Native Spirits
Walt Curtis
Mark Woolley Gallery
120 NW 9th, 224-5475

Also Showing: Recent Paintings by Anne Grgich
Through July 28

For most of his life, Walt Curtis has held a pen in one hand and paintbrush in the other. He has written several volumes of poetry, and also achieved a high level of notoriety when his novella Mala Noche became the basis for Gus Van Sant's first film. Curtis has hosted KBOO's Talking Earth poetry show for 30 years. And all the while, he has kicked out an impressive number of paintings and drawings. As a result, the 60-year-old Oregon native has become a mainstay of the local art and literature scenes. Curtis' current exhibit, Native Spirits, illuminates his appreciation of Northwest Native American culture and mythology.

From the get go, Curtis' style presents viewers with a bit of a challenge. His work operates outside of easy-to-consume, mainstream painting. Curtis mingles within Primitivist circles, a movement that steers away from representation and favors symbolic, child-like rendering, and a bold, uncomplicated palette. For some viewers, this aesthetic is difficult to appreciate. The response to his work is often, My KID could do better than that. Maybe so. But Curtis appears quite self-assured and at home with his creations... As a primitive artist, he writes, "I know that my spirit exists now yet will be weathered and worn away. I am not mimicking traditional art or artists. I feel inspired by the ancient and mysterious symbols which come out of this place where we all live."

Of course, all this talk doesn't amount to a hill of beans if the work is not compelling. In Native Spirits, Curtis gets there at points. His paintings immediately read as quick gestures: "I need to get something down really, really fast," Curtis writes, "then I can work on it for a day or two, but I really don't like to go on forever with a painting. There's just a kind of urgency to get it done." This fast pace produces thin paintings, in which the pigment doesn't hide the rough, wood surface below. While this is not an exquisite move, the evidence of untreated surfaces does seem appropriate for Curtis's impulses. His figures are crudely rendered and nearly comical. They ride beasts, swim with fish in rivers, or are locked in embrace. In "Tsagiglalal" (She Who Watches), Curtis pays tribute to a famous Columbia River petroglyph--an image that he suggests "guards over the Columbia River and its ecosystem." On a rough square of plywood, he depicts a brown, bear-like form, surrounded by halo bands of red and yellow. In the background, Curtis includes a small depiction of a mountain and lake. In the foreground, four tiny, skeletal figures peek at the viewer. Curtis includes a text component alongside the work. He writes, Mean old woman at Wishram / Who looked down on the people. / Loping By, Coyote stopped / Questioned your power / Transforming you into a stone face / Painted reddish brown, with / Double circle eyes. / Each day you glower at Amtrak / as it passes, awaiting / The cataclysm which / will end the modern world- / Bursting The Dalles dam, / Releasing drowned Celilo. / Perhaps then, the great salmon / Runs will return and women / Will again be the chiefs.

As a package deal, Curtis' words and painting are compelling. He draws on the power of the mythology and the political issues plaguing the Oregon environment. Ultimately, however, his words are somehow more complete than his visual description. Perhaps his pen is simply overpowers his paintbrush. But in any case, Curtis' voice is heard and is not going away.