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The art of erosion

James Lavadour on the beauty of water stains



When James Lavadour was a child growing up on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in eastern Oregon in the 1950s, he would lie in bed and stare up at the stained and peeling ceiling of his grandmother's house. That worn and warped surface, he says, was his Sistine Chapel: a thing of reverence, contemplation and mystery. He studied the cracks and water marks and imperfections, and he saw in them "spaces and other worlds, vistas and other places that were incredible." He saw in that humble surface a profound and beautiful work of art, and he discovered the organic and idiosyncratic way of painting that has led him, by a difficult and indirect route, to his place as one of the most exciting and well-regarded artists currently working in the Pacific Northwest.

When you see Horse Stories, the ongoing exhibition of his recent work at the Missoula Art Museum, you'll see bright, kinetic paintings often composed of multiple panels and you will discover in them the shapes of familiar landscapes. You'll see stark mountains and big skies and vibrant valleys. You will see what isn't there. "I don't depict landscape," Lavadour emphatically tells me from his studio on the Umatilla Reservation, via cell phone, "and I don't see painting as a representation of something."

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  • A detail from James Lavadour’s piece “Deep Moon,” from his exhibit Horse Stories.

When you see his paintings, you'll do what Lavadour did in his grandmother's house: construct images from naturally occurring abstractions. "We have the capacity to look at things, like a water stain," he says, "and see other properties of the water stain. The way it spreads and makes a ring. And that's according to how much moisture is in that, because the moisture always keeps the outer ring. That's where the pigment is spreading to. So it's lighter in the middle and darker on the edges. That's one property of the pigment and that's an organic event. And yet when we look at it, our brain tries to see something in that. We see spaces or objects or movement or whatever. It's like when we're looking at clouds. And the reason is that everything's made out of the same stuff. The same molecules, the same everything, the same atoms. The same thing that's in the paint is in the land. The same processes. So what's being displayed are these processes that are not representations but they're actual events—in paint."

Nature happens slowly and chaotically—and so do Lavadour's paintings. Many of the works in Horse Stories took 12 years to make and are the outcome of steady, repetitive labor. He wakes up at 3 a.m. and works all day on dozens of paintings at once, he says, adding and subtracting innumerable coats of paint. In this way, they accrete like land: one layer of paint at a time; always subject to erosion and disruption.

"And those are layers that represent individual points in time and space," he says, "because they're all done at different times, one on top of the other on top of the other on top of the other on top of the other throughout the years." Lavadour then interrupts this accumulation. "I coat the entire thing in, say, red and then I scrape it or wash it or wipe it away in some very fast, inarticulate kind of fashion, so what happens here is an organic event. ... It's not an effort on my part to make it be something, like a depiction of something, but it is something. The movement of your hand and the way your body moves is the same way the land is, in a different time frame. ... In that action, there is a microcosm of the world. ... The erosion, hydrology, sedimentation, flow—all that stuff. So when you look at it, your brain starts to fill in the pieces and you see the land."

Lavadour makes works that are at once abstractions of pigment, figurative representations of the Western landscape and accounts of the way nature works. But for all of their complexity and all of the lofty ideas behind their making, the paintings of Horse Stories are mostly remarkable for how beautiful and inviting they are. He allows us to uncover a world we've never noticed.

"The whole purpose of art is to look into the great unknown," Lavadour says. "It's standing out in front of you, a big blank canvas, and you're supposed to jump in there and bring back gems of knowledge and wisdom that are conducive to the upliftment of the spirit of humanity. That's the purpose of it, I believe. Art is a way of knowing the world."

The First Friday artist reception for James Lavadour's Horse Stories kicks off at MAM Friday, April 6, from 5 to 8 PM, with a talk from Lavadour at 7 PM. Free. You can catch a tour and reception with Lavadour and art history critic Rafael Chacón Saturday at 1 PM. Free.

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