Tiichum: James Lavadour

[Originally published by PDX Contemporary Art as a didactic for their booth at the 2016 Seattle Art Fair]

The painter is a conduit, a filter, an intermediary between the world and the work. James Lavadour has always taken this idea to heart, especially when it comes to his understanding of the rolling fields, craggy cliffs, and glinting mountains of his home on the Umatilla Reservation in Eastern Oregon. Exploring this relationship to the natural world in his many-layered abstractions, Lavadour’s life’s work has been a translation of his environment into expressive experiments in saturated color and translucent layers of paint. Each layer marks the artist’s path through time and the relative nature of temporality. Always considering multiple compositions at any given time (sometimes as many as 50 at once), Lavadour’s multi-panel works are perhaps the most revealing illustrations of this time-intensive process. Each layer of media reacts to those around it while also drawing connections to the undulations of neighboring panels.

Premiered at an official exhibition of the 55th Venice Biennale, the monumental Tiichum marks a leap in Lavadour’s career into the global arena. In addition to its European debut, the painting was also a part of Crystal Bridges’ ‘State of the Art’. For that exhibition, Lavadour was one of 102 artists selected from over 10,000 in every region of the United States. Taking this into account along with both a Joan Mitchell Award for painting and a major purchase by the Smithsonian (their largest contemporary Native American purchase up to that point) it is clear that Lavadour is a major American artist on the rise.

Tiichum exists as a testament to the artist’s dedication to painting and his respect for the natural world and his Native American heritage. Often invoking the improvisation of jazz and the freedom of Abstract Expressionism, Lavadour’s work is evocative of both, yet ties closely to the Romantic sublime. Not a landscape painter, but a painter ensconced in the natural world, he channels long walks in the wilderness and the rage of sun on rock faces in each stroke. Speaking about his process, Lavadour intones, “Painting is a model for infinity that allows us to examine our physical reality. It is a process that is happening in real time where every micro-space of surface holds something to discover. Image is merely a framework for the cosmic events made visible. I use landscape horizon, middle ground, foreground because it is what I know from years of hiking and observation of the land around me. Everything that is in the land is in me.” As a translator of experience into visual image, Lavadour touches upon a more universal constant: that human need to give form to the emotions and awe that the wilderness inspires. Amidst the layers of oil and pigment, a vast space resides.