work, each show seems to become ever more detailed
but your latest work, and particularly the wood burnings have this incredibly
rich, burnished color scheme. It isn't as brash tonally like you're more pop
related work, more like an old temple. How would you characterize the new work?
TC: I've gotten to this point that I just accept any subjective interpretation
that others bring to the work. I welcome the big tent interpretation approach.
Some think the work is very pop abstraction, I don't understand that but that's
fine. Other people see this LSD psychedelic 60's stuff
I don't necessarily
think that but I can see how they would think that.
First of all, I don't think it matters how I view them, but I won't evade the
question. I see them as much earthier and more organic and more directly based
on nature than the Woolley era stuff. That era was more related to outer space,
ambient music like Klaus Schultz, Albert Hoffman, RD Lang Timothy Leary and
other early intellectuals that experimented with LSD etc.
I think people tend to view what I'm doing now through the lens of what I was
doing 3-5 years ago. I do the same for other artists so it's fair. I can say
they are both very chaotic or frenetic but at the same time very ambient. These
latest wood burning works are bigger scale than they have ever been before.
Overall to use an orchestral metaphor the last few shows are like a Beethoven
sized 100 piece orchestra but this latest work is Bruckner level 140-160 pieces.
The production levels, especially on the carvings have gotten even more produced.
The analogy for the carvings is that each individual carved form is like a note
and this time around those notes are subjected to even heavier studio production
than before and that has a lot to do with layering. The more you look at this
kind of detailed layering, the more you get out of it.
Another artist who is onto what I'm onto is someone you are very familiar with,
Fritz. I saw her show at NAAU
. Ill just be blunt, I'm just a guy off the
street and I walk in and wonder ,"What is this stuff" but there is
just a little something about it
maybe a insect moves in one corner or
a flash of light that makes you reconsider and realize something else is going
on there. The longer I spent with it the more 3-d and ambient and at the same
time it became more disturbing. Eventually you are experiencing all of the emotions
at the same time. It's fascinating. The viewer has to be discerning to get past
the gate, spend some time and really soak in the experience, but because it
isn't all immediately apparent there is always more. That's what I'm after
getting past the short bumper sticker experience.
This latest work is increasingly interested in validating the viewer's experience,
rather than me controlling the viewer's experience. In other words this latest
work has become less manipulative. It's more Pacific Rim in that it is more
open to interpretation; it's less European and more Asian in character. It's
about enlarging the experience.
You know Bruckner
and Mahler composed all of that stuff in the Alps
they were kind of like
titanic Hindu deities connecting Teutonic mythology to Hinduism and even Buddhism.
It's strange but sometimes when you become extremely ego oriented you become
JJ: If you are not trying to direct the experience the work becomes more porous
to others. There is universality to being generous. Some work gives and gives
and gives like Robert Irwin's Light and space and I feel other work like Luc Tuyman's is all take take take. To be open and generous is almost like a test
TC: I think my work has become more libertarian; I'm not trying to please anyone.
I'm certain there are those who want to dismiss it at decorative and wont look
at it. But if someone doesn't look at it I can't do anything about it.
JJ: That's the luxury of being an established artist. You've done the time,
have a track record and your work is extremely visible with all the cars, ballet sets, murals
and sculptures, not to mention the wall work in peoples private homes. Envy
of that sort of thing is natural.
TC: I believe that insecurity is one of the worst evils in the world
everyone's unique so just be yourself. At one time I was concerned that I couldn't
do portraits because that wouldn't "be my work" and I had a teacher
that disabused me of that idea. He said, "oh no, it's always going to be
your work, no matter what it is you do," and it changed my life.
JJ: Yeah, you just have to be mean what you do by finding the "inner necessity"
of your art
to use Kandinsky's term
TC: I know what you are onto there. To use a classical music again as an example
a lot of people think that Brahms or Rachmaninoff are the most difficult things
to play on Piano
but they aren't
you can cover up things up with
additional embellishments. Mozart is actually the most difficult because there
is no where to hide.
What I'm trying to get at here is that I want my work to look easy, even though
it takes a lot of effort to make them look that polished and ambient. I'm trying
to provide solutions to the crazed world out there
that troubled, apocalyptic
world we tend to live in these days. I'm not interested anymore in reflecting
it; I'm interested in proposing a solution. Maybe that is utopian but it's better
than bringing others down.