Holding a Peach, Storm Tharp’s exhibition of new paintings and sculptures, is a study in intimacy.
September 24—29th is the final week of Holding a Peach, an exhibition of new paintings and sculptures by Storm Tharp at PDX Contemporary in Portland, Oregon. At a glance, the new work by Mr. Tharp hardly looks to be a radical departure from the old. Upon entering the first room of the gallery, which is hung with 16 paintings, you can see plenty of his trademark ink spills and spidery lines, his light watercolor palette with occasional hints of gold leaf.
In place of the usual portraits, though, one finds paintings filled with an abstract jumble of legs, butts, and chests, with inky hairs and lumpy love handles hanging out. By and large the forms are masculine, the body hair abundant. Wide ribbons of paint allude to boxer and brief waists, sharp blue corners evoke gentlemen’s shirt collars, black bands resembling cod-pieces wrap around fatty flesh. The mish-mash of these elements in paintings like Spring Picture: Athlete could represent an act of love-making (or at least vigorous wrestling), but the parts also adhere together to make a callipygian whole.
This graphic squeezing and reforming of the human body calls to mind the beautiful abstractions of Christina Ramberg, in paintings such as Troubled Sleeve. Like the “figure” in Troubled Sleeve, Tharp’s manly bundles sit squarely in the foreground of his paintings, approaching the edge of the frame. By placing these clumps of bodies touching other bodies and fabric in such a shallow picture plane, Tharp begins to engage the viewer’s sense of touch.
The potent tactile quality of the paintings comes to life in Tharp’s sculptures. In the same room of the gallery as his drawings Grand Odalisque, a set of rectangular, pillow-like sculptures, rests on a low plinth. Leaning together in two relaxed piles, they recall the many lazy bodies of art from Titian to Ingres, Matisse to Freud. On one side—or sometimes only in one narrow section—each pillow has been printed with a photograph of the deep, peachy skin and curly black hair of (one imagines) Storm Tharp’s own body. The verso side of each pillow is made of cotton that he hand-dyed using shibori, a Japanese folding technique.
In the second room of the gallery, there are six sculptures, each isolated in its own specially built vitrine—an echo of the way the organic shapes in the paintings were framed by straight, architectural lines. It’s as if Tharp’s paintings have stepped through the looking glass into the 3-dimensional realm: Tharp has sewed cut-out fabric shapes into muscular, human-esque forms.
These are quite varied and complex. In some, cast bronze lumps resembling phalluses rest on what could be shoulders, hips, or thighs—or, of course, the corner of a comforter or a pile of crumpled clothes. In addition to using his shibori-dyed fabric, Tharp has employed some strips of the fabric his paintings must originally have been modeled on; an array of terry-cloth, plaids, and pinstripes that suggest various states of dress and undress.
There is something both intellectually satisfying and physically generous about Storm Tharp’s finely composed (and cleverly juxtaposed) materials: the richly colored, sharply defined photograph sewn to the airy watercolor is at once a poignant representation of human touch and an object that beckons the touch of any passerby. These works paint a picture of intimacy that anyone could relate to, yet their bear-ish charm remains specific to a certain quadrant of gay culture. Somehow Storm Tharp has managed to pull of the difficult trick of making exuberant, sex-positive work that’s both nimble and deeply felt.
Holding a Peach is on view at PDX Contemporary Art through Saturday, September 29, 2012. The gallery is located at 925 NW Flanders,Portland, Oregon. Hours are 11–6pm, Tuesday–Saturday
Emilie Selden is a sculptor and the art editor for BOMBlog. She lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.