Tom Cramer: Visual Energy
by Jeff Jahn

Portland is a city full of artists but none is more ubiquitous than Tom Cramer. His funky cars, ballet sets, and totems seem to follow one around the city, but it’s his mature, exquisite, yet unfussy carved wooden reliefs that have won him that most difficult of accomplishments: originality. There is nothing quite like Cramer’s art, with its combination of ancient aesthetics and sublime modernity. Neither distinctly Western nor Eastern, it seems to have roots everywhere, from Indian mandalas to the woodblock prints of Die Brucke. Cramer himself is a singular character, intense and driven. I have known the man for four years and have yet to encounter an awkward silence. His restless, questing relentlessness applies to everything, including favorite subjects like Miles Davis, Martin Heidegger, or electronic music pioneer Klaus Schultz. The force of Cramer’s curiosity is digested and manifested in his art, where it is transferred into physical forms that seem to radiate visual energy as if they were made of some synesthetic radioisotope.

Obscured by Clouds 2005, 18 x 22"

Cramer bridges the gap between the horde of young artists flooding Portland and the now departed stalwarts like Milton Wilson, Louis Bunce, and Clifford Gleason, whose influence was key. Gleason, a student of Ferdinand Léger, made an instant impression on Cramer when he was but 17 years old. Cramer recalls of the meeting, “You could immediately tell he was an artist.” As the story goes, Gleason pointed the way for the younger artist through example.
Through Gleason, Cramer picked up on Léger, Paul Klee, and possibly the Paris school’s élan vital, but these influences took until 1998 to assert themselves in his work. In Cramer’s mature relief work you can see the Léger influence in the oppressive Machine Culture, or the delicate line work and color modulation of Paul Klee in Obscured by Clouds. In the end, though, it’s the richness of experience that makes Cramer’s best works so memorable. In Green Room, the formal flatness of the floral imagery creates tension between the recognizable and the physical reality that resists a pictorial reading. As if to play with this unresolved puzzle, Cramer has included a structure at the bottom of the piece that resembles a pair of antique spectacles. It’s a bon mot about perception, implying that we can’t trust our eyes and our subjective judgment. Instead of being literal, Green Room plays with the relativistic fringes of understanding, and we are left to visually peruse the piece’s modulating greens and grooves. It’s as if our eyes are needles for an old-fashioned turntable and Cramer’s works are records.