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Up Close And Far Away

South American rain forest provides setting for lush exhibit

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Despite the title, it isn't obvious at first that the rain forests of South America provide the fragile setting for Return to the Rainforest, a series of paintings by Venezuelan artist Fernando Porras currently on display at Noel Gallery. For Porras, the rain forest is a setting but not a literal background; it's a place, and the oils on canvas here need the contextual reference of the tropical vegetation to make sense.

At first, these oils look totally abstract. It takes a few seconds to realize that these combinations of brilliant, overlapping paint actually depict youthful faces hiding within thickets of colorful, dense brush strokes. The faces are brought close-up to make large-scale portraits that push the edges of the picture plane, and push the representation into abstraction.

These are portraits of young people from South America's rain forest, the gentle tribes of Warauno people, living deep inside the delta of the Orinoco River.

Porras paints with a purpose, depicting in a small and personal way, in the words of the gallery press release, "to provide a glimpse into their lives... (revealing) their play and their plight, telling their story with such poignant imagery, that our moment of recognition becomes as vibrant as the paintings themselves."

Does he succeed? In most cases (though not so much in the polyptychs) he does.

The word "forest," especially when paired with the word "rain," usually conjures up thoughts of verdant growth, and the green imagery of lushness, yet Porras paints his pictures in warm tones of red, siena and sometimes with shadowy purples that are almost black. Warm earth colors seem an odd choice of palette for a forest, until we learn that the people depicted -- children and young adults of the Warao people -- are sitting around a campfire.

All is warm in Porras' coloration, and rather than being imposed artificially, his palette reflects the natural hues of fire reflected upon faces as people circle the campfire at night. While the scale and composition of the portraits is odd, the warm coloration soothes the viewer, lulling with a false sense of security.

As the gallery notes point out, the lifestyle and customs of many indigenous groups within the South American rain forest are being threatened by the imposition of industry and technology. Porras reminds us that besides having importance ecologically, rain forests also have cultural significance. They are home for tribes of indigenous people and have been for centuries.

Porras attempts to "contextualize... issues of deforestation and environmental responsibility" through the depiction of young individuals. It's their future that's threatened, and in the paintings their portraits hover precariously between the realms of reality and abstraction. Where reality might affirm, abstraction distorts, and this deliberate ambiguity of the image symbolizes the larger uncertainty of the people's fate.

The format of most of Porras' paintings is square, or near square, though several are vertically positioned rectangles, and sometimes the canvas, as in Kami (36" x 36"), wraps around the stretchers.

Porras uses a brushy style of painting, with a broad brush in some cases, such as Yavinoco (25" x 22"), an earthy and dark portrait. Lisani (44" x 42") also has big brush strokes, with some blue, and thick, fluid paint application. The works are painted with a deeply considered kind of impressionism, almost as if digitized, but with painterly purpose in the brushstroke.

Two lovely faces, Mori (34" x 34") and Little Wari (28.5" x 28.5"), belie the subtext of the exhibition. These paintings dominate our attention to the extent that worries about the rain forest recede to a mere intellectual concern. The smiles are beguiling in these attractive paintings.

In Salt Water Fish in Sweet Water (44" x 44"), the artist uses dark blue, light blue, several other reds besides the main red of the exhibition (which is a rusty warm red), as well as pinks, creams and warm white. This piece illustrates the fluency of movement and the paradox of random chance that propels a school of fish to form a like-minded pack, swirly in shape, orderly, yet bursting with energy that might take off in any direction. Within the midst of this activity, another face forms itself before our eyes.

Porras has shown before at Noel Gallery, and this return exhibit also represents his return visit to the rain forest to paint its people. The artist's visits to the changing rain forest have been nine years apart, and this period of time has witnessed many changes, absolute changes; changes that alter lives. Porras' stated intention, more urgent with the passing of each year, is to create through these works of art "some awareness of the importance of their culture and their plight to keep their customs alive."

Preservation of the rain forests of the earth may seem to be less important in this attenuated time of crisis, but actually, there may never have been a time when it's been more important to show restraint in our damage to the earth.

The stamp of human hand upon the earth is often destructive, and never more so than during a time of war. When the Taliban destroyed giant religious statues carved into the mountain walls of Afghanistan several months ago, even after the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York offered to pay to have them removed and taken to safety, something incredibly disturbing was revealed about these people.

Conservation of our resources -- be they rain forests, art, old buildings, or wild animals and their habitats -- is a hallmark of civilized behavior. But if America (and her allies) engage in a long war to preserve our way of life, the rain forests will be but one of many ecologically sensitive places in the world at risk from neglect, oversight or exploitation for short-term gain.

It's a paradox that if we go to war, some of the first areas of federal protection to diminish will be ecological. Drilling for oil in Alaska will receive a panicked approval, and any actions to preserve the Alaskan wilderness and other ecologically sensitive parts of the environment will be delayed because of the commerce of war.

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