Eric Stotik

at Aron Packer, through December 27

Though obviously influenced by surrealism, Eric Stotik’s 22 small paintings at Aron Packer lack the theatricality and quest for shock of most surrealist images. Exquisitely crafted with the kind of precision and detail that recalls northern Renaissance paintings and illuminated manuscripts, these untitled works (mostly paper-on-panel) nevertheless express contradictions and doubt. Though personal and melancholy, their symbolism is often obscure, making this one of the strangest–in the best sense of the word–shows of the year.

One dreamlike work depicts three women seated at a round table set for a meal, with wine in a few glasses but plates, cups, and saucers empty. One woman holds a baby; behind them a fourth adjusts her hair in a mirror. In the left background, heads seem to be pressing into the room’s shallow space. Eight faces are clearly visible, but only the baby looks unmistakably at another person: it seems that, for Stotik, the adult world is characterized by disconnection. That the background heads are larger than those in the foreground further flattens the space and unsettles an already odd scene: if nothing much is happening, why are all these people trying to get in?

The varied headgear in another painting–a crown, a clown hat, a head wrap–adorning some dozen faces arranged vertically suggests comedy and tragedy masks, especially since some of the eyes have no irises. It seems these faces on display symbolize a variety of almost theatrical emotions. Some subjects look surprised, some sad, and some blank–but no one is happy. Another picture shows part of a globe against a blue background, its surface covered with gnarled shapes suggesting land masses, as if this were a planet covered with islands instead of continents. Though these land forms are painted in precise detail, the differences between them seem superficial, and there’s something vaguely depressing about a planet covered with repetitive shapes offering far less variety than is found on earth.

Stotik uses skewed perspectives to create feelings of dislocation. A man at the center of one painting has some sort of breathing tube in his mouth while the face of another just behind him looks sunken and distorted. Factories spewing smoke in the background suggest a reason for the tube. The vertiginous point of view is unsettling: we look down on the men, themselves positioned high above the factories as if on a cliff. But despite the vast distance to the buildings the space seems flat–the viewer doesn’t have the godlike omniscience suggested by northern Renaissance perspectives on figures in landscapes. Ultimately one feels distanced from both figures and from the background.

Stotik takes some of his details from photos–the man with the tube comes from a newspaper shot of a Russian miner. But “no painting is fully copied from a photo,” Stotik says. “Maybe I’ll take one leg, or maybe just the angle or an ear.” Born in 1963 in the rural highlands of Papua New Guinea to American parents who were Lutheran missionaries, Stotik grew up with minimal electricity (what there was came from diesel generators or small hydro plants); there was no phone and no TV, and access to the outside world only via a dirt road. The children of missionaries and natives played together, exploring the land and making things and sometimes witnessing intraclan fights with spears, axes, and rocks. Stotik was sent to boarding school in Australia for high school, and every five years the family was given a full year in the United States. Stotik says the transitions between places made each “seem even stranger and more exotic,” destroying any assumptions he might have made about “normal” life and enhancing his sense of cultural differences. He came here for college, receiving a BFA in 1985 from Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, where he lives today.

Writing in 1996, critic D.K. Row described Stotik’s paintings as “a series of symbolic meditations about displaced experiences”–and it’s likely that childhood transitions inform the strange perspectives in his work. Stotik seems to take his cue from the earliest period of northern Renaissance painting (which he cites as a prime influence), when single-point perspective had not yet been perfected. There’s more than one vanishing point in a painting of a small room with a girl and boy in the foreground. And certain elements–part of a musical keyboard, a bird, a candle, books on a shelf, some sort of machine–hint at symbolic meanings like those attached to the objects in northern Renaissance paintings. The bird evokes nature, the books suggest knowledge, and the background contraption hints at the beginning of the machine age and the ideals of measurement and precision that influence Stotik’s exacting approach. So why does the machine seem to be floating in midair?

Stotik’s imbalances often create tension between his figures and their environment. On either side of the room containing the girl and boy are windows showing nothing but blue sky–it seems they’re trapped at the top of a very narrow building. In another work, one woman seems to support a dark, ill-looking older woman in a crib. But what’s most dramatic here is the contrast between the figures and a window revealing a forest, spectacularly painted in atmospheric perspective. The differences in color and light are pronounced: the blue gray of the window light, which falls on the bottom portions of the crib and the sickly figure, contrasts with the warmer interior light cast on the younger woman’s face. It’s as if these two lights were from two worlds that could never meet.