Monday, May 23, 2011

Rosofsky and Burge at the Elmhurst Art Museum

The Unsentimental Journey of Seymour Rosofsky,
Denise Burge: Original Dirt through September 4,
Elmhurst Art Museum
(pieces shown: Rosofsky “Lady of the House – Venus” (below,
Denise Burge “Machination” (above))

Though presented as separate exhibits, the oil paintings of Seymour Rosofsky (1924-1981) and the quilts of Denise Burge (MFA, 1991) both overpower their walls with dynamic, centrifugal energies, while offering a fascinating contrast across generation, ethnicity, locality, gender, and media.

A second generation, blue-collar Jewish kid from Chicago, Seymour’s talent was recognized early and he ended up studying oil painting with Boris Anisfeld at the Art Institute. He picked up that Russian’s dreamy, decorative, modern classical style, and also became an art museum junkie, both in Chicago and Paris, drawing from a variety of primitive, post-impressionist, surrealist, and expressionist art. But when he put it all together, it was all about him. There’s a musty, cluttered, claustrophobic feeling about his work, with the viewer often placed in the role of the therapist puzzled by the highly emotional, confused world of a patient who feels trapped in a female dominated, family centered life.

Roughly 40 years younger, Denise Burge comes from the hills of North Carolina. Quilting is a traditional medium and her crude, overstated imagery and improvisational use of materials resembles the outlandish art of Howard Finster. But it would be a mistake to call her a folk artist. For the past 20 years, she’s been an art academic, and folk-themed quilting on environmental themes was just the strategy she employed 10 years ago. (more recently, she’s moved on to installations and then video). Unlike Rosofsky’s work, hers is extroverted and the narrative, rather than being ambiguous, is spelled out in text across the surface. The bold patterns and strong, clear fragments of color in the fabric are much more attractive than the blurry fog of Seymour’s rather pasty oil paints, and mark her as a very sharp designer. If the quilts don’t disintegrate (and some areas do appear fragile) they may well be recognized as exemplary in that medium.

In the catalog to Rosofsky’s 1985 posthumous retrospective, his friend, Chicago artist//historian/critic Franz Schulze defended his “rich color, carefully interwoven tonalities and assured drawing” against the 1972 attack by New York critic, Robert Hughes, in Time Magazine who railed against “Rosofsky’s clumsy paintings” and “wretched thesaurus of clichés.” . But Seymour’s special strength is honesty. His paintings are stocked with clichés from Giacometti, Bacon, Chagall, etc because he loved art history, and they are no more clumsy, cluttered and confused than his own happy/sad domestic life. He exemplifies the passion, resilience, and time honored futility of his favorite team, the Chicago Cubs, while Denise Burge might be considered just one more smart and talented academic working the politically correct mindscape.