Painting Portland

Article excerpt

Byline: Bob Keefer The Register-Guard

As every aspiring art historian quickly discovers on the first day of class, art began somewhere deep in a cave in France when one of the world's first visually literate humans hunkered down in the dark to draw a bison.

Look quickly, though, because if you blink you'll miss the single cave painting slide and, along with it, the next 10 millennia of human culture.

"And then, 10,000 years later, here are the Egyptians!" says Portland painter George Johanson, whose sense of gentle irony travels well even in a long-distance telephone call.

But he's serious about this stuff. Today, Johanson is one of the patriarchs of painting in Oregon.

Six decades ago, the then-young Johanson found he wasn't ready to move on quite so quickly from that slide about the cave art of Lascaux, France. He was a student then at the Museum Art School now the Pacific Northwest College of Art just after World War II. That's where he encountered pictures of the cave paintings.

Those paintings of bulls and horses rattled around his brain during an entire career in art, somehow helping to inform a style of painting that is at once realistic and magical, down to earth and spiritual.

Instead of painting bison, Johanson has spent much of his career creating what he calls a portrait of Portland, the city where he's lived and drawn inspiration for half a century.

"Over the years I've used Portland as a backdrop and as an actor," he said. "I've been painting a portrait of Portland over the years. It's almost entirely out of my head. It's often not literal. It's literal in the sense you can see different bridges in it. But there are whole sections that are all invented. I am making a parallel world."

You can dip into that parallel world starting Tuesday at Karin Clarke Gallery, which is opening a show of Johanson's recent work, including paintings and prints, that will run through May 9.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Downtown Initiative for the Visual Arts will show a newly produced film from Portland Community College about Johanson and his work at 2 p.m. April 25.

Born in 1928 in Seattle, Johanson is considered one of the premier Oregon painters of his generation. The Hallie Ford Museum in Salem put on a retrospective of Johanson's work in 2007. Willamette University art professor Roger Hull curated that exhibit and produced a 126-page catalog titled "George Johanson: Image and Idea."

"Johanson's art is concerned with memory and recollection, dream and fantasy, biography and autobiography, physical and imaginative detachment yet sensual engagement," Hull wrote. "He is engaged by portraiture and self-portraiture. He is engaged by the city of Portland, whose "portrait' he paints and repaints, both in panoramic views and more closely focused scenes of the bus stops, parade routes and parks along the river all occupied by people recreating or waiting to recreate, waiting for life to transpire. He is also the painter of fires that break out in city buildings or spew from volcanoes, and he often sets fire's rampage alongside human lassitude and seeming indifference. …