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Oregon's Painter Lavadour Exhibits At Venice Biennale


This week in Venice, a Northwest painter is stepping onto the international stage for the 55th Annual Venice Biennale.

It’s a prestigious event in the art world, full of splashy performance spectacles, and it routinely mixes world-class artists with people emerging on the global stage. As April Baer reports, Eastern Oregon Painter James Lavadour will be there.

PDX Contemporary Art

Jane Beebe wasn’t sure what to do when she first got the phone call from Europe.

“I got a call,” she remembers, “saying, ‘we’d like to ask you to propose an artist for ‘Personal Structures.’ “

Beebe’s a gallery owner in Portland. She knew what “Personal Structures” was — an official exhibition of the Venice Biennale — one of the oldest and largest continuous art exhibitions in the world. It’s part World’s Fair, part carnival, and a prime spot to meet influential curators and patrons.

“And then I thought, ‘what artist?’ I want all my artists to do well, all the artists I’m representing.”

Beebe’s gallery, PDX Contemporary, has built a stable of artists from Oregon and other parts of the world. How, she thought, would she choose just one to send to Venice?

In the end, she settled on James Lavadour. The Pendleton painter comes to Portland to see friends, and sometimes flies to New York for other artists’ shows. But the European jet set is not usually his thing.

PDX Contemporary Art

“I don’t do leisure travel really well,” Lavadour says. “I’m at a stage of my life where this is it for me. I’m in my most creative period, this is what I’ve been working for, to be able to spend these next few years painting.”

Lavadour grew up on the Umatilla Reservation. Self-taught, he’s come into his prime as one of the major artists in the region. His large, vividly colored panels of land and sky have been shown in major museums in Portland, Seattle and Tacoma. One of his works hangs in the National Museum of the American Indian.

Beebe says when she thought about who could handle the high-profile exposure of the Biennale, she knew it was Lavadour.

“Jim was ready. He’s got a huge body of work he’s working on all the time. It had been my goal to get him into Europe somehow, and I wasn’t quite sure how to do that. It fit into my long-term goals for him. And he would be ready to step up to the plate.”

PDX Contemporary Art

Beebe asked the curators of the ‘Personal Structures’ exhibition if they thought Lavadour would be a fit for their group, which would be showing at the Palazzo Bembo. That’s a scarlet-colored Gothic building dating back to the 15th century.

Curator Carol Francesca Rolla, from the team that assembled “Personal Structures,” calls it “a very prestigious and very beautiful palazzo facing the Grand Canal. It is the most important canal in Venice.”

In a Skype interview, Rolla says the goal was to pull together works by established names, like Yoko Ono and the German performance artist Hermann Nitsch, alongside lesser-known artists from all over the world. Lavadour’s structural approach to the Oregon landscape, across time, was interesting to the team. 

“It was very important he represent something that is not normally represented, and that we normally don’t know,” Rolla said. “Also one of the things I think interesting in the work, he takes suggestions, and his material from the experience itself.”

For his Biennale exhibition, Lavadour chose the 15 panels he’s been working on for more than a year — it’s called “Tiicham,” which he translates as an affectionate tribal term for “our land.”

“When I work I have 50 paintings in my studio face up, I have these reclining walls. I pick one and do something to it. I work on a whole bunch of paintings at one time. These are part of a larger body of work I’ve been poking at for last couple of years. They sort of just coagulated into an arrangement, a group. They started playing off of one another.

While he couldn’t have known “Tiicham” would been seen on a global stage, Lavadour says he was thrilled with how the piece turned out, in part because he was able to focus and work through his process in about a year and half. When he was younger, he said “Tiicham” would have taken five or 10 years to develop.

Tiicham, the work James Lavadour exhibited in Venice this year.

Tiicham, the work James Lavadour exhibited in Venice this year.

PDX Contemporary Art

Lavadour says he is looking forward to seeing the lavish range of work on display in Venice. There’s an Australian aboriginal painter he’s had his eye on, Sally Gabori. He thinks she might be an interesting fit for his non-profit, called Crow’s Shadow Institute for the Arts. It provides opportunities for Native Americans through workshops and other kinds of artistic development. Where else would Lavadour get the chance to talk to her about paying a visit? But really, he’d just rather be at home.

Lavadour explained, “I feel very vulnerable to time right now. I feel like I’m trying to get as much done painting-wise, it is my mission in life, while I can. I’ve still got some juice left. But time is fast. I’m not a fatalist, just trying to get something done.”

This week, he’s making time, for Venice. Lavadour’s work will be on display at the Palazzo Bembo until November 24.

To learn more about James Lavadour, watch our Oregon Art Beat profile.

James Lavadour Oregon Venice Biennale

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Painter James Lavadour

James Lavadour paints abstract landscapes. Following parallels with the properties of the natural world, earth and geology with that of paint and the layering or removal of paint, Lavadour's work reflects his deep relationship to the earth and landscape of eastern Oregon and at the same time his continuous curiosity with the painting process.