Dig My Grave on the Spot Where It Lands
New American Art Union, 922 SE Ankeny, through August 27th
After a masterful turn as artistic director of The Resurrectory (Liminal Theater's performance/installation spectacle at the Portland Art Center about serial murders in 19th-century Scotland), Portland artist Gabriel Liston has shifted from a supporting role to take center stage with a solo show at the New American Art Union. The show's title, Dig My Grave on the Spot Where It Lands, suggests that, thematically, this work picks up where the death-obsessed Resurrectory left off, but it's a little trickier than that.
Liston's paintings, which grace canvases as well as a series of 65 wax-sealed editions of Moby Books Illustrated Classics, largely focus on children at play and, in the case of the oil canvases, are bathed in warm colors and radiant light. There is an eerie quality to the works—particularly as the cherubic-faced subjects fade, ghost-like, into the bright pastoral settings they inhabit—but the paintings never project much more than a playful spookiness. In that sense, the work could be said to depict the imagined dreamscapes of children, in which there is always room for the fantastic to erupt amidst the mundane.
Inspired by cairns (piles of stones used as landmarks, often for paths or graves), Liston's paintings erect monuments in the form of gravity-defying hammers and boots, charting the way through places imagined or vaguely remembered. The children in his paintings appear arrested in various poses, what Liston calls "gestures," that seem to similarly function as guideposts to an imagined narrative. In "Proposal for a Gesture to Interrupt a Trophy Cabin," a round-faced little girl draws an inverted arrow to hit some mark the viewer can't see. Her chest fades to transparency, revealing a rolling Mid-Western landscape behind her. It's a strange image, but not especially moving. Liston seems to be balancing an illustrative quality with high production values, creating a distant cousin to what's sealed inside the Moby Books he's painted over. With all the painterly talent he has, it's a shame that this batch of new work, like the children he paints, still has some growing up to do.