After showing his work in the 2010 Whitney Biennial, Portland artist Storm Tharp found himself feeling overwhelmed by his moment on the international stage. "It wasn't just a case of 'country mouse,'" says Tharp of his experience—he also has a tendency to "feel embarrassed when [he completes] bodies of work." Upon returning to Portland, Tharp sought to reorient himself by "looking back into moments of art history that are more philosophically based." In this search for philosophical orientation, Tharp created Hercules, an exhibit of paintings and mixed-media works on view at PDX Contemporary Art.

Inspired by painter Agnes Martin's minimalist "grace and confidence in not knowing," while also considering Gibraltar's mountainous Pillars of Hercules (mythologically considered a symbol of perfection, a place with nothing beyond it), Tharp's Hercules delves into the perception of points impassable—those that are unavailable for philosophical improvement.

Fitting, then, are the largest pieces in the show, "Abstract Painter with Peony" and "Abstract Painter with Ginger Pot," which depict Ad Reinhardt sitting at a desk with crossed arms, rendered in Tharp's signature ink-bleeds-turned-portraiture technique. Reinhardt, a mid-20th-century abstract expressionist, famously claimed to have made the world's "last" or "ultimate" paintings when he presented his "black" canvas (literally, a black canvas), erecting his own impassable pillars.

According to Tharp, the subtle differences between the two portraits of Reinhardt create a relationship that "dispels perfection and is emblematic of it," each revealing the other's missteps and refinements—or, more accurately, revealing where chaotic and abstract techniques are tamed for representational ends. Here, Tharp's philosophical arguments begin to take shape: Not that perfection is a balancing of order and chaos, but rather that the relationship between order and chaos is perfectly revealed in the subtle differences present in the two portraits.

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To sharpen his focus on the relationship between objects, Tharp simplifies to non-representational forms. "Vreeland" is two monochromatic panels placed side by side, coated in slightly different shades of very light lavender. Next to the darker panel, the lighter appears white; though without the lighter panel, the darker could also (presumably) pass as colorless. Tharp uses vocal harmonies as a metaphor for the type of relationship "Vreeland" illustrates, saying that people singing harmonies sing "with the quality of what they both cannot be on their own."

While Hercules functions to identify and reveal the harmonious relationships between objects, those objects are often very different, representing many approaches to art and at varying degrees of refinement. Perfection, then, isn't so much one specific type of relationship communicated any single way, but the expository nature of relationships in general. "Perfection is a relationship," says Tharp.