Art Letter

February 2005 Archives


Every time I walk out the door and go visit galleries I find something I like, but as I was explaining to my son this afternoon, meaningful experiences don't always have to be positive - just real.

Two of my favorite artists have exhibits opening Friday night at Roy Boyd Gallery.  I've known John Fraser ever since I came to Chicago in 1981. He makes gorgeous minimal work and his new works are breakthrough gorgeous.  I am thrilled to see these new pieces.  They are subtle, radiant gems.  The distance he has traveled and the dedication he manifests are significant. When I first knew John he was a financially successful "artist" who exhibited in street art fairs, like the the Gold Coast or Wells Street Art Fairs.  He wasn't satisfied with just making money; he wanted to make art so he dropped out of that scene and went to art school.  Of course he was good, but for years his cash flow didn't come close to when he was aiming lower. And that never slowed him down.  His work has long been about the quiet parts of books, the end pages, the parts we don't much pay attention to.  His work is calm and passionate and the new ones meld his interest in books with his passion for wood. This work isn't for everyone.  To appreciate it one needs to slow down and really look, and when we do John's art really gives back.  They are a treat. Give them a moment and see if I'm not right.

Upstairs at Boyd my friend Vadim Katznelson is stumping me again with a body of work that is magic in its creation. This work fascinates me. He makes paint look like a skein of yarn's endpieces, and despite our friendship he won't tell me how they are done. I've learned a lot about Vadim from playing poker with him and in case you are curious there is a oneness about his art and his poker: he plays both thoroughly and methodically.  Raised in Russia until he was 13, Vadim is a product of both cultures.  His art gives a lot, but really reveals itself over time as we decipher the myriad layers of method and content he loads into his pieces.

Across the street Carl Hammer is presenting two shows. I'm intrigued by the "photographs" by Wei Hsueh. She lays her whole body directly on an oversize flatbed scanner and "takes a picture."  Check out how small her pupils are in the pieces where she leaves her eyes open.  She is both the artist and the subject.  Some shots work better than others. It is not sufficient to be fascinated by one's medium to the extent that content gets pushed out of the picture. That's not happening here, but I am more intrigued by the process than the results.

Upstairs at Carl Hammer Gallery is an impressive display of photographs by Bill Steber, a photographer from the "old" South. It is not that his work is old; it is that he knows the terrain so well that he captures indigenous content that the rest of us never see - old musicians, old cotton pickers who still pick by hand and a valid heartfelt look at the land and content that will soon be as gone as we thought it was.

A little bit further south at Gwenda Jay / Addington Gallery a new body of work by Robin Denevan is on view. I've always associated this gallery with an earthy perspective, an appreciation of nature, its power and influence.  This show supports that view.  Denevan's encaustic (wax) and oil paintings are contemplative studies of nature and forest light.

Around the corner at Perimeter Gallery is a three-person group show of works by Lana Bernberg, Greg Murr and Nathan Joseph.  I've known Joseph's work for a long time and have enjoyed tracking his solitary growth.  He has always worked with forms that look like painting but in fact are welded, colored steel. This time he has abandoned his Hans Hoffmanesque compositions of colored steel rectangles in favor of smaller, more linear elements, which I personally find more successful.

Across the street from Perimeter, Jean Albano Gallery has mounted a show of new works by John Himmelfarb.  John is a long time Chicagoan and I see him as an intellectual.  He always has a lot of ideas going, from an interest in language, hieroglyphics, symbols, to subliminal meaning and just good fun. Tangentially reminiscent of Adolph Gottlieb's early pictographs, Himmelfarb's work is solid and uniquely his own despite the many other artists his work refers to.

There are several shows up whose openings I missed.

Next door to Jean Albano, at Maya Polsky Gallery, we are treated to an impressive memorial exhibition of paintings by Ed Paschke. His death at Thanksgiving was a huge loss for the Chicago art community. Ed was a Chicago artist with a galactic (global) reputation who stayed in Chicago.  That the Art Institute and the Museum of Contemporary Art treated him like they tend to treat all local artists speaks loud and clear. Ed was available, accessible and a friend.  He made a difference in life and is already making a difference in death.  He is a stimulus for significant changes to the art landscape to come.  I promise.  Maya's show has work as old as 1969 and a piece that was not quite finished when he died. There is a lot of work: I'd probably rather see fewer pieces more often, but at least Maya is doing what the museums should have, enabling our joy and sorrow about the life of Ed Paschke, a great artist and human.

In the West Loop, at Kavi Gupta Gallery challenged me with Susan Giles's ostensibly disjointed show. It was hard for me to believe that the two portions of the exhibit were by the same artist. There is an awesome installation of white "steel" girders in the man room, with familiar angles on the threshold of cognition.  In a smaller room I watched a video that looked like someone had strung together moving images from video cameras dangling from tourists' necks as unintentional glimpses of major attractions are perceived but not quite seen.  Reading the explanatory text, I learned that it is indeed about tourism, the familiarity of the overlooked and that those white girders were a 3 dimensional rendering of the base of the Eiffel Tower.  It was provocative. Susan is a good artist and I haven't yet made up my mind about this show.

It sure was good to see Mary Sprague's art across the hall from Kavi at Kraft Lieberman Gallery. Mary has been a friend for years and she draws big ol' quirky pictures. I like her and I like her art. I don't see enough of it in town, but seeing it here felt good.

And finally, but certainly not last, at the River East Art Center is a group of paintings by Corey Postiglione that is not in a gallery per se, but rather fills a space that would otherwise be vacant.  Corey comes close to being a Renaissance man, teaching at Columbia College, curating exhibits for various regional galleries, writing critics and publishing catalog essays.  It's a wonder he can make art with so many aesthetic influences pushing him in divergent directions.  His art maintains a clear vision and constant exploration.  Resembling a labyrinth, this is thoughtful, vaguely geometric, open abstraction.  I like Corey a lot.  He gives more to his community than most. And personally I'd like to see him spend more time with his art.  He has a lot left to communicate visually and I for one want to see it.

That's it for now. There're some people out there whose work is worth seeing.  And I appreciate your looking. Together we are making a difference. A gallery owner told me today that they'd sold art to someone who'd said they wouldn't have known about the show if it weren't for the Art Letter. I like making a difference - and so are you.  So, thank you.  Paul


I should not have been surprised.  I might even be guilty.

Until last May I'd been selling art for over 30 years straight.  You'd have thought I would have gotten used to it.  A collector and friend had referred me to a kindly young lady who had "three etchings of significant value" in need of an appraisal.  I went to look. Argh.  They were reproductions. I told her their worth was in the low two digits.

That didn't take long, but good manners dictated that we conduct small talk for a few minutes before my departure.  She was taken aback by the news of Ed Paschke's recent death, but recovered quickly enough to blurt "Oh good. Michael's collection will certainly be going up in value now, right?"

The answer is not really, probably not, maybe, could be, you never know. But that is not the point. That is not the point at all.  There is a loss in the art world and there is a loss in Chicago.  Ed Paschke was a giant who lived and loved art for all the right reasons. Art took care of Ed and he gave back.  He was arguably Chicago's greatest artist and he was easily one of the planet's greatest people.

That's how it is supposed to be with art.  It's not about the commodification of art, the commercialization, the selling of hype over substance. Or is it?

Almost daily we are overwhelmed with reports of odd or glorious works of art selling for obtuse sums of money.  Artists become rock stars largely because they want to, and because some can. The same idolatry that ensnarls musicians, entertainers, and professional athletes today includes artists, even as society at large disdains them.  How can you not encourage artists to ride the wave when they get lucky? But the art, the poor art. It gets overlooked as an object of beauty, or of truth, or of inspiration, and becomes a symbol, a symbol of value.  Today in New York City there's at least one gallery quoting prices in Euros.

The unfortunate thing is that art, or at least the acquisition of art, has been pretentious for a very long time.  Art has rarely been aimed at, or appreciated by, the masses.  That is a rather new notion.  Art for art's sake is even newer.

Historically, art has been for the aggrandizement of power, the glorification or appeasement of gods and scorekeeping.  Who has the biggest?  Who has the best?  Who has the most? Too often it is not about connoisseurship, not about pursuit of quality, not about inspiration, and not about meaning.

Today, globalization plays a role in the changes in the art world. Globalization is everywhere, and I don't hear much about how it affects the art world.  The role-model of the art gallery as an instrumental purveyor of aesthetics has diminished while the role of the art fair has elevated.  Galleries (smaller physically and quicker afoot) exhibit several times a year at these fairs, pushing a commercial consciousness and obscuring the notion of a "local artist." Soon there will even be an "art fair" year round on a boat that works the waters along our Eastern seaboard.

Art fairs are not about education and only occasionally about building relationships.  Instead, they are about making the sale. But let us not blame art fairs; though they contribute to globalization in art they are just symptomatic. Regardless, the playing field for the local artist has changed, and will continue to do so.

Art is getting more distinctly broken into two categories: above or below $100,000.   Below that threshold, and especially below $10,000, art is about content, meaning, stimulation, motivation - all the good things. Over $100,000, art transcends these issues and becomes about value, and its meaning is influenced by value. Thus a Curran is more "important" than a Tuttle.

But at what point does the work of art become irrelevant?  Though they still say Jasper Johns is making great paintings, I haven't seen one in at least a dozen years. Yet the prices still climb, even for his newest work.

I recently had a conversation with a dealer friend from London who called  Robert Rauschenberg the greatest living artist.  Conversely, Marcel Duchamp is not in his top 25,000.  Rauschenberg was "in" because he's influenced more artists than anyone else. And Duchamp was out because he initiated "art as anything," which leads to the folly that exists today.

Over $100,000 artwork becomes a chit, a commodity. At some point it gets anointed by museum acquisition and stuck with the accidental irony of a corresponding wall label explaining that "this artist's work is about commercialism in our society and the commodification of values."

So where does that leave the local artist? (I define "local" as an artist who hasn't yet made it big, isn't worried about trying to be humble, and wonders if making art will ever be worth it.) The local artist is judged on a different scale with a different set of criteria. The local artist seeks to appeal to a much broader audience with a broader array of issues.  Value is intrinsic instead of external. Quality is relevant, supply likely more abundant, and in all probability the art more genuine because the sentiment is more authentic.

I host a website that has a discussion forum ( - click on "letters in"). It is predominantly frequented by artists, though all are invited. I don't think any of the artists who post sell art for above $100,000. The discussions are solid. The artists talk about meaning, technique, how to learn from one another, philosophy, a lot about Duchamp, music, and the local art scene. They're discussing the things that matter to them, not money, not art as product, just the things that brought them to art in the first place.  It's nice.

I think the foregoing is true of local artists everywhere. Their art is an embodiment of significant issues and is not adulterated by thoughts of price-tag permeating the creative process.  Commercialism just doesn't enter into it.

This is a mixed blessing.  For though local artists definitely create art with more purity of purpose, these artists could assuredly live better if they applied some money smarts to their work, or if we supported our own better.  Think about who benefits from the sale (or more likely resale) of pricey works of art.  It probably isn't someone in your community, who might otherwise be spending money on something of benefit to you.  Now think about a piece by a local artist. The difference is huge - especially the amount of good you do and the pleasure you get.

The purposes of art are many.  Its power is remarkable and subtle. We're seeing new strategies for employing art and making the "art experience" more genuine for more people.  We are opening the eyes of young people who had never thought art was an option.  By extension, we learn about cultures that don't reflect ours.  There is a direct reward for nurturing your community, supporting the arts, and shopping locally.

Paul Klein closed his gallery less than a year ago. He has recently been selected as the art consultant for the McCormick Place West Expansion. He plans to spend the entire budget on Chicago artists. He is continuing discussions about the creation of two new museums in Chicago.


I've been running around the last two days checking out the new shows. There are some good ones.

Julia Walsh of Walsh Gallery consistently does a great job of presenting strong, challenging, thoughtful exhibitions.  Anyone who is working as hard as I used to is making a significant effort. Julie goes back and forth between China frequently, creates thematically museum-worthy shows and keeps on moving. She's got at least as many irons in the fire as I do and is perpetually conjuring up new visions. Not only that, she tears down the walls of her gallery for each exhibit and reconfigures it to fit the show. Her new show, which opens Friday is called Face to Face and was inspired by the art and travels of Michael Miller whose art I first showed about 20 years ago. Miller teaches printmaking and the School of the Art Institute and I doubt he ever unpacks his suitcase.  He has an affinity for Asia and a fondness for Korea. Art provides a common language in his travels and while in Korea came across the exemplary and prolific linocuts of Won-Chul Jung.  There are faces in Miller's art and there are faces in Jung's work, who reveals the beauty of the underbelly of faces in Korea; the faces of the "women of comfort" who comforted Japanese during WW II, but these are their faces today, some 60 years later.  Or the faces of the white immigrants who are imported to do the dirty work. Julie Walsh does a great job.  Her shows open our eyes to another world and to ourselves.  I am moved every time I visit her gallery.

Downstairs, Rhona Hoffman has a special show of paintings by Adam Pendleton. These are paintings of poems - altered, structured, spaced to fit a canvas. As bold as they are, they are subtle.  It is not so much that the paintings are visually gorgeous; they are only slightly "prettier" than Joseph Kosuth, but they generate images all by themselves, beautiful powerful meaningful images.  I found the work fresh, innovative and genuine.

Monique Meloche is opening a solid show of new videos by Alison Ruttan who states "I am intrigued by responses that feel hard wired, particularly those that seem to undercut our ability to make a measured reaction." I've watched the videos. They are good yet, I still have difficulty with art that mandates one read the explanatory text to appreciate or even comprehend the content of the work.  I prefer a relationship between form and substance and if I choose to pursue additional information I want it available, but I don't think it should be mandatory. Alison Ruttan has the ability and the tools to make important art.  I can see the potential.  I look forward to the reality.

Across the street Jeff McMahon's paintings at Bodybuilder and Sportsman Gallery are intelligent, restrained, thoughtful, enigmatic exercises in looking, seeing, meditating and exploring. One doesn't see a focus and perseverance like this very often. The Day Sail Ship Series strikes me as important.  I bet a substantial portion of the series ends up in museums soon.

Down the hall Wendy Cooper Gallery is presenting a group show of an array of artists they are considering for representation, much the way many galleries' summer group shows present ideas they are exploring. There is some nice work in this show.  It'll be interesting to see if those I like the best end up as part of the gallery's stable.

Also opening Friday are some strong exhibits in River North. I Space is a university gallery affiliated with the University of Illinois, predominantly to showcase the talent at the school.  This exhibit features maquettes and artifacts of a Milwaukee architecture firm named Johnsen Schmaling. It is a good show beautifully presented. Maybe it's the presentation I'm most moved by.  The architecture is good, but the installation is great. And it is here that artists can learn by just looking; the way thinks are done smartly, simply, directly and differently, yet genuinely. Sometimes it takes something in a medium slightly removed from one's own to be able to see the gift o a fresh idea. This is that kind of show.  Also on exhibit is the Chicago Architectural Club Members Exhibition featuring many of my favorite Chicago architects.  I frequently get excited and grow from looking at innovative architecture. I want to spend more time with this show. And if that weren't enough the playful, absurd, glowing lamps from found objects by Ana Levan and Julie Force just make me smile.

Wrapping up the openings of the shows I previewed is the work of Anoka Faruqee and David Driscoll, called inherent order at Zolla/Lieberman Gallery. This is a good title for this exhibit of work so disparate, yet related by a fascination with "the order of things."  Faruqee's paintings are composed of meticulously drawn symbols reminiscent of "stars' from the game of Jacks. Over and over again she draws these marks in different colors and as they spread they generate an image just like an over-pixilated jpeg.  I'd go frickin crazy making just 5 of these starry things and each piece has a zillion of them. Not only that, she can compose anything she wants out of these marks.  There are a number of diptychs in the show that show off this ability. This mantra of labor would make me crazy. I respect the work, but as I vicariously ponder its execution I find sanity departing.  Also in this two person show is the art of David Driscoll who operates at the opposite end of the spectrum. He is the mad scientist artist, mixing quasi-compatible elements to generate Martian looking landscapes, an attractive rendering of a rocky terrain that seems entirely realistic and other worldly. Yes, there is order here, but it comes from joyously from outside, whereas Faruqee's comes painfully from within. I had to ask if these two artists knew each other, if they liked being in the same show together because I've never seen two peoples art be so diametrically different.  The answer was pretty simple; they're married.  You've got to see this just to ponder what their relationship must be like.

I saw some challenging exhibits in January, but not enough at any one moment to generate an art letter.  The following shows are still up and worth seeing.

City Selections: Art from the Galleries opened last Friday in the space across the street from the Chicago Cultural Center. What you have here is a selection of art from six of Chicago's contemporary, alternative galleries. This is an example of the city supporting private enterprise because it believes in the program sand quality of these galleries presentations. The exhibit is presented in a space used by the Department of Tourism during the 6 warmer months of the year (when more tourists are around) and is expanding its identity to embrace expansive and instructive shows like this one. More than anything this show is a smorgasbord; Mason invited 6 galleries to participate and they decided what they want to show.  It has a lot of good energy and it's the city helping the fledglings.  Kudos all the way around.

I like people and galleries with a healthy good attitude, a welcoming spirit and something to say.  That's why I like going to Western Exhibitions on west Kinzie. Solid shows. I don't always agree with the art or the philosophy of the artists on view, but it's always thoughtful and thought provoking. I learn something every time I go there and think about what I've seen for days to come. On view are works by Justin Schaefer and Gregg Perkins.  Their work is really disparate by the guiding philosophy behind each is amazingly compatible with the other.

Essentially Western Exhibitions sublets from Lisa Boyle Gallery, or so I've been led to believe. You've got to walk through Lisa's gallery to get to Western Exhibitions.  Most of these alternative galleries are only open on Saturday afternoons, which can be a little challenging for us, the viewer.  But when you consider that Lisa works full time for another, non-alternative gallery we have to appreciate the sizable labor of love these folks undertake to present art that is only on view 20 or so hours per month. Francis Fitzpatrick's works are on view at Boyle and when you talk to either Lisa (or Scott at Western Exhibitions) the conversation is about the art and, its meaning instead of the more common and less enjoyable sales pitch I feel too often at the more commercial galleries.

Over in the West Loop I was eager to see Liliana Porter's art at Carrie Secrist Gallery.  Twenty years ago I included Liliana's paintings in group exhibits in my gallery and I like charting an artist's progress over time. In Liliana case the medium has changed but the content remains essentially the same, albeit a bit more expansive.  It's about seeing and perceiving. What is and what isn't - and it's subtle.  A page torn from a book and an exact painted replica of that page. A figurine and a painting of it. Kind of gets to be like a friendly pun, warm slightly humorous, fun.

Around the corner, upstairs, in Aron Packer's back room is a most curious work of art - a Shark Girl standing in front of a drawing of Shark Girls. And there are more of them hiding in Aron's drawers (careful Aron).  I've pondered Casey Riordan Millard's sculpture for days and I can't figure a damned thing out.  Enigmatic and curious.  Somebody give me some clues!

That's it. This month it looks like there's something for everyone.  Get out there and check it out. Even the weather is going to be good Friday and Saturday.

Let me know what you think, or express yourself on the Bulletin Board (click on "Letters In.")