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Issue 215

Storm Tharp’s Cinematic View of Everyday Life

At PDX Contemporary Art, Portland, the artist presents contrasting works on paper that recall Sergei Eisenstein’s theory of montage

BY Bean Gilsdorf in Film , Reviews , US Reviews | 24 SEP 20

Storm Tharp’s latest exhibition, ‘Seeking Fragrance’, portrays a cinematic vision of the world. Twenty-two small-scale works hang evenly around the space like a succession of frames on a filmstrip. Mostly painted in gouache on unframed paper, the works’ compositions often recall camera angles. There’s the full shot in Ladd Ave (2019), depicting a nude man stepping away from an unmade bed toward an open doorway, the image rendered in a hazy blur; the bust shot in Brush in the Emptiness (2020), showing the face, neck and partial hand of a woman mid-speech; and the extreme close-up in Stranger (2020), which focuses on two bearded mouths frozen in a wet kiss. Pieced together, this collection of disparate images simulates a montage – what the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, in his 1949 essay ‘A Dialectic Approach to Film Form’, described as ‘an idea that arises from the collision of independent shots – shots even opposite to one another.’

Storm Tharp
Storm Tharp, Sleeper, 2020, exhibition view, PDX Contemporary Art, Portland. Courtesy: the artist and PDX Contemporary Art, Portland

Here, opposition is not only measured in the distance of Tharp’s camera-eye to his subjects, but also in the myriad styles with which he renders them, from photorealist depictions to dream-like distortions to cartoonish pastiches. Where the three aforementioned paintings adhere to lifelike portrayals, the lines in Omar, Omar (2019) are sketched by applying black ink to wet paper, bleeding along the contours that make up cheekbone and chin. In Sleeper (2020), we can pick out a face crying, tears rolling off the cheeks of a Philip Guston-like figure; these tears recur among the almost-Fauvist planes of Lost Dog (2019) – a loose portrait of a melancholic man. Tharp punctuates this assemblage of figurative images with three abstract, striped paintings: Jyoshiki Maku (Morita-za), Jyoshiki Maku (Ishimura-za) and Jyoshiki Maku (Nakamura-za) (all 2019). These works reference the three-colour stage curtains of Kabuki theatre, a strikingly formalized stagecraft that focuses on baroque aesthetics and lavish costume. The appearance of these three paintings implies a sequence of acts – as though Tharp periodically brings down the curtain on the exhibition and then makes it rise again.

Storm Tharp
Storm Tharp, Lost Dog, 2019, exhibition view, PDX Contemporary Art, Portland. Courtesy: the artist and PDX Contemporary Art, Portland

In addition to the direct references to Japanese theatre, the show also evokes the artificial constructions of cinéma du look, the 1980s French film movement that applied the highly stylized aesthetics of commercial advertising to the unpolished textures of everyday life. Like most film genres, cinéma du look is both window and frame, simultaneously offering access to a world that feels real while drawing attention to the contrived aspects of composition. Tharp’s exhibition statement describes his work’s origins in prosaic terms: ‘Rather than reflecting the grand gesture of life, I’ve been impressed by the mundane: purely visual encounters that make up the day.’ Yet, the trick of cinema is that it imbues its subjects, no matter how ordinary, with significance: the very acts of focusing, cropping and framing direct our relationship as viewers to each subject and invite us to contemplate the life-as-stage discrepancies between being and appearing. The same is true in ‘Seeking Fragrance’: here, style draws attention to itself, inserting a filter between viewer and subject, inhibiting full engrossment in the emotional content of the original moment. In capturing these romantic juxtapositions, and their montage-like interactions, Tharp proffers a glimpse into a world that captivates and alienates in equal measure.

‘Seeking Fragrance’ runs at PDX Contemporary Art, Portland until 26 September 2020. 

Main image: Storm Tharp, Stranger (detail), 2020, installation view, PDX Contemporary Art, Portland. Courtesy: the artist and PDX Contemporary Art, Portland

Bean Gilsdorf is an artist and writer in Portland, USA.