Anna Fidler established a presence in Portland over a decade ago with fanciful abstract paintings and cut-paper collages inspired by forms in nature. Recently she impressed viewers with a hugely ambitious exhibition, “The Game,” celebrating Portland’s professional basketball team, the Trail Blazers. Of the 20 drawings on view (all 2009), some as large as 9 by 6 feet, a dozen were portraits in a dizzying array of mixed mediums. Though recognizable to fans as Nicolas Batum, Martell Webster and others, these icons transcend likeness with startling passages of abstract decorative detail. The format recalls the head shots sometimes used on trading cards; sitters’ expressions vary from deadpan (Przybilla) to friendly (Traded Sergio) to brooding (Rudy). Hauntingly strange, the faces are pink, robin’s-egg blue, mint or olive green, composed of pointillist patches, obsessive hatching and repetitive lines. The heads morph into spectral masks, racially indeterminate, even ghoulish, as Steve Blake’s grin becomes satanic and LaMarcus Aldridge’s face turns zombielike with transfixed, pale-blue eyes and piercing black pupils.
In Fantasy Basketball, a translucent gray Blazer lunges, mid-dribble, before his electric blue rival, who rears back, arms aloft. Fidler casts the spectators in the background as a horde of Halloween ghosts in orange, black and white; one almost hears their howls. The energetic star in Oden Dunking, dangling from the hoop, could be a surrogate for Fidler herself: both athlete and artist here engage in a dazzling bravura display. In Rasheed with Mics, Fidler depicts a dumbfounded celebrity amid a forest of microphones ready to broadcast his every utterance, profound or banal. Surprisingly moving, Injured Brandon Roy shows Number 7 lying on his side, gently caressed by his kneeling coach. In another context, the fallen figure could be a casualty of war, and indeed the works in this exhibition, with their heroic proportions, seem like a species of history painting for our time.
Given the originality of Fidler’s project, it’s hard to find comparable artistic treatments of her theme. Paul Pfeiffer’s videos and computer-generated images of Michael Jordan, which grapple with celebrity and spectacle, seem akin to Fidler’s enterprise. One thinks, too, of LeRoy Neiman’s market-friendly screenprints of Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal or of Jeff Koons’s appropriations of Nike posters featuring Darrell Griffith and Moses Malone. Absent among these precedents are Fidler’s spirited formal and coloristic transformations, ambitious scale and seductively sensuous surfaces. She holds exaltation and irony in intriguing tension, thrilling to the sport and its attendant rituals, yet marveling simultaneously at the sheer insanity of it all.
Photo: Anna Fidler: LA (LaMarcus Aldridge), 2009, pastel, acrylic and colored pencil on paper, 26 by 20 inches; at Disjecta.