After three solo exhibitions at the Mark Woolley Gallery, Portland artist Joe Thurston has moved on to his first show at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery. And apparently he has left his signature style behind, too. Where Thurston's previous body of work was dominated by figurative, folksy portraits, the paintings in Then, Quite Suddenly, We Were Simply No Longer Anywhere are painstakingly crafted relief paintings that shed representation for sensuous abstraction.
In a nearly meditative manner, each painting presents a variation on a single theme: An unpredictably shaped splash of solid color hovers on the surface, surrounded by a vortex of uniform divots carved into the wood panel. In Thurston's approach to relief painting, the disparity between the seeming spontaneity of the forms and the highly controlled process used to create them also charges the works with palpable tension. The foregrounded forms appear to be the chance product of some Pollock-esque action painting. In fact, they are evenly painted, in hues that range from natural and earthen to shockingly vibrant, and tidily outlined in black. So as Thurston meticulously recreates the accidental contours created by paint that has been spilled, spattered, or dripped, his calculated execution masquerades as chaos.
And though these ecstatic abstracts do not seem to point beyond their own formal properties, they nonetheless conjure a host of natural phenomena. As a long splash of orange is surrounded by blue in "Marked," a viewer can't help but see an aerial depiction of some undiscovered island chain. The fiery burst of "Apparently No Truth" calls to mind some astral explosion, whether solar flare or supernova. "Correspondence," on the other hand, seems to reduce things to a microscopic level. Overlapping robin's egg blue and olive green forms, the panel seems to document the secret lives of two amoebas, while showcasing Thurston's gorgeous color pairings.
While these biomorphic interpretations inevitably surface, these abstract works reveal the true calling of an artist who has spent the majority of his career as a figurative painter. So contrary to the exhibition's title, Thurston's formal explorations, quite suddenly and simply, have taken him somewhere, indeed.