Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Entre Horizontes : Art and Activism between Puerto Rico and Chicago

A review of  Entre Horizontes: Art and Activism Between Chicago and Puerto Rico 

at The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago


 Arnaldo Roche Rabell (1955-2018) Aqui y alla  (Here and There),1989 

There is no indication online that Rabell identified as gay - but four beefy guys cavorting on a boat at night off the coast of Chicago’s north side seems like that kind of theme.  They’re naked and certainly burning with something - probably desire. Rabell’s technique is incomprehensible to me.  He somehow wrapped a paint loaded canvas around  unclothed models. Nevertheless,  the results are quite powerful.  Obviously he made just the right alterations. And probably he was some kind of magician.

Armaldo Roche Rabell ,  Isla Vacia, (vacant island), 1987

More magic from Rabell - a memento mori still-life combined with an aerial cityscape of what must be San Juan -  and the all-too empty chairs.  He's quite passionate about the loss.

Angel Otero (b. 1981), Exquisito, 2009 

This is the kind of work Otero was doing right after he got his MFA at SAIC and was shown at the Chicago Cultural Center.  It recalls the home of his grandmother.  Like Rabell, it drips with sensuality, and it’s a kind of collage.  Otero uses scraped off paint skins.  A cool, distant, objective view of these things (all things?) is not possible. It’s all about emotion.

Candida Alvarez (b. 1955), Licking  a Red Rose, 2020

This piece is from the MCA’s own collection - and I can see why they acquired it.  It’s gorgeous. Signage tells us that it refers to the 2020 election as well as a friend licking a rose. But I think it’s just about Candida's joy of being alive.

Jose Lerma (b. 1971). Dorothy, 2023

As this photo shows, this is quite a large piece.
The artist used a special broom to brush thick acrylic paint across burlap.

It depicts Dorothy Dene, purportedly a model for Luis A. Ferre’s great gift to the museum in Ponce, Puerto Rico, ‘Flaming June’

Lord Leighton, Flaming June, 1895

Lerma has hinted at some ideological content behind his current work - as there was in his spoof of international banking in his show at Kavi Gupta ten years ago (Here is my review)
But gallery signage doesn’t mention it  - so I take it as just an update on the theme of stately young women - suitable now for a corporate headquarters instead of a mogul’s mansion.
It has the pleasant aesthetic of a quilt or soft sculpture.

Sebastian Vallejo ( b. 1982) Esperando La Tormenta, 2017

Signage tells us that the artist painted this in NewYork while Hurricane Maria was devastating Puerto Rico.  For me, it has the excitement of Van Gogh - so I’m not sure that his reaction was one of despair or anxiety.

…and apparently the MCA thought it was decorative enough for a pillow

Vallejo appeared in a show of young artists at the Puerto Rican Community Center in 2016

Sebastian Vallejo, Paseo por la Costa (walk along the coast), 2020

Vallejo would be an ABX painter- except that his subject is his beloved homeland - not his own troubled mind.
I wish he had a gallery in Chicago.

Omar Velazquez (b. 1984) Caguama, 2020

Signage tells us that this depicts the artist’s encounter with a sea turtle while canoeing in the mangroves near Salinas, Puerto Rico. Possibly he encountered a duck as well, and had fruit and musical instruments on board.
It's pleasant and lighthearted, but I'm sure I don't enjoy it as much as the artist did remembering his experience.  I have no interest in seeing it again.


Allegedly, this exhibit "examines the artistic genealogies and social justice movements that connect Puerto Rico with Chicago" 

 But what's really interesting were the above paintings on display.  They demonstrate a quite fruitful connection between Puerto Rico and the  School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Two of the above artists are currently faculty members ( Alvarez and Lerma), while the rest all studied there.  They have brought so much beauty and joy to a regional art scene that has mostly been interested in other things.

And though it’s anathema to a Modernist sensitivity, most of their work is saturated with nostalgia. If squeezed, the tears could fill buckets.  That’s probably why the curator chose to emphasize something more fashionable like "Activism".


As Lori Waxman wrote for Hyperallergic:

The real stars of entre horizontes are big, lush paintings invoking no particular politics but using a variety of techniques borrowed from printmaking: Ángel Otero’s and Arnaldo Roche Rabell’s messy kitchen tables, with collaged fabrics and impressed textures; José Lerma’s breathtakingly confident profile of a woman, brushed in inch-thick acrylics with a commercial broom; Nora Maité Nieves’s “Magnetic Field” — two pairs of iridescent geometric patterned canvases.

So she mostly agrees with me — except that I found Nieves’  grid-obsessed  "Magnetic Field" too boring to mention.  She must have studied with a conceptualist like Michelle Grabner while at SAIC.  By the way, some of the other work she shows online is quite different.

Sunday, May 5, 2024

Rebecca Morris at Museum of Contemporary Art

A review of  Rebecca Morris 2001 - 2022 , Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago


I’ve never been able to connect to the Rebecca Morris paintings periodically shown at her local gallery, Corbett Vs. Dempsey.  They felt like cold,  impersonal  experiments in pattern.  A scientist in the laboratory - not an artist in the studio.

But this twenty year retrospective has pulled in pieces that feel different.

Jam packed with tension and excitement. Feels like it started in the center and then struggled to puzzle out the corners.  Morris calls those curved knife-like shapes "lobster claws" - and they do feel formidable.

This speckled piece is more  lighthearted - but it still feels like a person trying to share what is essential and important about their life:  a carefree kind of beauty.

This one does feel experimental - the challenge being to arrange splotches whose soft-edge patterns are always unexpected.  So much anarchy- so much goofiness — highlighted by the shiny gold foil background.  Possibly inspired by the fantasies in Persian miniature painting - or maybe her mother’s clothes closet.

A similar project set against silver foil.

Reminds of the very best quilts - where ordinary fabric is transformed into something too wacky to be from planet earth.  Some women like to over-dress this way -  with deep red nail polish and turquoise cat-eye sunglasses from the 1950’s.  Masculine anarchy tends towards violence - but the feminine moves towards whimsey - and that’s the only kind we need.


Alan Pocaro wrote a fine review of this show for New City - one of the best I’ve ever read there. He concluded that:

At first “the shock of the new” will hold our attention rapt, convincing us that there is something significant at hand, because visually there is. But late abstraction’s lifeblood is also its fatal flaw. The new colors, shapes, configurations and techniques upon which it depends inevitably become old, tired and predictable. Eventually we come face to face with peculiar-looking paintings that are about an artist making paintings that look peculiar. We can still enjoy them, but eventually we will have to admit: there’s not much to it.

 ...and, thankfully he provided celebrated examples of the opposite: "Point of Tranquility" by Morris Lewis (1959-60) "is bold and beautiful and reaches toward the sublime even as it fails to grasp it"
and "Excavation" by Willem de Kooning (1950).  "one of the greatest paintings in the history of the Western canon"

Absent any recognizable subject matter, abstract painting has always struggled to prove any value other than decorative.   Kandinsky, one of it’s earliest practitioners and promoters, introduced the notion of spirituality.  So a painting could be spiritual even if it was not representing something or someone holy.  Kant’s  notion of the sublime was later added to accommodate those more secular.  And  I suppose we should accept that ‘Excavation" is great just because it has been widely proclaimed as such. (It’s never done much for me)

What I want from an abstract painting is certainly decorative.  I want it to appeal to my eye again and again and again.  But that appeal is something apart from what might be provided by a fresh bouquet of flowers.  It’s the life loving spirit of the artist I want to see - fully realized as a singular form that I can experience.  Admittedly that may be far less than the spirits of saints or divinities that were presented by artists of the past.  And it may be less than some important innovation in concept or technique. But heretic that I am ——- I doubt it.

When Rebecca Morris painted pieces that felt clinical, I had no use for her work.   But when I feel her yearning, living spirit - I am thrilled by her company.


This seems like a good place to park this quote from Kandinsky about non-objective painting:

A terrifying abyss of all kinds of questions, a wealth of responsibilities stretched before me. And most important of all: what is to replace the missing object? The danger of ornament revealed itself clearly to me; the dead semblance of stylized forms I found merely repugnant. . . . It took a very long time before I arrived at the correct answer to the question: What is to replace the object? I sometimes look back at the past and despair at how long this solution took me. ... Kandinsky, Reminisences, 1915

Saturday, May 4, 2024

Nicole Eisenman at MCA Chicago

 A review of Nicole Eisenman : What Happened at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago—————————————————————————————————————

Another Green World,  128 x 106, 2015

I don’t enjoy looking at these paintings.  In the tradition of social realist murals,  their message  is delivered at the expense of aesthetics.  Figures often suffer monstrous distortion,  pictorial space is collapsed onto the surface, and color is crudely chopped up as if to make it printable.  You can sense a vigor of  design in the small scale of the jpeg shown above.  It reminds me of the tumultuous battle scenes in Mughal miniatures.   And the celebration of affection and community is truly endearing.  But at room size it’s oppressive.   I’d probably feel the same way about "The Rake’s Progress" by William Hogarth if it were ten feet long instead of two.  

Triumph of Poverty, 2009,   67 x 83"

Eisenman makes clever, gently satirical cartoons.  Gladys Nilsson works a similar territory for us Midwesterners. It’s just that cash value is proportional to size in the contemporary artworld - so she makes them way too big.  Viewers of contemporary art are used to work that makes them feel disoriented and uncomfortable.  I try to avoid it.

Coping, 2008, 65 x 82

This nightmarish scene is somewhat intriguing on my iPad, but oppressive at seven feet across.

Seder,  39 x 48, 2009

This piece is just about the right size - so I can imagine myself reading the Haggadah to an assembled family of gentle folk and misfits, expressively portrayed by the artist.  It makes a fine contrast with Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving dinner as attended by idealized stock characters.  But still — a great painting?  No. There is nothing visual here to savor.  It’s all about rambunctious disruption. Everyone feels out of place.  With each viewing it becomes more stale and tiresome. Like the Sunday comics, it’s disposable.

And that’s what separates Eisenman from Brueghel (whom she quoted in "The Triumph of Poverty".).  Pieter  Brueghel the Elder’s paintings were great as both cartoon and painting  - and that hardly ever happens in blue-chip contemporary art.  (Kerry Marshall being a notable exception)


So I’m not going to assert, as Sebastian Smee recently did in the Washington Post, that  "Nicole Eisenman is one of the best American painters working right now."  Aesthetics still matter - at least to me. Everything else is just subject matter- maybe you identify with it - maybe you don’t.

Smee does, however, make some sharp observations about how Eisenman’s painting has changed over the decades shown in this retrospective. 

And we may note some ambivalence in his concluding paragraphs:

Art, at its best, starts from a premise of aliveness. Aliveness (in the forms of humor, sensuality, richness of response) is attached at the hip to awareness. Awareness (the human brain and body liberated from sentimentality, propaganda and all other forms of denial) involves registering the full extent of the debacle. But acknowledging the debacle, in turn, plunges us into depression — the very opposite of aliveness.

Awareness also involves registering the full extent of the miracle - before which we must believe the debacle is just a bump on the road. For those who love the awareness of miracle in form -  Eisenman’s paintings are indeed depressing —- the larger they are, the more so. 

Something like this dynamic inheres in Eisenman’s work. Her paintings and brilliant sculptural ensembles are atotally alive — sometimes almost maniacally so. But they’re also continually collapsing into a stunned stasis. When they emerge again, it’s into states of bafflement as the artist tentatively gropes after community, which she tenderly, gratefully celebrates.

Yes - stunned stasis is what I’m feeling here - and it’s repulsive - however tenderly community has been embraced.  A serious adult public space - like an art museum - should not have the aesthetics of a feel-good daycare center.

BTW - Smee’s essay was quite impressive. If he didn’t pay proper respect to the judgment of the marketplace, he wouldn’t get published.  But if he didn’t subtly undercut it, he wouldn’t be an art critic.


Nor am I as comforted by these paintings as Annettte Lepique was in New City when she concluded 

Abolitionists in the Park, 2020-2022, 10’8" x 8’9"

There’s something moving about this moment.("Abolitionists in the Park") There’s recognition of not just one of those now-ubiquitous blue masks, but also the quiet trust that the sleeper gives to the people around her. There’s the knowledge that the exhaustion you may have felt and feel in the face of the world’s chaos is shared. There’s reassurance that you too are part of this world, that isolation is not the norm; that someone, somewhere shares language in common with your heart.

Unlike those "abolitionists  in the park", I had no interest in defunding a police department in the aftermath of the George Floyd homicide.  Nor would I conflate them with the indispensable anti-slavery abolitionists of the early 19th century.

So I am not reassured that "someone, somewhere shares language in common with my heart". This is actually a rather small, if vocal, minority of Americans.  This, like so much social justice art, is preaching to the choir.

 When you ask yourself what did you see, what did you do, what all happened? Know this: everything. Everything happened. You just have to look to truly see it all.

These are fit words to end an essay about a show called "What happened?" -  but it’s also a bit of nonsense.  Many things did indeed happen — but none of us can ever truly see it all.  This painting presents only one point of view.

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Johan Wahlstrom at the Swedish American Museum


Subway People, 54 x 54

This exhibit of twenty paintings by the Swedish-American painter Johan Wahlstrom (b. 1959) was given the title "What you See is what You Get" — but it feels like we’re getting a lot more. Like the Nordic myths of Bengt Lindstrom -   appearing in this gallery five years ago -  these paintings seem to have begun somewhere far away -  another dimension perhaps? - and only a small sliver has ended up between the edges of these canvases.   And it’s no surprise that these  multiple dimensions often appear on NewYork City public transportation.

Exhibition text also tells us that the pieces focus on "the current political landscape" - specifically the Russian invasion of Ukraine - but the chaos and anxiety seem less specific than that.  One might call it the human condition - or, if you’ve seen the documentary "Chimp Empire", the primate condition. It’s just how we apes are.

This is You ( left ), This is Us ( right )
54 x 54 each

 Wahlstrom could have joined the Hairy Who fifty years ago.  
 He‘s just a bit more dynamic - and a bit less juvenile.

Bar Hang (left), untitled (right)
Each is 54 x 54

Looks like panels from a comic strip
where you get to make your own caption.
Mine would be :  "Welcome to the middle class"
Everyone here seems to need therapy.

Both untitled,
Both 54 x 54

Looks like American partisan politics.

Dismay to the left,
Anger to the right.
Mouths open — minds shut.

Though as nearly 50% of the American electorate veers off  towards a reactionary authoritarian fascism,
perhaps dismay is not a inappropriate reaction

He got himself a Gun,  20 x 20

Somewhere in West Virginia,  20 x 20

Wahlstrom now lives in NYC, but his gallery remains in Sweden.

These two pieces may be aimed at European collectors who like to look down at wacky, violent Americans.

Is that an opium poppy field those two empty headed Appalachians are standing in?

The young man with the big gun feels like a religious figure,
perhaps the patron saint of mass murder.

The lively show fits quite well into a downscale public space - this somewhat claustrophobic cafe area at the Swedish-American Museum.

There is humor and satire here as with the Chicago Imagists - but it feels more social than personal. It’s not the viewer who has gone wacky - it’s the society.  And the formal power, when present, makes the critical viewpoint more convincing.

Friday, March 22, 2024

System and Dialectics of Art - Madron Gallery

Left to right: Kristen Phipps, Joseph Royer ( 3 pieces ), Bruce Thorn

Soon after turning forty,  Russian emigre John D. Graham (1886-1961) began to compile his magnum opus "System and Dialectics of Art" - a  free-wheeling lexicon of  the "fundamental terms’’ on the subject of art. A born aristocrat, he trained as an attorney and later served as a cavalry officer.  Fleeing to New York to escape the Bolsheviks,  he began to study, make,  curate, and write about art. At that time, he was especially enthusiastic about Picasso and he collected  sub-Saharan African sculpture.

John Graham, Model in studio, 1935 (left)

These two Graham pieces are included in this exhibit.
The one on the left appears to be a student piece though it’s dated 1935.

John Graham, Still Life with Fish, 1941, 25 x30 (detail)

Everything else in this exhibit comes from local artists who responded to the curator's call for submissions.  Each of their works  is accompanied by one of the questions Graham asked and answered  in his book - and often they clash.

For example, the three pieces by Joseph Royer shown at the top are matched with "What is the relationship of symmetry to art?"  ..  which Graham bluntly answers with "Symmetry has no place in art.  Symmetry is balance by repetition.  Art knows only the balance of unequivalent elements.".

To the left,  "LAUGHs",  the large, cheerful  piece by Kristen Phipps, is accompanied by "What is the origin of a work of art ?".  Elsewhere, however, Graham has asked  "What place has humour in art?"  … and his answer is "None. Humour, or sense of humour, is nothing else but a deficiency in the sense of joy…..a substitute for impotents, or castrates, deprived of primeval sense of joy."  Ouch!  That would seem to disqualify anything lighthearted as a "work of art".  And  the reference to masculine potency might exclude any female artists as well.  Graham mentioned many painters and writers in his book - and none were women.

To the right, Bruce Thorn’s "Blue Rider" is accompanied by "Is painting a two-dimensional or a three-dimensional proposition?".  Graham answers with  "Painting is a two-dimensional proposition because of the very nature of the operating space. Modeling as a means of expression belongs to sculpture".   For sure, Thorn has not modeled illusory volumes in an Albertian picture box. But he does make careful use of paint’s three dimensional properties - as did Van Gogh ( one of the 11 artists Graham listed under "great painting")


With a few exceptions, this exhibit no better represents the art of our time than Graham’s book represents the art theory of a hundred years ago.  Both offer much of what is typical - but little of what transcends that.  They do, however exemplify the glaring difference between the American artworld of 1920’s and that of  a hundred years later:   the growing preference for concept over form.

 For Graham :  "Art has nothing to do with representation, impersonation, interpretation, decoration, compromise, character, caricature or psychological problems... Form itself expresses fully all elements of subject matter, character, tragedy and psychology. " Something like that is the  principle that underlies the great encyclopedic collections of world art that art museums had begun to assemble in earlier decades.  We might note, however, that Graham would eventually abandon this dogma, as Poussin replaced Picasso as his guiding light, and mystical symbols replaced mystical energies.
 Most of the art in this exhibit is primarily notable for its craftsmanship and concept.  Form - as the  "Ability to control the stream of energy in regard to space" (Graham) - or what might  also be called the inner spirit of shape - is less of an issue - and might even have been considered a distraction.

Bruce Thorn, Blue Rider,  ( detail )
Oil on linen, 24x 30

The two exceptions, for me, are the pieces by Bruce Thorn and Misu.  Whatever concepts were intended (and presumably Thorn was thinking about the early Modernism of Der Blaue Reiter ), it's the mysterious, and quite different, origin of their forms that holds my attention. Thorn’s pictorial world is so cosmic, tumultuous, and eternal.

Misu, If not for the Charm of Old Memories, I’d be Tangled in Knots, 
Acrylic and marker on Rosin paper, 24 x 36

While Misu’ s pictorial world is so romantic, beautiful, and ephemeral.

Kristen Phipps, LAUGHs, mixed media on canvas, 62 x 44

This piece also seemed to be going where I would like to follow, but then got frustrated with its own cuteness.

Kara Cobb Johnson, Articulation of Form;  PrismaGrid Sketches
wire fence, transparent colored vinyl, acrylic medium

Curiously, the above piece was  accompanied by the question:
What is the language of form?

Possibly it was chosen because the word "form" is in the title - but the visual effect - as well as the artist’s statement would contradict that:

Kara creates work from a conceptual core. Her focus is to create harmony within a picture plane, installation space, or sculpture. This authentic, playful, creative investment honestly scribes the dual natured demands of American womanhood and motherhood. The use of her hand and body moving around a work or through a space is also of import, making the work tactile and immediate in conception and commitment, but contemplative and cathartic in creation and consumption. Often works are renamed as time passes and according to where a work is displayed which can change the meaning it can evoke in each new setting. Her current works explore communication and propaganda in America today. She manipulates reflective hazard tape and electrical tape and fencing along with paper and cellophane to create light bending ephemeral installation landscapes that question stability and re-calibrate perception unique to each viewer.


Basically, this is a survey of the local emerging artists who applied to participate - much like those programs of exhibits on 35th St. at the Bridgeport Art Center and the Zhao B Art Center.  But the inttroduction of a fascinating document of art theory has made for a more thought provoking - and less illustration-packed show.  

Madron gallery is like no other in the Chicago area.  It’s the owners’ collection of early 20th  C. American painting - on permanent display as a kind of museum - and periodically  enhanced with special exbhits of their favorite artists, both historic and contemporary.  It is happily quite independent of the trends followed by all the other art museums in our area.


BTW - a free PDF of Graham's book is offered online - and it does make for some good reading.

Here are a few of my favorite excerpts: 

Desire to have ethnographical or circumstantial information about an object of collection, or art is : a) a desire to pose as a scholar, b) a fear to be taken for a newly-rich ignoramus, c) an inability to SEE the object as SUCH in all its self-sufficiency, d) a desire to sneak in on it in an underhanded manner, under false pretense of high science, or high art through the back door, and form an opinion based on irrevelent, circumstantial, circumstantial, ethnographical and anecdotical evidence about the object. These people will never learn.

This is a plea for the sacrosanct authority of the relationship between viewer and viewed. It denies the premise of academic art education as we now know it….. and I agree with Graham.

…All painting based on modeling is a make-believe painting or an illusory art. … Giotto misunderstood Byzantine paintings precepts.

Even if  an appropriate antidote to the common trope of Byzantine artists as backward and  ignorant — didn’t Graham ever enter the Scrovegni Chapel?

The Egyptians and Greeks painted men and animals aligned in postures and gestures within the operating plane, flat. It is not that they could not paint them in perspective but that they did not choose to do so. Painting in perspective was known to the antique world (paintings of grapes to which birds used to come and nibble at) and was not discovered by the Subject matter or plot or anecdote has nothing to do with a work of art; it has no place in a work of art. Form itself expresses fully all elements of subject matter, character, tragedy and psychology. Subject matter has no educational value. ……. The interest in subject matter is a degenerate desire to get results quickly without the tedious process of legitimate creation. Such is the art of a capitalist society - the art devoid of form but rich in anecdotal matter, the art derived from an extreme rectum - consciousness, financial-value-consciousness, the art of great care in execution and cleanliness, the art of sterility

The rectum consciousness of capitalist society — devoid of form but rich in anecdotal matter ?

That characterizes the high-end contemporary artworld -  does it not?

What is the most important element in art ? …..Revelation through pure form (not style) in space.

A quote worth remembering - though I wish I liked Graham’s paintings more. Picasso and then Poussin may have been his heroes , but I’m not sure what he learned from them. One of his pieces in the show looks like mediocre student work, while the other is no more than annoying.  No love of life in either one.

How is a great work of art recognized?…….When the gods speak, the figure is stupendous and frightful

This speaks to what Graham is looking for, based on his own life experiences.  I’m sure he would get along quite well with our local artist, Wesley Kimler - before they tried to kill each other.

...Genius travels the road of ruthless investigation, argumentation and conclusion. The road is vertiginous. Genius questions everything, prys mysteries of divinity open, challenges all. Genius is of Satan; because his processess are negative though the results are eventually positive. The desire to create is a demoniac desire to rival the first creator, the primeval father, the Sun, to challenge him desperately and in love as Satan; and Prometheus did. Satan; perhaps, is the most poetic and the saddest image humanity has ever created. His burning desire for truth and pure deity (marve!) led him to challenge this very deity offering his own flesh as target for its wrath....

Is Modern Art really satanic?  Hans Rookmaaker thought so. ("Modern Art and the Death of a Culture")

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Perl, Rapport, and Zabicki at College of DuPage


Emily Rapport, Phase I (Advocate General), 30 x 40, 2023

Three very different approaches to an aesthetic of ordinary American daily life - by three painters with much in common:  white, local,  female, aged 45-65.  As gallery text reminds us, this is the kind of show one might have seen a hundred years ago.  Well -- that show would have had male artists — but there’s a few other differences as well:

Karen Perl’s update on Edward Hopper’s urban  desolation is even more desolate - perhaps because the urban architecture has not changed.  It’s just become less real - less substantial- dream-lit instead of sun-lit.  More like a fading memory than a slice of life.  And it’s inevitably accompanied by a lone, lanky canine companion instead of people.   Hopper’s paintings said "this is America". Perl’s say "this is my world" - and it's ghostly.

Gwendolyn Zabicki is also an American scene painter - though more in the tradition of  street photography than figurative painting.  She captures candid, instantaneous  personal moments - as if with the click of a shutter and the camera’s single point-of-view.  The images feel  fresh and unexpected- for example: a man testing the firmness of cooked pasta as glimpsed through a kitchen window.  The paintings do not feel as clinical and journalistic as photography - but neither do they go very far into painterliness.  The narrative subject  is everything.  This is magazine illustration.

And that’s how the paintings of Emily Rapport are way different:  subject is still important- but no more so than the painted surface.  And her subject is remarkable: the everyman city.  Not the show-places like Millennium Park - or the glass canyons of the Loop - or the architectural gems of the elite.  She paints the neighborhoods where most people live — and usually she paints them as they are being built or repaired. And so she celebrates ordinary urban life - while not forgetting the constant care it takes to maintain.  No reference to gender or ethnic identity. No participation in the discourses of contemporary art theory.  Not even a whiff of irony or aloof alienation. Just love of our social fabric. (That which extremists of every persuasion are so eager to tear asunder )

And yet her painterliness is no less remarkable.  Her pieces show a greedy appetite for space, luminosity, and graphic energy. They could not have been done before Cezanne, but they seem to be innocent of their Modernism. They just use whatever is available to tell their story.  

Emily Rapport, Ivy Covered House, 44 x 48, 2023

Here is my favorite of the large pieces - no humans are present -and yet they  are everywhere. A wonderful  place to share a few beers - as well as a composition challenged by a vertical line right up the center - which I didn’t notice for the first ten viewings. What I did notice was the wacky twisting space of the stairway, and how it contrasted with the other, more placid vertical zones. I feel inebriated just looking at it.

Emily Rapport, Vacant Lot,  24 x 28, 2015

Here’s my favorite of the smaller pieces - and again she’s challenged the design by emphasizing the center. What’s different, however, is the melancholy mood.  There’s something so sad about a dark, neglected, empty space in the neighborhood 

It’s not that the Zabicki and Perl paintings aren’t worth seeing. They both offer a clear path into how they feel about a world they know so well.  But Rapport gives us more of what Old Master paintings once did: a vision of social order as validated by the power of formal organization - running down into each mark on the canvas. More is at stake.


Mention should also be made of the institution that hosted this show - the Cleve-Carney Gallery of the College of DuPage.  Like  the Koehnline museum of Oakton Community College to  the north, it often presents contemporary art free of the ideological dogma that governs the art museums of the Chicago area’s major universities (Northwestern, University of Chicago, DePaul). 



  Dmitry Samarov also reviewed the show for the Chicago Reader.

Saturday, December 16, 2023

Antonio Canova at the Art Institute of Chicago

A review of Canova : Sketching in Clay - at the Art institute of Chicago

Canova, Hebe, 1816

The modern aesthetic often prefers the quick sketch to the finished work in both painting and sculpture.  They’re so much more spontaneous,  expressive, and fresh.  Many old master painters only appear in American museums for their preparatory drawings.
 Chicago has yet to see a major exhibit of marbles by Antonio  Canova (1757-1822) - and that's not surprising.  They emphasize smoothness on the outside, emptiness on the inside, and a dryly rational organization of surrounding space as well as narrative.  They were indeed appropriate for the Age of Enlightenment as well as empire  . But they were anathema to the modern world that soon followed.   Modern sculpture defined itself as the exact opposite.  Forward looking sculptors were even expected to carve their own stone, start to finish.

A celebrity in his own time, multiple editions of Canova's designs  were executed by the craftsmen in his studio.  His hands touched only the clay sketches - and sometimes  gave finishing touches to the marble.  This exhibition offers several opportunities to see the original clay, the finished marble, and sometimes the intermediary steps as well.

The finished marbles for my favorite clay sketch (shown above)  did not travel to this show, so we’ll have to go to the internet for images:

The angle of the torso is quite different - the clay piece  leans back, the  marble leans forward. Even more important is the inner dynamics.  The clay seems to erupt from the unfurling drapery around the middle. The marble drapery just sits there in frozen perfection.

Yikes! Canova was a "modern" sculptor when he wanted to be. (Though those inner dynamics  can also  be found in sculpture throughout art history, beginning with the very earliest)

Turning to the front view -  compare the uplift in the clay with the heaviness of the marble
 ( from Victoria Art Gallery, Bath )

Right:  Berlin State Museum
See how drapery reveals bulging volumes beneath it in the clay, but not  the marble.

Should  the clay version that came to this show really be called a study ?
It was hardly dashed off in a few hours.
It's more like a finished presentation piece intended as a gift for some important person.

Canova, Humility, 1783
This one feels more sketchy -
and it's another one of my favorites.
The finished marble - a detail in the tomb of Clement XIV - is so different, there's no point in showing it.  Suffice it to say - it's nowhere near as expressive 

It appears even more powerful in this lighting

Canova, Madame Mere, Latizia Bonaparte, 1803-5

The portrait of Napoleon’s mother is the largest marble in the exhibition, and it’s accompanied by several sketches in clay and one intermediary plaster cast.  From a distance, this view is a nightmare - the head sits so awkwardly on the torso.  Up close, it’s almost as bad since every detail feels frozen, lifeless, and divorced. This looks like a funerary monument - it belongs in a crypt.

This clay sketch is much more lively- and it’s sweet as well.  As gallery signage notes, it does indeed project  "an air of powerful yet informal majesty". Noting the inscription on the base, this may not have served as a preparatory sketch at all - but was spun off from the project to serve as a gift..

St. Helena, Roman,  Head 325 AD, Torso second century

This ancient piece is often credited as the model for Canova’s Madame Mere.  How appropriate!  Helena was the mother of another great emperor: Constantine. 
The head was also created apart from the torso — maybe two centuries later - but it still makes for a better match . The torso attends to inner volume and displays the interaction of opposing forces that pleases the eyes and gives it life. Note, for example, how the front leg of the chair meets and continues the line of the drapery fold above it.  Canova’s version ignores that possible connection.

Canova, Magdalene, (Genoa version - 1893-6)

This is the other large marble in the show. The green to pink colors in the stone feel so flesh like it’s spooky - because the form appears so cold and lifeless.

The exhibit put this piece near the floor, so viewers looked down at it.  But as this online photo shows, it looks better when the chest is eye level.

Here is a beautifully lit detail from the Museo Canova.
Believe me - it looks nothing like this on the floor of Regenstein Hall.

Canova, Magdalene (Hermitage version, 1808-9)

This later copy is now in St.Petersburg.
The detail is more delicate - especially in the hair - but the power in the torso has been lost. Perhaps that reflects the changing taste of Canova - or maybe a different crew did the carving for him.

Donatello, Magdalen , 1440

We can’t blame Canova for catering to the taste of his contemporaries - he had to make a living.

But still…..

Donatello’s wood carving is on fire with spiritual intensity.
Wouldn’t you like to see what she sees?
Canova’s marble is a sweet young thing, tearing up with shame.
Wouldn’t you like to touch her soft skin?

Canova, Bust of  Paris, 1809

This piece gives us a good opportunity to study Canova’s final touches to the marble surface.

It was gifted to Quatremere de Quincy - a distinguished art administrator and architectural theorist - so I’m guessing that Canova did the very best job he could.

Photos cannot reveal the special quality of the polished surface.  It’s infused with light, and transitions are oh-so soft.  It almost feels backlit - especially when compared to the flatness of the plaster casts in the show.

Canova, Nymph and Satyr, 1786

Many of the clay "sketches" really appeared to have been taken much further.  This one, however, might have been mostly done in fifteen minutes.  It’s a rape scene  - isn’t it?  Or at least one of those old school interactions where "no" really means "yes".  Nowadays about as politically incorrect as Trump.  But it’s so expressive - and it designs space so well - it’s often been used to promote this exhibition.

Overall, this is a welcome  show of a surprising master.  Will his reputation be revived, now that the Modernism that rejected him continues to fall farther away from contemporary art?  He even has an Instagram account:  museocanova

Bernini, Torso of Pluto, 1621

Yet he still seems eclipsed by Bernini whose terracottas came to Chicago in 1998. Compared with that Baroque master, Canova’s work is just "pretty".