Stroll through Portland artist Robert R. Dozono’s debut show at Francine Seders Gallery, “Clackamas River Series,” and you’ll find some big sylvan scenes on paper, smoothly and expertly done in charcoal, ink wash and/or watercolor.
They seem straightforwardly titled — “Upper Clackamas #6,” “Upper Clackamas #8,” etc. — until you get to an oil-on-canvas treatment of the same scene, called “No Garbage #3 (Upper Clackamas #12) .”
Garbage? Who said anything about garbage?
The words hint that there’s more going on here than meets the eye. And if you look around the gallery at the huge, irregularly shaped, oddly 3-D canvases that make up the rest of the show, you’ll soon figure out what it is.
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They’re not just oil-on-canvas depictions of pristine river scenes. They’re oil and garbage on canvas. And there’s a story behind them.
Dozono, at the gallery last week for the show’s opening, was happy to explain it.
In 1991, he says, he canceled his regular garbage pickup and began siphoning his household waste — toothbrushes, candy wrappers, plastic bottles and much more — into his art.
“I started doing it,” he says, “because it bothered me that we couldn’t recycle many of the plastic items.”
Steering his non-recyclable garbage away from landfills and onto some of his canvases produced terrific aesthetic results. Step back 20 feet from one of his “garbage” paintings, and all you’ll see is that his rendering of his mountain Arcadia is unusually rich in texture. A plastic jug mysteriously becomes a painted boulder rising above a babbling stream. White plastic spoons transform into white water.
In the 20-odd years he’s been making “garbage” paintings, his work has evolved in tandem with Portland’s recycling practices. His older “garbage” paintings, he says, were a lot more three-dimensional because they included larger containers that recycling companies wouldn’t accept.
“You’d have a gallon jug or something. But now you can get rid of most of those.”
Dozono has glued shoes, hair dryers, ski bindings and other large items to his canvases, then painted over them. But weight can be a problem.
“If it’s too heavy,” he points out, “eventually it might come off.”
The litany of items that make it into his “garbage” paintings is astonishing: empty prescription pill bottles, squeezed-out toothpaste tubes, an expired credit card, a pair of old sunglasses, discarded paintbrushes, used-up sponges, rubber bands, razor cartridges, jar lids and, most hilariously, laminated bumper stickers from Greenpeace and the Sierra Club — all those plastic, foil or metal items that aren’t clearly covered in the recycling instructions of eco-conscious municipalities.
Dozono’s recycling efforts aren’t confined to his home. On his hikes and fishing expeditions up the Clackamas River, southeast of Portland, he’ll pick up any garbage he finds along the river banks and carry it the five or six miles back to the trailhead to dispose of. That garbage, however, doesn’t go onto his canvases. After all, he has enough to cope with, given all the waste his household produces.
In his studio, he says, he has “boxes and boxes” of garbage he’s accumulated: “So I’m thinking about making a sculpture out of it. Because otherwise, it doesn’t matter how many big paintings you do — you can’t get rid of enough.”
Why does he still do straight drawings, watercolors and oil paintings along with his “garbage” paintings?
Because it takes more time and energy to work with garbage, he says.
“If I don’t put garbage on, it’s much easier to paint, really, right? Also: I need to practice without garbage,” he says modestly, referring to his longtime role as an art teacher (now retired).
“When I’m teaching painting class,” he explains, “I’m not teaching people to paint on garbage. I’m teaching people how to paint, right? So I have to practice that too.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org