Tom Cramer and The Sublime
by Prudence Roberts

Tom Cramer’s recent works have reached a new level of profundity and eloquence. The evidence of his arduous technique—drawing, carving, painting, gilding, and finishing raw blocks of pine and cedar—has all but disappeared beneath the content and sheer beauty of his imagery, and the richness and variety of his palette of colors. Like a dancer whose motions are so fluid that we believe legs were intended to hover effortlessly in high air, Cramer presents us with a similar sort of visual alchemy: his works now seem to embody inner or outer worlds we have perhaps imagined but never before had the power to see. Cramer’s art has always existed in a unique space. Neither relief sculpture nor painting, neither abstract nor figurative, his pieces have an intensity that can evoke the similarly hard-to-define art brut of Jean Dubuffet as well as the refined calligraphies of Mark Tobey’s paintings of the 1940s. Like those two artists, Cramer makes space by filling it. From the dense patterning of his all-over compositions, shapes frequently emerge: organic tendrils, petals, serpentine squiggles, and amoebas. Within the confines of his circles, squares, or rectangles, we sense we are viewing a small piece of a larger and always changing universe. Whether a carved wooden trunk, a totem, a mirror frame, or a gilded panel, his work has a narrative quality, even without representational imagery. Cramer’s concerns, like Tobey’s and Dubuffet’s, are ontological, and political in the most elemental and purest sense of that word. He notes that his new pieces of necessity reflect “the insanity and absurdity of our current social situation.” Yet, paradoxically, he also wants his works to offer an escape from that insanity and provide a vision of euphoria.

The Politics of Experience 2004-5, 43 x 58

As has always been the case, Cramer’s titles are a clue to his current interests. His travels in recent years to Europe and to India have been reflected in both his imagery and his language. But, in the course of making his most recent body of work, Cramer’s journeys have been more intellectual than physical. He has been rereading literature of the 1960s, including the Beats, the poetry of Gary Snyder, and the works of psychiatrist R.D. Laing. The composition entitled The Politics of Experience, for instance, draws its name from Laing’s book, first published in 1967. Cramer, like Dubuffet and Laing, is fascinated by the notion that the states of mind labeled sanity and insanity exist in a continuum: one is the mirror of the other. Laing argued that madness and its manifestations could be seen as part of the human condition, arising from the madness of society. He defined schizophrenia as a coping mechanism and believed that, by giving equal validity to the “abnormal,” one could begin to apprehend the whole and the unknowable: the ultimate meaning of our existence and our place in the cosmos. The Politics of Experience is one of Cramer’s most abstract and challenging compositions. At first glance it appears simple: a rectangular piece with no dominant forms. Underneath the thin gilding, you glimpse a myriad of iridescent, jelly-bean-colored shapes. Then you begin to notice the subtlety of the meticulously modulated carving. From one corner to the next, the surface shifts: the carving becomes more and less shallow and the picture plane accordingly moves in and out of focus, refusing to stay fixed. Modeled shapes all but disappear in the center, where carving is so subtle as to become sgraffito. It’s as if a fine cloud has settled between the viewer and the work, occluding but not fully hiding its details and depths. We see, but we do not and cannot see all.

The effort of contemplation, of attempting to break through this mist, takes us back to Laing’s concerns. In art-historical terms, many of Laing’s ideas might be found in theories of The Sublime, a concept that has been articulated in varying ways for more than 17 centuries. By attempting to depict, describe, or contemplate the ultimate and unknowable, this theory asserts, we—creator or viewer—can transcend our own human limits and catch glimpses of the terrible and awe-inspiring heart of the matter: that which exists in all of us and can be located symbolically in the external world. In the 19th century, artists such as J.M.W. Turner evoked The Sublime in perilous mountain passes, shipwrecks, or the grandeurs of a glorious sunset. In the mid-20th century, Barnett Newman applied the concept to the paintings he and his fellow abstract expressionists were making: “The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete, that can be understood by anyone who will look at it without the nostalgic glasses of history,” he wrote in “The Sublime Is Now.”1 What Newman described is the same quality of revelation that Cramer reaches for in The Politics of Experience: that state of mind where as a viewer one is at once awed and enthralled, enlightened and confounded by one’s knowledge.

But there are other, simpler pleasures to be found as well in this show, in works whose sources lie in “dreams, music, nature in its essence, not being all there,” as Cramer has written. Titles such as Moon Garden, Rajasthan, and Terrarium hint at the exotic colors and lyrical patterns of these possible utopias. While these panels may not plumb the psychological depths of works like The Politics of Experience, they are no less profound in their simplicity and sheer beauty.
Machine Culture breaks that spell. A chilly and elegant array of gears, wheels, pipes, and pistons, the work’s metallic surface evokes the soullessness of a military-industrial complex. A large wheel at the lower right of the panel rears out from the picture plane, thereby establishing spatial depth and suggesting the infinite reaches of this lockstep
mechanical universe. Here, we are viewing the obverse of utopia. Underneath the dull sheen of this image, however, are glimpses of color; vivid reds and peacock greens sprout through the chinks in the armor. Are these colors emblems of the last vestiges of a natural environment? Or do they point toward regeneration?

Comet 2004, 36 x 36
Rajasthan 2004-5, 27 x 21.5

A few years ago, in an interview with Eva Lake, Cramer paraphrased a statement made by German philosopher Martin Heidegger: “It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t matter.” He said of this, “Most people get depressed that it doesn’t matter, but what it really means is that the weight is off.” With this existential relativism as a key, we can turn to Cramer’s Comet. Scientifically, a comet is a frozen mass of ice and gas that vaporizes when it approaches the sun, producing a luminous cloud of particles and a spectacular vapor tail millions of miles in length. Poetically, the sighting of a comet carries with it predictions, omens, magic, and beauty. In Cramer’s ecstatic and mystical vision, we journey to the heart of his comet, drawn to its core through golden bits of matter projected across a sky of heavenly blue. Finally, we have attained The Sublime.

1Quoted in Hershel B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art, p. 553.
Prudence Roberts is an art historian in Portland