Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Richard Hull at Western Exhibitions

Ridiculous Mirror

It’s always been hard to look at the fantastic imagery of Richard Hull and not think about the Chicago Imagists who preceded him at the School of the Art Institute by about a decade. His work is typically humorous, defiant, precise, and cheerfully wacky. It has the cranky obsessiveness of a self-taught outsider and the aggressive lines and colors of comic books. In most of his forty year career, however, he has not represented the human figure. He has been called an “abstract imagist”

In many ways, the paintings in this exhibition are not much different from previous work. They still have the flattened, bulbous eruptions of linear protoplasm. But nothing is left of the architectural space suggested in early paintings, and by packaging his forms within a basic shape that resembles a head and shoulders, the viewer is now confronted by portraits of human beings. So now we have a moral content that may be queried. What kind of people are these? Are they to be loved, feared, trusted, helped, obeyed, admired ? As with most of the people represented by the Imagists – they do not appear to be responsible adults. They’re all nut cases – unaware of any world outside their own perseverating mind. They’re caught up in some kind of twisted mental process or an alternative reality with a few too many dimensions. Perhaps they are pondering one of the classic mathematical problems that have bedeviled great minds for centuries. The artist tells us that this series was inspired by the Klein bottle – a nineteenth century topographical construction that defies a conventional understanding of three dimensional space.

The main gallery of the exhibition is rather intense. The viewer is confronted by the same wacko psychology on every wall, as well as rising from the floor as freestanding “mirrors”, painted on both sides. Rather than presenting a human image for contemplation – it’s as if the inner workings of a disturbed mind was bubbling out from a gate to another world - like the monsters that pop out from every dark corner of a carnival fun house. The viewer is immersed in the endless loop of the artist’s repetitive cogitation. The work is intense in close-up detail, as well, with painted surfaces that often feel teased, tormented, and reworked many times.

You can feel the careful consideration given to balancing shapes and colors, and there is a variety of emotion from the black/yellow anger of “Joan of Arc” to the green/red contentment of “Arrived”. Even without any sharp angles, it has a strong, assertive appeal. None of these portraits, however, seem to represent anyone who is compassionate or rational. And there is no sense that the space outside each figure has been taken into consideration. It’s just whatever the inner turmoil has left unfilled. As a group of paintings, it’s fun and exciting. But as a group of the people they might represent, it would be a bunch of high energy psychotics – which is how so many other prominent Chicago artists of our time have viewed humanity. Hopefully, someday we’ll see Hull’s portraits hung side-by-side with similar portraits by Nutt, Rossi, Pyle, and Wirsum. Even more hopefully, however, let there come a day when more Chicago artists, like Kerry James Marshall, offer a positive vision of humanity. If we all accept ourselves as crazy monsters, there’s not much incentive to improve behavior.

Martin Hurtig at UIMA

Complexities and  Contradictions (1966)

There are five distinct styles of abstract painting in this retrospective of Martin Hurtig (b. 1929) spanning the last four decades of the twentieth century. The earliest piece, dating to 1963, is so typical of the gestural abstract expression of the previous decade, it might even have been intended to exemplify it. There is struggle, passion, and frustration as a grand, serpentine gesture culminates beneath a thick red X. Whether or not that meant that the artist was finished with making heroic gestures, we certainly don’t see any more in this exhibit. In the next piece, “Complexities and Contradictions” (1966) we see broad calligraphic strokes and squiggles dancing above a pattern of floating rectangles of solid color. It’s decorative and balletic; and it might remind us that the artist was trained at IIT’s Institute of Design in the 1950’s. In all the paintings that follow, painterly self expression will continue to complement, or perhaps compete, with the geo-form design of modern architecture.

In some untitled acrylic paintings from the seventies, a flat rectangle of solid color ( red, green, or white) emerges from one side of the panel and nearly reaches the other. The margins fight back with strong colors and arbitrary edges, but clearly the battle is being lost. Then, the geometric-forms leave the painting altogether and re-emerge as sculpture. The plexiglass constructions that hang from the wall resemble architectural models for office cubicles. The freestanding pieces block out their space on the floor with aggressive, sharp angles. Be careful! If you stumble into one, it could do some damage. Be especially careful of the waist high aluminum trapezoids called “La Famille”. What a combative, dysfunctional family it must refer to. By the 1990’s, the geo-forms have moved back to the walls, this time as aggressive black and white patterns. The smaller ones might serve as pictograms for hazardous material warnings – the larger ones as wall decor for the hi-tech lairs of James Bond villains. But a few years later, in 1999, the artist returned to a more colorful, painterly kind of painting with blurry ,nearly repetitive patterns. They appear bland at first sight, but reward longer study with subtle rhythms and variations. These two pieces are really quite pleasing – the yellows and greens of the one puts you in the middle of a spring garden – the blues and reds of the other feel like a patriotic parade.

Overall, this body of work, like most architecture, is more about the effective use of line, color, and angle than about anything explicitly personal or social. When color is used, it seems to be perfectly tuned for the space that it occupies – except for a large patch of olive green that is truly annoying. The variety of familiar styles might suggest that these are impersonal, academic exercises, appropriate for an artist who was also directing a university department of art and design. Perhaps, however, the changes chart the course of the artist’s life - from the excitement of self discovery to the challenges of career and family to the comfortable golden years of retirement. A successful life in the modern world. My favorite pieces are the two etchings from 1967 that seem to strike the best balance between the artist’s calligraphic and geo-form impulses. They seem to embody the spirit of the improvisational jazz of that era.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Judy Ledgerwood at Rhona Hoffman


It’s impossible not to smile at the mischievous presence in Judy Ledgerwood's eight paintings now showing at Rhona Hoffman Gallery. And not just because, like everything in last summer’s “A Sag, Harbored” show at Western Exhibitions, all of the paintings smile back at you with a drooping sag across the upper edge. They are right at the edge of tedious repetition and wanton self expression— – of banality and obscenity‚ – of sloppiness and precision. They share the casual goofiness of a daycare center, yet also suggest the conceptual rigor that‘s sought in contemporary art. Whenever my eye tries to escape an annoying pattern, there’s always a drip, or a slurp, or an aberrant lump to give it some welcome relief. And then there are the two orifice-centric pieces that are blatantly sexual. Even before reading the title, “Yoni” was relentlessly pulling my consciousness into the bottomless pit of tantric female energy. And then there’s the muscle bound vagina of “Sheela”, - whose title might well refer to Ma Anand Sheela who was convicted of bio-terrorism against the entire population of a small town in Oregon that resisted the residency of her ashram—. (it’s recently been the subject of a Netflix documentary.) Girls will be girls! It’s a wild story of sex, religion, violence, and boundary crossing - all of which is suggested by Ledgerwood’s painting.

Although less naughty, most of the other pieces are just as fun and playful. “Eye Opener” is a woozy arrangement of lines and polkadots. The pattern would feel too tightly ordered except that some elements are beginning to wander off, and uniformity is occasionally broken by variations in thickness of paint. Similarly, the stultifying grid of “Grandma’s Garden” is relieved by discrete variations in size, angle, and luminosity. “Grandma” is obviously a serious abstract painter when she’s not tending garden,and she mounts an even more flamboyant attack on a checkerboard grid in “Tiny Dancer”. Though strictly maintaining certain rules of an overall pattern, every other choice in color, thickness, and placement feels whimsical yet correct. The only clunker, for me, is “Hopscotch Chelsea Rose” where the variations in color and tone fail to relieve the tedium of a strictly orthogonal, evenly spaced grid.

These paintings are far less overwhelming, more intimate, and less casual than Ledgerwood’s room size “Chromatic Patterns for the Art Institute of Chicago” that serves well as a Feminist assault on the hierarchy of art and craft, – especially now as it’s Bacchanalian vines envelop the walls of that patriarchal institution with the neoclassical facade.. Such provocation was a primary agenda of the The Pattern and Decoration Movement founded in the 1970’s. It remains well represented in major Chicago institutions with Ledgerwood at Northwestern and Michelle Grabner at the School of the Art Institute. Each of these paintings, however, appear to be doing what paintings, especially Chicago paintings, have often done in recent decades: amuse, entertain, and thrill with a prankish attitude and skillful execution.

Judy Legerwood’s “Far From The Tree” shows through May 19 at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, 1709 West Chicago.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Teacher and Two Students - at Printworks Gallery

James Valerio

Mark Bowers

Maria Tomasula

From Kerry James Marshall on down, many of the city’s best known artists have been educators, but I can’t remember ever seeing a teacher/student exhibition outside an art school’s own gallery. Only in the strongly traditional arts, like Classical Realism, are lineages still held in high esteem. So this exhibition of James Valerio with two of his former students, Maria Tomasula and Mark Bowers, is an unusual event – but then, James Valerio is quite an unusual artist. Many artists meticulously copy photographs – but Valerio can infuse his interpretation with a formal idealism and tension that reaches as deep into minutiae as the eye can see. And though his subject matter is secular, his work feels Christian as it proclaims the special glory, mystery, and destiny of human life. The two monumental graphite portraits in this show radiate the intensity of a spiritual quest. Their subjects are unknown and may not even be Christian, but “There is no respect of persons with God” (Romans 2:11.) Valerio’s close-up view of refuse, “Mud”, was far less inspiring as shown in the gallery, beneath reflective glass, Online however, I was better able to feel depth in the shallow spaces—and then eventually discover the human face hiding in plain sight. “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19)

Both of Valerio’s former students, now with art and teaching careers of their own, also show highly detailed graphite drawings in this exhibit. But that is all they have in common with their teacher. Bowers creates dream-like views of Midwestern landscapes where nothing feels alive or natural. The circular edges confirm them as inner visions rather than windows on the world. The sky is ominous; the atmosphere dark and heavy; the foreground collapses into background. These are anxious nightmares. Tomasula draws still-life where the real subject always seems to be her own body. Because she is an artist, there is often an emphasis on the hands –up to five pair. Because she is a woman in a patriarchal society, her torso is conventionally presented as either a luxuriant flower or a gravid fruit. She feels distant from all of these roles –as if they chose her rather than the other way around. So the self she portrays is more like a dessicated biological specimen than a living human being.

It’s admirable that these students have taken what they wanted from a teacher, and then followed their own path. Their work feels more personal and especially relevant to the anxieties of their generation. But I do find the teacher’s work far more enjoyable, encouraging,and even amazing. I could not believe that the glowing highlights in his portraits were not achieved without a white crayon – but the artist has confirmed that he only used black graphite. The areas of intense brightness are just unmarked white paper And it’s always surprising to find a living figurative artist who presents a spirituality that is not only secular, but also unsentimental and non commercial. Though not as much fun as the leading Imagists, Bowers and Tomasula are firmly within the surrealist mainstream of post-war Chicago art. Valerio is closer to the naturalism, precision, and humanism of the Renaissance - which might even be re-born again someday.

James Valerio

Saturday, March 10, 2018

This is a Pipe - at Shane Campbell Gallery

Sayre Gomez "Behind Door #3"

Although subtitled “Realism and the Found Object,” only three of the eighteen artists in this exhibit manipulate ready-made objects rather than fabricate new ones. Skillful craft and design is evident throughout, but beauty is hard to find, which is surprising if you have ever seen this gallery’s stunning exhibitions of abstract painting.

Apparently, these artists calculated that intense visuality would just distract the viewer from whatever ideas they were trying to share, especially in Matt Johnson’s ”Pipe en Pain,” the piece that inspired the title of the exhibit itself. Going beyond Rene Magritte’s iconic “This is Not a Pipe,” Johnson has painted and carved a block of wood to resemble a loaf of bread. A hole has been drilled longitudinally through the center. Marks at one end suggest that it has been smoked like a pipe. Or, perhaps not. Certainly art museums would not allow it to be handled that way since “works of art” must be handled with great care. With so much to think about, who really cares how good it looks? And how good could a wooden loaf look anyway? But how new and important are these ideas? Isn’t this just like a one-liner on Twitter? You won’t get the joke if you don’t follow art history, so those who laugh may recognize themselves as members of an educated elite. That could be the primary appeal of conceptual art when it’s nothing more than the proliferation and monetization of academic correctness.

Nor is there much new or provocative about the other ideas presented in this show. The porous boundary between art, décor and utility? Critiques of our networked, commodity-centric culture? The contradiction between a culture of abundance and the destruction of basic resources? The fraught relationship between artist, work and market? We may agree, but we’ve heard it all before. The one concept that seemed fresh was suggested by a pair of trompe l’oeil glass doors painted by Sayre Gomez. They were too grimy to see through clearly, but they promised an escape from the sterile purity of the contemporary art gallery and an entrance into a lush, imaginative and possibly Romantic landscape. If only that were not just an illusion.

Most disappointing are those pieces that might have delivered their message more effectively had their visuality been more exceptional. Mika Horibuchi has painted traditional watercolors of conventional floral and landscape subjects. Despite appearances, however, they were actually rendered in oil paint. That imitation of technique, and consequent disruption of expectation, seems to be the subject that most concerns her. But wouldn’t such mimicry have been more memorable had the results been more than just pleasant? Jonas Wood also offers something like traditional representation as he paints potted plants. He has also painted an image on each flower pot, as a painting-within-a-painting. His purpose may be to disorient and examine the mind as it reads pictorial space. But again, wouldn’t that exercise be more revealing if the image-making were more than just competent?

Some of the most beautiful and unusual paintings now made emphasize mimesis, but they are as categorically absent from this exhibit as they are from museums of contemporary art. To find them, you will have to step outside an academic world more concerned with the mind as it sees rather than a reality to be seen. (Chris Miller)

------------------------------ the following was not included in the published review---------

Both of Dan Herschlein’s sculptural tableaus could not be any more depressing unless they were removed from the clean, bright art gallery and placed in a dark, damp basement. There, they might more powerfully deliver the despair of young men with no job, no romance, no friends, and no future.

The drawings of Tony Lewis are just as depressing though not as dramatic. Possibly he is still grieving that Bill Watterson stopped drawing “Calvin and Hobbes” over twenty years ago. Or perhaps he realizes that his "inner Calvin" is no longer cute and whimsical in his isolation from the adult world. Though a recognizable sketch of Calvin appears in each piece, all the cartoon panels have been whited out with correction fluid, transforming one set into sheets of toilet paper for Calvin to wipe his ass. Why not just crumple it up and toss it in a toilet ?

I am eager to share someone's despair, boredom, or frustration --if it has been expressed through a sensitive and powerful visual design. (example: "The Scream", or Milton Resnick)

That's the sort of thing that used to be identified as "art". But after five decades of academic and commercial assault, that distinction in more honored in the breach than in the observance. Tony Lewis calls his pieces "poems", but can he distinguish between a poem and a joke ?

All that distinguishes these pieces is where they are on display.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Nina Chanel Abney at Chicago Cultural Center

A review of Nina Chanel Abney : Royal Flush - at the Chicago Cultural Center

Nina Chanel Abney (b. 1982) has been recognized for art about racial identity ever since she received her MFA. The only African American in her graduating class at Parsons, she painted a class portrait that reversed  black and white – depicting herself as a dizzy blond holding an assault rifle, and everyone else as a person of color wearing an orange prison jumpsuit . “Class of 2007” soon entered the Rubell Family Collection, one of the world’s largest privately owned and publically accessible collections of contemporary art. It did not travel to this show, but many of  her subsequent paintings have continued to offer energized cartoonish humor on the surface and racial violence not far beneath. And judging by the collectors and museums listed on the labels, most of it has met with similar success.

Abney can demonstrate a dynamic sense of design, an exciting feel for color, and a fluency with the linear contours of the human figure. As shown in her online videos, she also has a remarkable ability to compose large, wall size paintings on-the-fly without any kind of working sketch or plan. She just tapes up the surface and reaches for the cans of spray paint. As this ten-year retrospective reveals, however, she has not always worked this way. Her earlier work demonstrated complex line drawing and brush work. Then she switched to larger areas of flat color in acrylics. Then she began to use spray paint with tape and stencils. Most recently her paintings have begun as polychrome prints that were designed on a computer. Some of her latest work, like the monumental four panels called “Catfish”, is still quite dynamic overall. But as she stuffs the smaller areas with all the circles, triangles, and generic symbols that characterize her style, they begin to feel as busy and contrived as the designs on playing cards or currency. They reflect the reality of investment grade art. She’s not just making art -- she’s also making money.

In interviews, Abney has often asserted that she wants her work to be open to multiple interpretations. Indeed, some pieces, like “Double Click” (2012) appear to be intentionally confusing – with an assortment of numbers, faces, text, and amorphous shapes that appears to express some kind of puzzling dismay. Other pieces, like “Money Tree” (2008) clearly have a specific personal meaning.  It includes a self portrait front and center. But only the artist knows who are represented by the disembodied faces above and beside it. In some pieces, an intended meaning, even if conflicted, seems more clear. “Catfish”, for example, is a depiction of beautiful young female bodies. The voluptuous contours echo the Arcadian fantasies of Matisse, while heavy black X's over the genitals assert a prudish reaction. “Pool Party” (2016) depicts bi-racial, male couples playing chicken fight in a suburban swimming pool. It seems to say this game is sexy and fun – but also silly and childish. Abney is rather ambivalent about sexuality - possibly she comes from a devout religious background.

One piece, however, “FUCK T-E –OP” (2014) has a meaning that is both clear and straightforward. It expresses outrage over then recent events, like the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri where a black teenager was shot and killed by a policeman. There’s no ambivalence here – the young black men with crossed out gentle faces are innocent victims, and the artist blames law enforcement itself, not just one errant policemen. But as she steps up to take a stand, the viewer may now question her wisdom. Doesn’t this successful artist and her wealthy collectors need policemen more anyone else? Doesn’t this attitude encourage potential victims of police brutality to carry guns and shoot first – as a career criminal did recently on the streets of downtown Chicago? Doesn’t it undermine whatever moral authority her presentation of racial tension may have claimed? Like tabloid media, she flirts with controversy but does not enlighten it. Like commercial graphics, the visuality of her work demands attention but does not satisfy it.   Like contemporary academic artists, her semiotics destabilize rather than construct a web of meaning.   She's got an exciting, defiant attitude, but is not building a positive African-American identity as Romare Bearden and Kerry James Marshall have done. She quickly became a successful gallery artist.  But beneath the virtuosic surfaces of her work, it feels like her mind is still in graduate school..


Money Tree, 2008

Double Click, 2012

Pool Party at Rockingham #2, 2016


Catfish, 2017

FUCK T*E *OP, 2014


B. David Zarley's review presents the show as an exciting romp through our crazy, cruel national consciousness.   Which is not a bad way to think about these paintings  --- though I don't feel they "contain all of the dramatic grandeur and import—accrued, like a patina, over centuries of art historical hagiography and hegemony—of the figurative works which are fêted dutifully in Paris and London "    .. and I would not say that the dramatic grandeur and import of a celebrated painting like Delacroix's "Death of Sardanapalus" (another colorful romp through crazy times)  is the result of historical hagiography.  It was there when the paint was still wet.

There is no mention of racial tension or identity - American life is just high-volume madness.

And now that we have a twitter-ranting game show host as President -- it's hard to argue with Zarley's critique.


Lori Waxman's review in the Chicago Tribune writes about the show much as I did -- noting the history of the artist and the development of her style from painterly to digitalized.  She comes close to aesthetic critique when she  tells us that "some changes succeed more than others" - though she won't say which is which. And she comes close to moral critique by writing that some paintings call to mind "the strange awfulness of being alive now" - but unless they offer some better understanding of it, how is that different from the daily barrage of headline news ?

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

In-Scription at Zolla Lieberman

If these five recent graduates of the MFA program at S.A.I.C. are representative of their generation, it looks like Millennial artists born in the 1990’s are conservative in a variety of ways. All five are painters who accept the convention of the flat, rectangular support. The canvas has not been punctured, draped, folded, or stretched into an unusual shape - and it is covered with paint rather than a collage of tchotchkes and knickknacks None of them challenge the viewer’s patience with repetitive, tedious banality and none of them take chances by pouring or dripping paint across the surface. All of them exhibit tight control over what they are doing. Perhaps too tight. All five are pulling attention into themselves - so their paintings point directly at their own anxious hearts. There’s no idealism here; no thrilling exploration of form , the natural world, or human history. There’s no reliance or innovation on art theory. There’s no assertion of identity regarding ethnicity or gender or sexual preference These paintings are all about young artists working hard to make a place for themselves in the world. They have a tough road ahead and they know it. All of this work is smart, well crafted, and full of their inner strength. But it’s not especially enjoyable to look at.

The exception would be the impasto monochromes of Blake Asseby. You might even call them relief sculpture since their hectic, inscribed surfaces resemble slabs of clay marked up by ceramicists. They bear the traces of interacting patterns that are suggestive but ultimately indecipherable. Like free jazz, the effect of all this chaos on me is quite relaxing. Someone else has done all the work of being nervous, so all I have to do is lay back and enjoy how it all seems to all fit together.

The other artists have made more ambitious work: more size, more contrasts, more colors, more ideas. Elaine Rubenoff may be the most conservative: she paints florals. On the scale of a computer screen, her bouquets are quite attractive and suggest as much mystery and sensuality as the surprisingly traditional florals shown last year by Jennifer Packer at the Renaissance Society. But the piece in this show is monumental in scale and far more threatening than inviting. Maura O’Brien is perhaps even more traditional as she reprises the angst ridden world of abstract expressionism from the mid-twentieth century. I feel the energy and the struggle - but not yet the surprising beauty. The small color pencil drawings by Heesu Jeon have got that kind of beauty though it’s challenged by the wacky, circular figuration of Manga comic books. That beauty disappears, however, in the single, larger oil painting of his on display.

Herman Aguirre is the most ambitious, and apparently the most currently successful artist in the show. One of his portraits caught my eye at last year's Art Expo. It had both gravitas and beauty – a rare combination in contemporary art. His two pieces in this show are less impressive. There’s a large , lugubrious floral that seems to belong in an Ivan Albright funeral home. And there’s a dark, heavy multi-figure work that feels like the muddy aftermath of a deadly tsunami. The artist is horrified by our world - yet still, careful attention has been paid to size, movement, and pattern.

Overall, this show of five young artists is more promising than any other MFA show I’ve seen.  Possibly the gallerist who selected them saw it as a good business opportunity - but it's also a generous contribution to the artworld. At least, that's how it appears to me.


Here is Alan Pocaro's review of the show