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What's not is

hotTom Cramer goes beyond Picabia and Pop with a display of mature, bold works



There are two wildly different rooms in Tom Cramer's new show of carved and painted wood pieces at the Mark Woolley Gallery.

One room features artistic cabinets, mirrors, carved portraits of animals along with several less-decorative works. The other room is composed entirely of what might be considered Cramer's serious art: carved and painted wooden pieces influenced by the tempered yet ethereal aesthetics of the Far East. These more fully developed works are examples of high artistry rather than appealing fusions of functional design with jaunty decoration.

The work in both rooms was made during the past three years. But their variety captures the evolving contours of this Portland artist's more than two-decade career, a career that is now at a peak.

Cramer has always been tremendously versatile. If you caught last week's series of unprecedented art exhibits at numerous venues throughout the city, Core Sample, several Cramer works were shown at different exhibits. Over the years, he's designed sets for the ballet, made totems and public murals, even turned old cars into moving, four-wheeled artistry.

But despite this protean energy and prolific output, the 43-year-old artist has often been dismissed by some observers as a talented Pop trifle, best exemplified by those cabinets, mirrors and effusive portraits of pets that would brighten a bohemian living room.

But the playful Keith Haring shapes and tie-dye colors of Cramer's earlier years were mere prologue to these more recent serious pieces, his most refined statements ever. Cramer has often been an audacious, bold colorist in the literal sense: He's used yellow, green, black and blue bluntly, sometimes facilely. Now, that bluntness has been sharpened: The gold and silver leaf, the white and muted purples of some of these carvings suggest a more measured sense of adventure -- the artist exercising boldness through technical sophistication, not merely raw, spirited expression.

Many of these works coincide with Cramer's travels to India and the death of a good friend. It would be easy to impose upon them portentous spiritual implication: the artist traveling to the razor's edge in a quest to find meaning and enlightenment, like a W. Somerset Maugham character's pilgrimage far away from his familiar, safe world.

The abstract, slightly obsessive designs of some of the pieces even lend themselves to such interpretation. The galactic vortex created out of multiplying star forms in "Corridor #3: Deep Space Voyage," the seamless merging of industrial Cubist and Constructivist shapes in "Machine Shop," and the paisley slivers and squibbles from a delightful, milk-colored work bearing the same name as Don DeLillo's famous novel "White Noise" suggest evocations of the Infinite or some type of universal symbolism.

In his artist statement Cramer offers fortune cookie nuggets: "I prefer my work to be experienced rather than explained. Be that as it may, I like Picasso's statement that art is what nature is not. My work attempts to deal with what is not. What is, bores me."

This could be the referential rhetoric of a brilliant creative mind or it could be Picabia-esque cafe babble. Or it could be both. Ultimately, what Cramer is saying is that he's still evolving, traveling far within himself.

Those travels have led him to this apex, a summit at midcareer. The once Young Turk now takes his place with a coterie of artists who emerged in the '90s and are now considered among the city's brightest: Michael Brophy, Malia Jensen, and Eric Stotik.

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