The Oregonian


Critical Praise for Tom Cramer

"Risk is necessary--especially for abstraction--and Tom Cramer is one of the few artists who seems to know this on a cellular level. This shows in his latest painted and metal-leafed woodcarvings. Two years ago, Cramer risked everything by changing his style By making a mid-career shift from the diminishing returns of pop media overload to the challenge of spiritualism, he still embraces an inherent newness and a periodic shininess that keeps his art--and consumer culture--honest, valid and vital

Cramer recently visited Egypt, and a lesser artist would have copped the worn and ancient look of artifacts and antiques. But in Cramer's case, the latest painted woodcarvings look nearly newborn. He is no Ozymandious, his Egyptian experience clearly sank in beyond aping surface tension.

Bravo. Youth is a most expense aesthetic currency, and Cramer is generous where most other artists hold back. It suggests he isn't complacent. His painted woodcarvings are best when rough and physical -- a true heir to action painting (think Richard Pousetter Dart) and Paul Klee's maxim of taking a line for a walk.

Works like "Sun 2000" have physical swagger and envelop the viewer with a multitude of similar, yet distinct visual patterns. No social message is necessary; this is reflection and hedonism all in one. Luckily, Cramer's show is not some hackneyed discourse on Zen balance: here is a modern guy who wants the best of both worlds and sometimes gets it.

In other cases he pulls back. An homage to filmmaker Stanley Kubrick's "2001" suffers from slickness. Other less-successful works try to bridge Cramer's earlier pop iconography of stars and hearts, but the risky dialog with his recent past is necessary for his progress.

Abstraction is demanding because, compositionally, it is very easy to repeat oneself.

The less iconographic metal-leafed works offer a much better bridge to his past. Shiny is the new kiddy-pop-rave-culture in "Velvet Voyage".

With this stunner, Cramer proves the impracticality of youth can exist as mature content. "Velvet Voyage" isn't just a mirror ball; it is a connection to the atavistic but structured group behavior found in modern raves and potlatches of yore.

Risky, newborn,rustic,mystic,ancient -- Cramer has addressed most of the things that, although constant in human history, have been passé for the last 30 years.

History is on Cramer's side."

-Jeff Jahn,

"Originally known for carved totems and caricatures, Tom Cramer developed a form of abstraction in painted wood several years ago.

The artist was born and raised in Portland an studied painting and sculpture at Pacific Northwest College of Art. Today he works from his studio in Northeast Portland, creating dense wood reliefs that he carves and paints by hand.

While being very much an artist of the Pacific Northwest, Cramer has been able to translate his concerns into a style not defined by locale. A visit more than a decade ago to the Primitive Modern show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York solidified his interest in Native American art and in art from cultures from all over the world.

Another defining moment was a trip to India two years ago. Upon returning from his trip, he looked for a way to embrace the density and sensory overload he experienced there. Another influence from Indian art is the notion of infinity:compositions that have no clear beginning, middle and end.

Indeed, Cramer uses organic shapes in repetitive ways to express similar ideas. Often minimal in color treatment, many of the new pieces are gilded in gold and silver leaf.

They are reminiscent of patterns found in nature, as if seen through the lens of either a microscope or telescope. The organic shapes repeat their patterns and suggest an endless universe.

Cramer's next major trip was to Egypt, a fitting place when one considers the amount of information that the ancient society put into relief form. Their hieroglyphic writing - essentially, information to be read - has become, of course, our "art". This is a line that Cramer considers gray.

"There's this idea that such art isn't really art because it was used for religion or other propaganda," he says.

"You could then argue that this work here is propaganda for my point of view. Some of the work you could say is 'feel good'. And I think that it is my own political statement, if there is one. It's my own reaction to all this nonstop negativity and ugliness.

"You know how there's fast food. Well, there's a slow-food movement, too, and my work is on a similar mission."

For the 41-year-old Cramer, music is another important inspiration and influence.

"When I listen to music, I see pictures," he says.

He likes the electronic trance music of Klaus Schultz, formerly of Tangerine Dream. Schultz likens music to mental doors that can open to new and different realities. Cramer explores these ideas in his own work and even named two of the pieces in his new show "Mental Doors".

Just as trance music suggests altered states, so does the visual meandering of these carved reliefs. They are experiential rather than committal and allow viewers to participate individually.

The artist says his work in in fact not abstraction al all but rather portraits of space, of both inner an outer private realities."

-Eva Lake, Portland Tribune

"Artist Tom Cramer sets the stage as the American Choreographers Showcase points toward the 21st century. In the last years of the 20th century, popular culture is thriving as high art struggles to survive. Dance impresario James Canfield asks artist Tom Cramer to create the sets for Oregon Ballet Theater's fifth American Choreographers Showcase.

Cramer's vibrantly painted murals and Volkswagen buses, featuring primary colors and heavy black lines reminiscent of the paintings of Fernand Leger, are a familiar sight around town.

But the Showcase marks his first design for ballet - and adds his name to a sterling tradition. The Portland artist, is a graduate of the Pacific Northwest College of Art and also studied at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY He is represented in Portland by Pulliam Deffenbaugh Gallery, and has shown in Seattle, San Francisco, New York, New Orleans and Vancouver, British Columbia.

When Cramer was showing his work in New Orleans in 1992, New York dance agent Alex Dubay saw the possibilities for using his big, brilliantly colored pieces as backdrops for ballets.

Dubay sent letters to several dance companies. In the fall of 1993, Canfield responded, asking Cramer to do a series of drawings for a ballet he had in mind.

"We were excited about each other's ideas, and the project ballooned into a whole night," says Cramer, who had seen some modern dance before starting this project, but had never been to the ballet.

That didn't bother Canfield.

"Tom reflects pop culture," says Oregon Ballet's artistic director. "He uses bright colors, but there is something dark behind them. I wanted to bring his ideas to dance, and his paintings give this year's Showcase a focus, a common thread".

Using studio artists to paint sets and design costumes for dance in not new. What is new is having the set created before the choreography. Cramer has made a series of sets, working extensively with only one of the five choreographers, Canfield, to make a unified theatrical piece.

For Canfield's "Jungle",Cramer has painted costumes directly onto the dancer's body stockings, emulating Picasso painting Lydia Louppkpva's tights for "Parade".

"Jungle will close the show and could become a signature piece for the company. Canfeild sees his dance as a multilevelpeice about tension in the urban jungle of the 90's - dancers as beautiful creatures, human beings functioning in tough environments.

"It's so fast-paced," he says, "you don't breathe until you get to the first big solo."

Cramer's set for this piece is painted in fluorescent colors, featuring objects that transform into other things: An outline of lips becomes a cat, a drum becomes a plant.

This was the hardest thing to do," says Cramer. The size of the scale, 30 by 60 feet, is like painting a basketball court. I couldn't see what I was doing. And the colors are so intense, I got headaches."

Even though he was assisted in the paintings by Polly Robbins, who also works for various theater groups, Cramer found himself with the beginnings if carpal tunnel syndrome from long hours spent painting on the floor.

Cramer preserved completing the set for "Rangs Donnee", Fabrice Lemiere's curtain-raiser, a densely packed dramatic ballet about the urban scene. Says Cramer: "It is the only set that has stayed the same from its original conception".

Cramer's painting is bold and strong, raising the risk that the set will compete for the viewer's eye eye with the dancers. As with all experimental art, no one will really know how it works until it is performed.

But it's a risk worth taking. Ballet finds itself today at the same crossroads it faced when Diaghilev, having introduced Russian classical style to the West, worked to carry it into a new age by taking risks and shaking up the establishment.

Canfield - like only a handful of ballet directors, most of whom work in the Pacific Northwest - is working hard to carry the art form into the next century and the postBalanchine, postmodern age.

Parisian audiences in 1917 were extremely excited by Diaghilev's ballets. Portland audiences in 1995 should feel the same excitement. Oregon Ballet will give 12 performances of the Showcase.

Dance fans have no excuse for missing it."

-Martha Ullman West, Oregonian

"Since his schooling in the early 1980s at the Pacific Northwest College of Art and Brooklyn's Pratt Institute, Tom Cramer has perhaps become Portland's most widely seen artist. An Oregon native, Cramer is a devout populist. He's made custom-painted cars. He's carved sculptures and wall reliefs He's done gallery shows. He even designed the set and costumes for James Canfield's 1995 dance "Jungle" at Oregon Ballet Theatre.

Art Boom '97's cover art, Cramer says, focuses on "the urban aspect of the happens in the city." Into a fabric of dynamic abstract forms, Cramer wove landmarks such as Union Station and the Pearl district's water towers, along with images hinting at all the arts, from painting to ready-mades. The hope, he says, is to show the order and chaos of the scene and evoke the basis of all artmaking: "the hand, the head and the heart."

-Randy Gragg, Oregonian.

Tom Cramer Interview

"Known for combining sculpture and painting, Tom Cramer ventured into a new territory in his latest collection of work shown last month at the Pulliam Deffenbaugh Gallery. Dense in pattern and texture, many of these new pieces are worked in silver and gold leaf. They hint at a rich cosmos of which we all are a part.

EL: Did you start as a sculptor or a painter?

TC: I've been trying to combine the two for a long time. I wanted the kind of work where the more you look the more you see, sort of loosely based on landscape, something out there, something outside of myself.

EL: You're famous for totems. Did that come out of an interest in worldart?

TC: Sometime in the 80's I saw a great show called primitive Modern in New York. The net result of that show was the resolution of combining painting and sculpting which led to totems. Clearly I was influenced by primitive art and now it's East Indian. The art is complex, it's not symmetrical at all. These pieces are are also influenced by East Indian music, the idea of something going on forever.

EL: The gold and silver makes me think of icons even though there are no representational images.

TC: I wanted to get away from representation. I'm trying to visually bring people to another reality. We're all separate but we're all unified and we're all infinite. Death is just the beginning of another reality there's a great quote from Heidegger: "It doesn't matter that it doesn't matter." Most people really get depressed that it doesn't matter but what it really means is that the weight is off.

EL: Your pieces take up very definite parameters but suggest something going on forever.

TC: And do you notice how much better they look in lower light? In India there are museums where there's hardly any light at all. They're really dark and they're great. Very calm. And the people are calm even though they have a lot more to worry about than we do.

-Eva Lake, Ourtown