James Lavadour: Landscapes of Change

“What does not change / is the will to change,” as the poet Charles Olson said, meaning that, wherever we look, change is fundamental, continuous, and irrevocable. We know this but often forget it in broad prospect as we round our own daily planet.

James Lavadour’s recent paintings are landscapes of such change. Now on view at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University in Salem (February 2-March 30), are several of Lavadour’s large-scale works formed from nine, twelve or fifteen small, intricately-painted panels. The paintings are essentially abstract, and yet in their depths they suggest the great forming cataclysms of the Pacific Northwest: exploding mountains, lava floods, draining seas, massive dragging glaciers and the great Missoula floods that carved the Columbia Basin. These convulsive geologic images are echoed in the painting process visible on the wood surface of the paintings, showing how Lavadour has scraped, dripped and wiped the layers of paint.

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The paintings are astonishingly beautiful. Most of the individual panels range in size from 12 x 18” to 24 x 30,’’ and yet they draw you into what are really monumental landscapes, as if glimpsed through and framed by a car window on a drive up the Columbia Gorge, the mountains, cliffs and falls just out of focus through clouds, mists and rain splatter rendering the view from the window a blear.

The eight-page brochure accompanying the exhibition, “James Lavadour: The Properties of Paint,” by Lavadour and Rebecca J. Dobkins, anthropology professor and curator of Native American art at the museum, provides a great introduction to the show and explains the development of the paintings from the haunting “Scaffold” (2000), to the vibrant, almost too-colorful “Deep Moon” (2004) and “Blanket” (2005), to the most recent “Cache” (2007) and “River” (2007), bringing the work full circle to the muted, evocative ghostliness of the images in “Scaffold.”By “properties” of paint, Lavadour means the physical way he manipulates it to echo the physical forces at work in the Gorge and on the high plateau of eastern Oregon, landscapes familiar to him from growing up in Pendleton and among the native river community on the nearby Umatilla Reservation. But it is not just the flowing water, mass of rock and sedimentary strata. Lavadour also speaks of “interiors” and “architectural structures” that compound the images.

James Lavadour: structures in landscapes (panel from “River”)James Lavadour: structures in landscapes (panel from “River”)

Sure enough, when you return to the images time and again, the familiar landscape mass recedes, and a surface structural element becomes visible on almost every painting. Some are prominent, others merely suggested. Most seem to be accidents of the gestural layering, scraping and dripping. Others seem intentional. All have a ghostly, after-image quality, whether its is the evocation of the monumental concrete dams or navigation locks on the Columbia River, the line of a logging road or pipeline crossing the hill, or the more flimsy, ephemeral fishing platforms or fish drying sheds used by native fishers on the river. Some appear half built, partially framed; others burnt or rusted hulks. In the painting shown above, one of the panels of “River,” the structure has both interior and exterior qualities. The opening in the center between two translucent “walls” frames the view of a distant ridge and pale sky, while another opening on the left frames a darker interior.

The structures in these paintings appear ghostly because they are temporary, of the moment only, there by the grace of Lavadour having withheld one last swipe of the still-wet surface of the painting. Despite this sense of the incidental, almost willy-nilly nature of the painting process, the resulting image is meant to engage us at the level of deep time and long memory. Recall again the cataclysmic explosions and floods of the region’s prehistory. And then more than 10,000 years of uninterrupted aboriginal habitation by the Indians. Native groups thrived for thousands of years in harmony with the fecund and varied environments of the western coast, the central valleys, the Columbia basin, and the high dry plateau in the east. The Native American presence was pervasive even if the impact was relatively light. Then consider the more rapid-fire and heavier-handed exploration and settlement by non-Indians in the nineteenth century: statehood, and the mining, cattle, timber, farming, and railroad frontiers. Then round the corner to the twentieth century, inaugurating political reform, urbanization and industrial growth, so that now the environmental framework is an ecological and economic web, with human action as the most significant factor in environmental change, especially the radical unsettling wrought by construction of the major dams on the Columbia River.

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And yet every drive through the Gorge leaves me feeling that our human presence is small and our works fairly insignificant. Nature’s occasional shocks, such as the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, as well as the recent seasons’ fires, floods and earthquakes, remind us how vulnerable we are. The long view suggests that all man-made structures will disappear, that even the dams, such as The Dalles Dam that flooded Celilo Falls in 1957, will be inched out of the picture. In the millennia of change registered in the geologic strata of the natural landscape, even the dams are puny and ephemeral. What is remarkable is that this long view of memory and history is conveyed by human markings on wood panels hung on the walls of yet another of those human structures.