Monday, December 26, 2022

Suchitra Mattai "Osmosis" at Kavi Gupta


One, 126" x 180"

A review of Suchitra Mattai "Osmosis" at Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago

In tribute to her ancestors who left India in the 19th Century, Suchitra Mattai (b 1973) has laid out this exhibition so that the viewer moves through the galleries as if visiting a Hindu temple. In the final room, the garbhagriha (inner sanctum) she has installed a four foot replica of a temple made of salt - as if it had just emerged from the sea of memory - leaning dramatically to one side - as if it will soon sink back beneath the waves of forgetfulness.

 It soon becomes apparent that the only deity being worshiped here is herself and the quality of the art need not represent any higher being - with two exceptions. Casts were made of Hindu temple sculpture to frame some of Mattai’s pieces. They remind us of just how effectively that tradition can conflate architecture with sacred narrative. 

 But the most remarkable exception is a wall size tapestry that Mattai made herself. Sourcing traditional saris from her own family as well as elsewhere, she has interwoven them into a magnificent, alluring design that has the exotic allure of the Ajanta cave paintings. The artist is probably familiar with other cycles of ancient painting, but the fifth century Ajanta frescoes are the ones best known in the West. Though superficially secular, they are treasures of world sacred art. 

 Titled “One”, Mattai’s piece shows us the backs of three women with golden halos. They appear to be leading us up from blue water as they ascend the peaks of a great mountain. Even if the artist intended them to only represent her own ocean crossing ancestors - I want to follow them too. Something about them is so passionate, glorious and mysterious. Hopefully the Textiles Department of the Art Institute will acquire this piece so I can see it again someday adjacent to other great fiber art. 

 Everything else in the show is also well made - especially the temple of salt. How the hell did she do that?  But is this show really about "the flexibility of storytelling" as the artist proclaims?  How much does it actually reveal about the artist and her family beyond that they identify as Hindus from India and that she identifies as female?  All of the figurative pieces are female-centric - even the one that actually depicts a male or two.  We may admire the artist for respecting her rich cultural legacy as well as  gender - but is that  controversial anywhere except in places like Afghanistan?
And is  "flexibility"  of storytelling" really  worth looking at anyway ? Wouldn't you rather have a storytelling that is convincing or intriguing or uplifting or shocking ? Gauging  flexibility is an academic literary project  - as is celebrating an identity that is currently acceptable ( female person-of-color).

Suchitra Mattai is a compelling artist only when she steps away from academic trends and shows what she really wants us to know about herself:  she is descended from three goddesses. And I am inclined to believe her.

Saturday, December 24, 2022

James Little - Black Stars and White Paintings

 James Little - Black Stars and White Paintings

Kavi Gupta Gallery


Spangled Star, 2022, 72"x72"

Calculated Risk, 64" x 74", 2022


A Review of James Little - Black Stars and White Paintings at Kavi Gupta


Racial identity currently dominates the artworld in America. You might even say it has done so for the past 300 years - though up until recently it was the white, rather than black, identity being front and center. What’s remarkable about this identity show is that it’s questionable whether the artist ever really intended it to be one. James Little (b. 1952), makes hard edge, geo-form abstract paintings, and he’s explicit about not engaging a concept. He wants to be free from all that and just make paintings as best he can. All his problems are technical - just as with fine cabinetry. A hundred years ago he would have been welcomed into the Bauhaus. His pieces are still probably best seen in the severe minimalism of a Miles van der Rohe interior.

Down in Memphis, the  patterns of colored stripes in his first museum show of the year was typical of his work. They’re as emotion free as a page torn from a book of color theory. There isn’t even a sense of wonder, balance, or humor. Just the pure, unfiltered energy of a technical investigation. 

But when his monumental “Black Stars” are shown beside his perforated “White Paintings”, the game changes. The black stars exemplify the drive and singularity of purpose that’s still required for blacks to rise above the dark legacy of oppression. The rows of regularly spaced tiny windows into his white paintings reveal an apparently limitless variety of colorful, sensual miniatures - like the urban grid of a trendy white neighborhood where every high rent condo shelters someone’s unique opportunity for self gratification. The artist acknowledges this racial binary in this exhibit, but also tells us “That whole racial aspect isn’t any more important to me than trying to paint some emblematic arrangements with two tones of black.” - so this may be the last time he crosses over into racial stereotypes - even though it would not hurt his career. These same black and white paintings were probably what got him into the Whitney Biennial this year - his first appearance ever.

Minimalism and racial conceptual art  appear to have accidentally collided, and the results are far more compelling than either of those genres by themselves. Likewise, the white paintings in this show are more interesting because of the black ones nearby - and vice versa.  Together they tell a story that’s personal, national, and cosmic — all at the same time.  And it does feel more more important than the artist’s less referential work. More seems to be at stake: social harmony instead of the private isolation.

Monday, December 19, 2022

The Language of Beauty in African Art — Art Institute of Chicago

Guro, Ivory Coast, 19th to early 20th Century

This is one amazing show of African art - though it doesn’t really  "decolonize the Western aesthetic standards long placed on these objects” as gallery signage asserts. Indeed, the standard museum style installation reaffirms our world, not theirs. The dramatic lighting and attention to surrounding space encourages the viewer to see formal qualities, as does the arrangement of pieces that look good together, regardless of origin. The exhibit that came to Chicago in 1963, “Senofo Sculpture from West Africa" had a better opportunity to establish local context by focusing on just one people in one place. This exhibition includes many peoples from western and central Africa, from Mali down to South Africa, and often they share the same display case.

And then one might ask: just how were these pieces selected? Obviously 19th century Africans could not be given the job — but what about African artists and collectors from our time? Wouldn’t their sensibilities of life and Art likely be closer to that of their great grandparents? There are a few who are even carrying on their traditions.

 Instead the job was given to Constantine Petridis, the Art Institute’s curator of African Art. Being a Belgian, he is much closer to those who destroyed much of central Africa’s indigenous society. But he’s also much closer to many of the European museums and private collectors from which most of these pieces came. And if I may say so, his taste agrees with mine - which is why I find this show so enjoyable. Just as with European and Asian art, only a small percentage of African art is worth looking at - and Petridis brought us the very best. (for many examples of mediocrity, visit the Art Institute's permanent gallery of African art). So many genres are represented so well: Dan masks, Iginga figures, Luba staffs, Bamala puppets, Igbo helmets, Songye Nkishi, Fang reliquary guardians, Zulu headrests. 

 Yet what’s missing are more recent examples. It’s as if all African art traditions died out in the early 20th Century. And while it is an axiom of Euro art theory that you cannot enter the same river twice, traditional societies demand that you keep on jumping in.

 Petridis did such a great job, I really don’t wish any one else had been involved. But rather than all the virtue signaling about decolonization, I wish he had done something actually virtuous as well as ground breaking:  show us more recent African art  that’s related to the traditions seen in this show - like the Nigerian sculptor Moshood Olusomo Bamigboye   (which is not to say that I recommend him)

African art pursues a life affirming power  (as in the above image). that so much of mainstream contemporary art studiously avoids.


A selection  of my favorite pieces is shown here

Dmitry Samavov in the Chicago Reader wrote pretty much the same thing. The "de-colonization" proclaimed in the signage is utter nonsense - but the spirit of life runs very strong in these carvings.

Friday, November 11, 2022

Tcharam ! ... at The Very Serious Gallery


Adam Holzrichter, Lady Komodo

Bruno Passos, The Sculpture Thief

Trevor Knapp, Once Long Lost

“Tcharam!” … an upbeat Portuguese fanfare equivalent to “ta-da!’ in English …. is indeed appropriate here as it announces the first time that students of Odd Nerdrum have exhibited together in Chicago. The work of the Norwegian  master himself does not appear - and his mythopoetic Baroque paintings are way too Euro-old-school to be shown in any local art museum. (though some small pieces have occasionally made it into Art Expo) You can go online, however,  to get some idea of his imagery as well as philosophy of art. He is an outspoken proponent of what he calls “kitsch”

Collecting figurative tchotchkes has been de rigueur among Chicago Imagists from Roger Brown to Phyllis Bramson -- but Nerdrum’s favorite kitsch can only be found in art museums - not gift or toy shops. It’s appropriate for an elite, sophisticated, historically minded viewer who seeks catharsis rather than the comfort or thrills of popular entertainment. It cultivates sincerity rather than irony and aims for an emotional maturity rather than the perpetual adolescence so celebrated in Chicago. “Its nature is deeply antagonistic towards the present” and it “lavishly relishes imitation”.

In one way,  Nerdrum’s pedagogy is also old-school. His students don’t pay but they do have to model or assist in studio production. Contrary to traditional ateliers, however, he doesn’t teach students how to paint like himself - he encourages them to develop their own vision- whatever it may be - and the three former students in this exhibit have indeed gone in three different directions. What they share is an emphasis on narrative content at the expense of more formal qualities. These two concerns need not be conflicted -- as proven by many art museum masterpieces - but if an immediate emotional impact is all that an artist wants -- that’s likely  all a viewer will ever get. If that's what the Nerdrum school calls “kitsch” - that’s fine with me -- but not when they offer the paintings of Rembrandt, Turner, Caravaggio, Vermeer, and Chardin as examples.

Trevor Knapp’s pieces appear the most effective at delivering an immediate feeling with clarity - and their grating anxiety would work well to illustrate a gothic novel. Bruno Passos seems to deliver puzzlement rather than any other emotion. Something dramatic may be happening - or maybe these pieces are more about the history of painting. “The Sculpture Thief” has me thinking about early Picasso while “Black Coat” references Giacometti - though they are not quite as strong.

Most puzzling are the dream like fantasies of Adam Holzrichter. He has created a a luminous, casual, rumpled world without straight lines or volumes, buzzing with a kind of post-coital energy. His series, of dissipated floral altars belongs on the stage of Tannhauser’s Venusberg. A similar ambivalence toward sexual desire appears in “Lady Komodo” - an anti-erotic variation on Velazquez’ Venus -  here reclining in her boudoir beside a pig and a few of the planet’s largest living reptiles. The subject is outrageous - yet the blurry painting summons a yawn rather than any feeling of anger, disgust, contempt , or even humor.

According to Tomas Kulka, the oft quoted author of “Kitsch and Art” (1994); “The objects or themes depicted by kitsch are instantly and effortlessly identifiable”  Other than Trevor Knapp’s, most of the works in this show would not qualify as such. Yet neither do many of them have the distinctive formal tension of art. These are, however, highly motivated young artists who don’t follow trends.  There’s  no telling what they'll be doing in a decade or two.


It wasn’t in this show, but my favorite piece in the gallery was Adam Holzrichter’s painting in the restroom.  A wonderfully immersive experience in a fantasy-like forest suitable for Siegfried and Brunhilde.  Note how the roll of tissue paper appears to be floating in the illusional space, while the angled tree trunk and foliage beneath defeat the corner of the room.

Monday, November 7, 2022

Ian Mwesiga at Mariane Ibrahim : Theatre of Dreams


Forbidden Fruits, 2022

It felt like Summer when I visited this show last Saturday, but the temperature dropped at least ten degrees when I entered the gallery. Blues, greens, and grays dominated the walls - challenged only slightly by a few tepid pinks. Each oil painting presented a flat, wooden, solitary figure engaged in a highly competitive activity. All of the young men were basketball players. In their crisp, new jerseys , they were all good enough to make the team. Several of them were especially athletic. Michael Jordan himself could never soar that high in the air. But they were not competing on a basketball court - they were silhouetted against a barren landscape whose colors are noted above. Most of the young women were at a grand piano - but none were touching the keys. They sat beside, slept against, or danced as a ballerina upon it. Actually - I don’t think any of these young Ugandans have ever practiced, much less mastered, either of these activities. They just fantasize about it - presumably to escape a reality that offered so little stimulation, either mental or sensual. I can’t recall healthy young flesh depicted so un -erotically — except perhaps in Byzantine icons. Possibly the artist grew up in a rather severe form of Christianity. The only young women not next to a piano were near picked apples in a garden  --  one of which is posted “CAUTION ; BEWARE OF SNAKES”.

  Traditional python worship is still common among the Bunyoro of western Uganda, but the snake-garden-apple trope obviously came from another civilization - as did the clothing and architecture that are depicted.  As a consequence of European colonialism, these young people are foreigners in their own country. Every step must be taken with care.

 The young artist’s website shows his earliest works, and in 2017 the subject matter was quite different. Mwesiga’s “School of Dance and Beauty’’ was an obvious homage to Kerry Marshall’s “ School of Beauty, School of Culture” - again demonstrating the international appeal of our local super-star. People joyfully participating in a social setting has been pictorialized in many times and places. But it’s unusual to find young people depicted as lost at the threshold of adult life. One good artist who comes to mind is Tetsuya Ushida (1973-2005) - who likely stepped in front of a speeding train at the age of 32. Mwesiga, however, may not share the unhappiness of those he is depicting. He’s probably just painting what he sees around him - and it's quite an achievement to portray it so beautifully, compassionately, and without an upfront political agenda.

He shows his subjects as dreamers, not victims. As he sees more kinds of things, he will probably move on. This is a career that I would like to follow.

Basketball Player II

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Arvie Smith at Monique Meloche



Echo and Narcissus, 2022



 As Arvie Smith says in an interview “ Even though I’m a professional, when I’m out on the street I’m seen just like a pimp- I’m treated just like any other black figure which in some instances have just about as much rights as a horse, a dog, or a chair.” 

Apparently he has been sufficiently outraged by race-based humiliation that he devoted the past two decades of his life to expressing that through art. ( and maybe even earlier - the pieces in this show date only from 2006 to 2022. The artist was born in 1938)

Smith also suggests that he would like his work to initiate a dialogue - but what can be discussed with a man who is yelling? It would be futile to mention the cost and the consequences of the Civil War or Civil Rights legislation - or even the successes of his own career. He wants viewers to feel his pain - though curiously his cartoonish mages are as breezy and ebullient as Disney cartoons. His work feels screwball joyful until you recognize the symbols and the narrative of hate and degradation. He appears to be enjoying himself even as he expresses the misery of racism.

The image of young boys looking at their reflections in “Echo and Narcissus” (2022) is the most poignant. They’ve been taught to see themselves as empty-headed goofs or monsters. Does the artist still feel that way about himself ? Some viewers may feel empathy for the damage done to innocent children - others may regret that the artist had not yet taken responsibility for a self image that only he can repair. Both are correct - and so this body of work contributes to the polarization that defines this moment in American life - providing career opportunities for extremists of every persuasion.

Will this work hold interest when that moment has passed ? These are more like agitprop storyboards than the painterly work of Robert Colescott who introduced Smith to the genre. The figure drawing is suitable for political cartoons, but does not rise to the level of the snappy characterizations of that 18th Century icon of sarcasm, Thomas Rowlandson. And there is nothing like the formal power of a recent master like Charles White.

But the manic, bubbly, high pitched energy of his surfaces do echo those of his mentor, the ABX painter Grace Hartigan. Plus, the artist seems desperate to cram as many tropes into each work as possible. More is more. Subtlety - tossed out the window - lies spreadeagled on the pavement below. If he lived in Chicago, Smith might be called an Imagist. Recently he has begun to explore Classical mythology. It’s quite a stretch to conflate Leda and the Swan or the triumph of Bacchus with racism in America. It gives some hope that he may ultimately present a life not tethered to victimhood. And maybe he already has - - - if you just ignore the subject matter.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Mitch Clark at Oliva Gallery


The Mitch Clark show now at Oliva Gallery does indeed resemble the jazz music suggested by its title, “Riff Driven”. Shreds of solid colors, often primary, weave in and out of each other as they erupt into space - much like the notes blaring out from a tenor saxophone. But I really can’t think of any jazz album for which it might serve as cover art. It’s too rationally organized for free jazz - but I’m not getting the kind of identifiable emotions that are up front in more melodic songs. Perhaps the best word for it is “psychedelic” - like a Jimi Hendrix solo on electric guitar Full of excitement and passion —- but who knows for what. 

 This is self-centered art - which is not necessarily a bad thing. Earlier hard edge Chicago abstract painters, like Rudolph Wrisenborn or Morris Barazani seemed to be presenting a world outside themselves. Clark is closer to the New York School which was introduced into the Dallas - Fort Worth area while he was beginning his career there. The conglomeration of shapes at the center of each of these paintings appears to be the artist himself. Unlike many other Abstract Expressionists, however, he’s not especially tormented, angry, or heroic. He’s just alive - very alive - and like all living things, he’s always changing. Each painting also seems to be transforming from one thing to another - as does his work from one decade to another. Back in the sixties, his paintings were anxious and atmospheric. A few decades later, he picked up that famous, though sometimes tedious, innovation of modernism : the Grid. Now, in his seventh decade of painting, he seems to be proudly singing a song of himself - like Walt Whitman - or every child who’s been given paint and paper. 

 We all like children’s art - but who would really go out of their way to see some? It comes from - and only requires, a quite limited span of attention. It’s not yet connected to any of the great ideas associated with civilization - and it hasn’t yet developed formal power. It’s disposable ( except, of course, to a doting parent). Many of the pieces in this show don’t have enough content to hold my attention, either. Yet they all seem to be moving towards profundity and power - and a few of them are riveting. They have a sense of wide-eyed curiosity and opening up to the world. Like the aging Matisse with his paper cut-outs, Mitch Clark is neither an old fogey nor an ignorant child. 

 One of the delights of this show is the artist’s acrylic technique. The paint is uniformly thin but not translucent. Brush strokes are not visible, but neither is there a clinical precision to the edges of the shapes of solid color. The edges are just loose enough to feel casual but not careless - appropriate for light-hearted animal shapes that occasionally wander in.  ( is that a big orange rhino or a jackass that appears in the above image ?)

 Social activism, banished from American art in the 1950’s has recently returned with a vengeance. Self expressive artists like Clark, unless they present a preferred identity, are now painting way under the artworld’s radar. But that doesn’t make their art any less beautiful 
Lonn Taylor's great interview with the artist can be heard here
Jack Roth (1927-2004), Rope  Dancer, 1980
 here's some work seen at Chicago's Art Expo in 2012.
It works with similar elements
but feels more like a world 
where things that are broken have to be fixed -  
instead of toyed with.

BTW - Roth's day job was professor of mathematics.

 Robert Irvin (1922-2015), St. Germain, 1995

This British artist,  seen at Chicago's Art Expo this year,
did not restrict himself to areas of solid color - 
but like Clark, he does express a child's joy of exploration and being alive
 - even at a ripe old age.