When Nell Warren debuted at PDX Contemporary Art in last summer's group show, True Bearing, alongside such luminaries as Justine Kurland and Harrell Fletcher, her aesthetic vision fell into two categories. On the one hand, she presented a number of fairly uncomplicated natural scenes, from water rushing around a lone rock to a small stand of poppies. On the other, she pursued vertiginous abstraction in a series of colorless monotypes that, while minimal, revealed a sense of urgency in their primitivism. One print, "Bird's Eye," attempted to reconcile these two divergent impulses. An aerial view of vaguely sketched mountains, forests, and bodies of water, the image literally reels with dynamism—suggesting a headlong tailspin back to earth. And though the Rhode Island School of Design grad and Northwest native returns to the hybridized territory of naturalist painting and mysterious abstraction with her new works in Quandaries, her first solo show at PDX, not even "Bird's Eye" hinted at the dramatic leap forward her painting has taken.
The new body of work is dominated by dizzying aerial perspectives that show just how much the artist has absorbed her surroundings since living in the Columbia River Gorge. For example, "Idyll" is a sumptuous play of undulating lines, which capture the landscape's defining features: the white-capped flow of the river and the spikes and falls of its mountainous terrain. Elsewhere, these natural tableaux are interrupted by overlaid patterns that could be reified weather systems or ornately decorative flights of imagination. In "Din," pod-like forms and longer, winding figures converge, dancing high above the horizon line.
The familiarly dwarfed landscape of "Vestige" is foregrounded by what appears to be a baroque crest: a pair of birds hoists a shield, while curlicue forms spin in mid-air around them. As such, these superimposed images conjure a sense of scale and space at odds with the sprawling geography behind. They could as easily be some protozoan scene as a collision of non-representational forms. That inability to define exactly what Warren is up to in these images is hardly a strike against her rigorously worked canvases. After all, the fact that you can lose yourself in their meticulous construction reveals all you need to know: This is excitingly disorienting art.