James Porter’s abstract panels at the Storefront Gallery, located at 93 Broadway, Kingston, have obvious decorative appeal. The look like prints, with their smooth, incised surfaces, small scale and warm coloration, often in combinations of secondaries – oranges, pinks, lilacs and greens. Their patterned motifs clearly derive from non-Western, indigenous cultures. Yet on careful examination, the artworks reveal themselves to be quite complex; each has a distinct theme, whose wit and inventiveness play with perception, teasing the mind. Their logic relates to forms caught up in a process of transformation. The mysterious energies ever so gently upset the soothing color harmonies and predictability of pattern. In their unexpected twists and turns, the hand-drawn geometries of Porter’s art bear a kinship with the work of Paul Klee.
Like Klee, Porter’s approach is direct and innocent: he applies multiple layers of color over the white paper with pastel, which is then etched out with the nub of a Cross pen (ink removed of course). While in some cases he’ll do a drawing in advance, usually the design is unpremeditated. It’s a process akin to “driving in the fog; where you can only see a little way ahead of you,” he said during a recent visit to the gallery. “You have to trust it will turn out.” Porter decides on a basic theme – such as a large, zygote-like form, diptych or overlapping squares – but his execution of the infill of shapes and lines is like a series of chess moves, done on the spot. His forms are mostly conjured up from his imagination. “I don’t consciously look for symbols,” he said. “The language of shapes and forms naturally announces itself.” This collective language, he added, is universal to humankind, a notion that relates to the title of the show, “Pangea,” which refers to the single, primordial continent that existed on Earth billions of years ago.
Porter’s trust in the creative process is related to his work as a life coach and to his spiritual practice: he lived in an ashram and spent six months in India in the 1980s, followed by a stint studying with a shaman from West Africa. The role of art in indigenous cultures has been an inspiration. “For many native people, art is not separate from life,” he said. “It’s the bridge between the spiritual and every day life, which carries wisdom to help people remember who they are.” One of the most striking pieces is Aquifer, a diptych whose upper half consists of a black pattern of circles roughly arranged in grids on a ground the color of beaten gold; the image of a hand fills the bottom half, depicted in whirly lines on the verge of spinning off into space, as if each was a portal to the cosmos. The hand is immersed in shades of blues, signifying water – an evocation initiatory chambers in ancient Egypt that purportedly could only be reached by swimming underwater, Porter said. Marrow Bone, in two tones of pale pink and cream, is playful yet also iconic, its bone-like, skinny, blunt-edged shapes suggesting both crosses and phalluses. Quilt is a mélange of miniature color fields, each overlapping square having two colors and an incised pattern. Earth from Above was inspired by an aerial view of fields and countryside – though the patchwork of flat patterns in the top left quadrant have been disrupted by chunks of negative space, suggesting an ether-like medium for the biomorphic shapes. Similarly, the teeming, hieroglyph-like forms in My Dance Card Is Full shift from a language of shapes on the lower, purple-toned half of the paper to spindly linear forms in the yellow-colored upper half.