Wonky PDX Cityscapes — a Review by Sam Underwood

[Ed. note: The following are the images from and a commentary about the wonky cityscapes exhibit shown at the Full Circle Gallery, May, 2011. Sam Underwood is a Portland-born, long-time observer of the city as well as an intelligent observer of paintings. Disclaimer: he’s also related to me.

The paintings have been grouped by the location in which they were painted; the smaller ones were almost all painted on-site (plein air) The groups are set chronologically, earliest to latest. Although 3 of the 4 groupings were done in 2008, it is obvious from the St. Johns grouping (2010, 2011) that I have been continuing to examine the questions raised when the artist returns to sites to paint more.]


The cityscapes below make excellent standalone pieces, but the intricacies and individual quirks of each painting are even more pronounced when the entire collection is viewed at once.

Every group consists of four small paintings and one large painting, where each small painting tackles a portion of the specific area, and the large painting ties the four small paintings together. This system works to ground the viewer squarely in the area to which the paintings relate. You will notice the large paintings seem wonkier than the small ones, because they are a more abstract, feeling-based summary of the four satellite paintings.

When observing each painting, try to imagine the sounds and smells of the sites pictured. As you progress through each painting of each group, this task will become easier and easier. When reaching the fifth piece, it will be impossible for you not to imagine the extraneous sounds, smells, and feelings associated with each place. The richness of the visual plane extends beyond just the visual plane, into unrepresented senses like hearing and smell.


McLoughlin Boulevard Group:

Bike Overpass, McLoughlin Boulevard, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2008

The mental image of this bike overpass near Sellwood is probably not something many people could call to mind on-demand. However, like so many of the paintings in this series, I had an “I know exactly where that is” moment as soon as I laid eyes on it. It’s immediately recognizable, and though the suddenly vibrant splash of red on the bridge (acutely mirrored by the lone red car) grants this painting the “wonkiness” needed to fit in, it’s still a weirdly accurate depiction of the familiar scene.


McLoughlin Boulevard, Evening, 12 x 16″, 2008

Unlike the Bike Overpass, McLoughlin Boulevard, I have no idea where this painting was done. We know where it actually is because of the tidy title, but it really looks as if it could have been painted anywhere. And I like that. It has kind of an old-timey, small town vibe to it, doesn’t it? And don’t overlook the contrast between the sharply angled buildings in the background, and the whimsically contoured trees in the foreground. The trees almost seem to have a personality. To me, it looks as if they are watching over this little yellow neighborhood.

McLoughlin, 7 AM, Oil on masonite, 12 x 16″, 2008

This piece is a great example of how June can make a charming painting out of a scene that would perhaps be unmemorable, bland, or even ugly. In person, this parking lot-building-treeline-telephone-pole mash up would not get a second glance from even the most avid cityscape enthusiast. But this painting has taken all the bore out of the scene and replaced it with, well, wonkiness!

Unavailable (McLoughlin Blvd, Uncompleted draft)

Like each of the paintings in the McLoughlin set, this makes amusing use of the way bright yellow looks next to pretty much any other color. And, like each of the paintings in the set, it has its own unique vibe to it. I don’t know what time of day this takes place, but the long shadows make it feel like the last few hours before the sun sinks below the horizon. It looks like the bittersweet end to a long day of concrete, electricity, and wind in trees.

McLoughlin, Mid-Day, 30 x 40″, Oil on canvas, 2008

This painting has gone through several drafts, and I gotta say – it’s looking its best yet. In a scene this busy, I would have difficulty as a painter making individual elements pop out. In fact, June has told me that in earlier revisions, all the features of the environment had kind of sunk blandly into the background. But in its final version, (pictured here), there’s a keen texture, detail, and style to each of the little objects visible. There’s not any one object that takes visual priority over the rest. It all pops. And, like Bike Overpass, McLoughlin Boulevard (as well as so many others), it’s got an eerie element of accuracy despite the applied wonkiness.

Fremont Bridge Group:

Willamette River, from Front Avenue, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2008

This one manages to be quite interesting while not having a conventional focal point or being crammed with traditional features of beauty. Horizontally, the river cuts straight across the middle of the painting, and is vertically decorated by the watery reflection of – are those…large holding tanks? There’s more vertical action in the form of a chain link fence on the left side of the canvas. These paintings have a very real, very urban feel. There’s no attempt to force things of beauty into the composure. It seems to state that the city, exactly as is, has enough charisma to be art-worthy, even in its raw and natural state.

Condos, beyond the Fremont Bridge, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2008

There’s something very interesting about the perspective here, and the way the yellow road loops about and rises suddenly into the distance. The chosen color palate is also as thoughtful as ever- the light brown of the dried grass and the pavement (and even the paint on the condos) is mirrored subtly in the thick clouds. In all of June’s paintings, the colors are¬† quite elegant without feeling forced or strained.

Fremont Bridge Stanchion, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2008. Unavailable.

There’s an ironic glow to this one. It focuses bluntly on the large industrial gray and mustard yellow stanchion which takes up a large portion of the frame. In its mammoth size, the stanchion completely dwarfs the comically small trees and the river. I very much like the approach of painting what’s there, not what’s conventionally pretty. And there are, after all, many paintings of conventionally beautiful scenes in June’s other painting sets, like the Desert Paintings.

The Fremont Bridge, NW 16th Ave., 16 x 12″, oil on masonite, 2008

Standing under the Fremont bridge, one feels very small. The shapely bridge loses its aesthetic value when viewed from below, and it’s a long way up to the rumbling concrete underbelly. By flipping the orientation of this smaller painting to portrait, June has captured the size of the bridge, relative to the size of a person standing under it.

Interstate, 18 x 36″, oil on canvas, 2008

Arguably the wonkiest of all the paintings in this set, Interstate has interpreted the woefully tangled and stretching plots of freeway as a rollercoaster-esque jumbled mass. It looks like the real I-5 overpass, but with all its features amplified several times. As a child, I remember having a fear of this overpass (though I could never put my finger on why) – and this painting seems to summarize exactly why a child might be scared of such a scene. On a larger scale, I take this as a keen metaphor for the generally congested, twisty, and confusing stretches of roadway that bookend both sides of the river.

SE Alder and 6th Group:

The Melody Ballroom, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2008

My favorite thing about this one is the unbelievably real texture and lighting of the very large tree. It is unusual in this series for one particular object to sit squarely in frame and demand all the viewer’s attention, but I think the tree does its job well here.

The IOOF Building, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2008

With one exception, the SE Alder & 6th set are the only paintings to include people. The people certainly make this scene busier as they scurry from place to place, running errands. One even has a tiny little bicycle. I think the coolest thing, though, is the vibrant red of the IOOF building itself, against the mottled Portland sky.

The US Bank Parking Lot, 23 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2008

Even though these buildings do not appear to conform to normal properties of engineering (they’re wonky!), the way the gray building in the background rises abruptly and without warning over the yellow building in the foreground is so entirely accurate that it’s startling. This gray building has a habit of sticking out prominently from any viewing angle, like the one awkwardly tall person in a group photograph.

The Volunteers of America, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2008

Since so few of these paintings feature people, they are always unexpected and surprising, but seem to fit right in. They certainly look like exactly the people who would inhabit the slightly wonky, colorful, and vibrant Portland pictured in the series. I also love the way the golden building takes up almost the entire frame. I think the interesting composure of objects, in relationship to the viewpoint, is one of the most exciting – and the most wonky – features of the collection.


Circling, SE Alder and 6th, 34 x 36″, oil on canvas, 2009

As is often the case in real life, there are too many cars are here on SE Alder street. So many cars, even, that some of them have to cram into gravity and perspective defying, standing-room-only, parking spots. Purple cars mirror purple buildings and street lights, red cars mirror red buildings and doorways. The odd layout, strange angles, and automobile clutter add to the to the bustling city atmosphere. This painting is like the finale of the Alder series. It combines all the elements of the previous four paintings, and seems to hold them all together.

The St. Johns Bridge Group:

St. Johns Bridge from St Johns, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2011

As summarized in the title, this isn’t a painting of The St. Johns Bridge, but rather, everything one might see when looking toward the bridge and standing in St. Johns. The fence, the buildings, and even the clouds take on as much visual importance as the bridge does.¬† This piece lends a larger, more big picture sense to a set primarily focused on just the bridge itself.

The Portland Pollution Control Lab Park, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2011

The bridge pokes cleverly between the gap in two trees. Its vertical rise, and horizontal run, cut the canvas into four neat quadrants with the fountain splashing charmingly in the foreground.

St. Johns Bridge 2, 16 x 12″, oil on masonite, 2010

Something I love about this one is how little of the ground is visible. There’s some foliage in the shot, so we know that the ground does exist, somewhere. But the tiny visible swatch of grass gives the undeniable impression that the bridge stretches celestially high into the air, like a mountain or a hot air balloon.

St. Johns Bridge 1, 16 x 12″, oil on masonite, 2010

St Johns Bridge 1 employs a similar technique as The Fremont Bridge, NW 16th Ave, where the viewpoint is below the bridge itself, and the underside of the bridge is visible. It makes the metal skeleton of the bridge feel large and impending, and makes the viewer feels small. It almost encourages an “ego-less” viewing; there is the bridge, and only the bridge. There is no viewer.

Our Bridge, Our Park, 40 x 30″, oil on canvas, 2011

In contrast with the somber, serious St Johns Bridge 1 & 2, this piece seems to underscore the entire St Johns set with sudden wonkiness. It’s hard to tell in the picture, but at 40 x 30″, this is the one of the largest canvases in the collection. It feels quite literally like all the St Johns paintings, thoughtfully placed into one massive St Johns arrangement. A much different emotion is evoked from this montage. It’s busy in a way we haven’t seen before in the St Johns set. Suddenly, one realizes that there’s much more than just the bridge. There’s water and sky, pavement and cars, grass and little tiny people. My favorite part is near the middle of the painting, where the bridge seems to disappear endlessly into a round portal of clouds. —

Sam Underwood

2 thoughts on “Wonky PDX Cityscapes — a Review by Sam Underwood

  1. Pingback: Benton, Pollock, and, um, Underwood « June O. Underwood

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