Art Letter

September 2005 Archives


I've seen a lot of galleries recently, besides those I previewed a week ago. I saw a couple of really memorable exhibits and quite a few other good ones. 

I'm still seeing galleries overcrowding exhibits - one even had the "exact" same image hanging next to itself, just in a different size. This is what I call "subtraction by addition." There are better ways to let the public know that things can be had in different sizes besides sticking all the variables on the wall.

Here you go - my two favorite shows:
Catherine Edelman Gallery has two shows. On is really wonderful. Titled, The Animal Within, Catherine has in most cases asked her favorite artists to create sympathetic animal pictures. An animal rights activist, Catherine's sentiment is revealed through the artists in her show. There is not a specific point that is driven home in the dozen or so artists familiar to many of us; just slightly atypical images wonderfully enhanced by other compelling renderings in the same show. Also on view at Edelman are new "fantastic" photos by Joel-Peter Witkin.  If you have not seen his work before, you should.  He uses odd bits and parts from morgues and pathology labs to construct mildly gruesome images.  If you have seen them before, they were probably better the first time.

Susan Gescheidle has pulled out the stops this time. (Perhaps you've noticed I've been harping on how galleries are sacrificing the quality of the presentation (read Art) to ostensibly improve commerce - a thought process I consider specious.)  Well Susan has reversed the equation.  She is presenting two powerful exhibits containing lucid statements that are all but unsaleable.  In fact, they are so strong, and so unsaleable that I'm very tempted to buy something. Husband & wife team Tom Burtonwood and Holly Holmes make the most political of art - perhaps out of the Hans Haacke mold. It is a harsh critique of America's military mentality.  Bravo.  Furthermore, anytime a gallery blows a hole through a wall for the sake of art, something good must be going on.

Simultaneously presented is a monster wall-sized portrait by
Geoffrey Smalley of Donald Rumsfeld in Baghdad, except we can't see his face, just his tell-tale Land's End hiking boots. These are two really good exhibits at Gescheidle that reveal how strong a gallery can be when their priorities are in the right place.

Other shows I liked are sprinkled all over the place.  In the South Loop
A + D Gallery has a special show titled The Cartoonist's Eye. I feel like a newcomer to cartoon art. I've been overwhelmingly impressed with the brilliant technical work of Chicagoan Chris Ware; how he employs savvy compositional techniques and means of communicating a message that is, as far as I can tell completely overlooked, by the merely mortal painters I know. Too many of us have been looking down our noses at the "lesser arts." It's been my loss, but I'm now trying to catch up.  This show helps.

I like the
Maxwell Street exhibit at Stephen Daiter Gallery.   As I've said in other ArtLetters, I'm a sucker for good nostalgia. This show's a bell ringer

In the large front gallery at
Flatfile, Inga McCaslin Frick's intelligent, seductive, highly creative, trompe l'oeil works impress me - perhaps more because of their strategy than their content, but I like them regardless.  Gillian Brown's thoughtful, accessible works about The Creation bring Stephen Hawking to mind, with a feminine touch.  Clearly works dealing with "the birth of it all" are better addressed by a woman.

ThreeWalls rocks.  Jonathan Rhodes's project invites artists from out-of-town to Chicago for a month.  He provides them lodging and studio space.  During their month residency the artists creates an exhibit.  Once the month is over, the artists has a show (for the following month) and leaves. He's brought in some great artists.  This month show is particularly strong and timely.  Dani Leventhal presents a commentary on our Western Hemisphere's disparate economic wealth and the contrasts between our American "entitlement" and Central and South American disenfranchisement. It is beautiful presented in video, sculpture and text. Soulful and poignant, sad and glorious, all at once.

I thoroughly enjoyed
Jeremy Long's paintings at Linda Warren Gallery.  (Have you noticed that this guy (me) who was long associated with only showing abstraction likes an awful lot of figurative art?) These are complex paintings with scads of content and disarmingly accessible imagery.  I especially like the studio paintings in which other paintings in the show are seen.

GARDENFresh is not a new gallery but it has finally emerged from hiding to enter accessibility in the West Loop in Michael Workman's awesome NOVA project at 840 West Washington. I've always like the people who run GARDENFresh and like their first show in this new space of photographs by Justin Schmitz of pubescent high school wrestlers, full of potential, faux macho poses, new muscles, and pimples.

I think I liked GARDENfresh's show a lot better than the new podcasting commentators
Richard Holland and Duncan Mackenzie, but I completely enjoyed and appreciated their discussion under the aegis Bad at Sports. Give it a listen for another point of view of the Chicago Art Scene.

Scot Anderson's show at Kavi Gupta is an interesting case study.  I didn't like the work, looked at it, photographed it and moved on to the Susan Giles installation which I thought was a significant reworking of her last presentation.  Much stronger and much better presented. When I was done with Susan's show - 5 to 10 minutes - I went back to give Anderson's work a second look and the attractive young lady with headphones was still looking at the same painting she had been when I left a long time before. I asked her if she liked the work. She removed her headset and raved about the work, the fresh colors, the scale shifts, the unusual perspectives and mostly how it gave her access to her brothers' affinities for science fiction, which she'd never appreciated by came full circle in these paintings. (Clearly I was witnessing a cathartic moment!) Her epiphany led me to reconsider my response, quantify her input and appreciate the work in a way I had previously missed.  I guess my point is that by opening open to input from another I saw things that I would have otherwise completely missed.

Stephen Knapp's pieces at Kraft Lieberman catch me on the edge of acceptance and denial. With single light sources and lots of reflective surfaces Knapp splits light into its full spectrum of colors and casts the light on the wall. It's new.  It's pretty.  It's better than most.  I think it lacks soul.  I want to like it. And I almost do.

Other shows others have liked include these wonderful prehistoric birds with boat heads at
Bodybuilder and Sportsman Gallery- an anthological narrative about Mike Peter Smith's grandfathers.

Gladys Nilsson at Jean Albano Gallery is as good as she ever was.

Howard Hersh at Gwenda Jay Gallery keeps getting better and I believe has hit full stride with is lush encaustic paintings.

Carrie Secrist has a preview group show of teasers from shows that occupy the balance of the year's schedule.  I like Richard Hull's work.

Julie Walsh Gallery presents works by husbands and wives working together and husbands and wives work apart. Nice concept but for me it lack cohesion.

Bill Woolf at Aron Packer shows some funky-nice paintings about Chicago and history. Kind of naive feeling but clearly informed.  In the back gallery, Mark Crisanti's small paintings of birdmen on disparate backgrounds sing with quality, but I wanted more of a relationship between what the artists created and what he painted on.

Bucket RiderJason Lazarus, in the project room, I liked - fun, creative, pithy commentary.  The main show about the role of the landscape in painting is a vast notion with insufficient content - a nice idea, without sufficient evidence.

Those are my thoughts on the potpourri that's out there. There's even more that I didn't get to.  There's plenty of room for lots of opinions (listen to
Richard and Duncan's podcast) and as I shown, my opinion is subject to change. One of the things I like best about the art world is that the Truth is Subjective and open to interpretation. If you have thoughts send me an email, or post on the ArtLetter Forum.  There's always room for your opinion.

Thank you,
Paul Klein


Chicago's fall art season begins tonight.  Just about everybody has an opening.  And there are a handful of shows I've been eagerly anticipating.

In River North: 
Robert Hudson, at Perimeter Gallery, has impressed me for over two decades. His is an incredibly gifted sculptor, revealing the depth of his abilities in each of his pieces.  When I first fell in love with his work I saw him as part of a Bay Area motif that embraced William Wiley and Robert Arneson.  Now I see his art in the context of Mark di Suvero and John Chamberlain.  He has complete control over his work, creating picture planes, twisting them and even flattening them by painting intricate vignettes or throwing an offbeat color where one would just expect metal. His ability to manipulate vantage and focal points invariably leads to a much more complete aesthetic experience for us, his lucky viewers.  A major artist, his work has never gotten as much attention as it and he deserve because he follows his own heart, his vision and is frequently out of step with the-school-of-what's-happening-now. I appreciate his integrity, and the whole issue of which muse an artist listens to we'll save for the next time we meet.

Jae Ko is a Korean born resident of Washington, DC.  Her show at Andrew Bae Gallery brings back my first memories of her work.  I was incredibly impressed when I first saw it five or six years ago at Art Chicago.  There is a magic to the way she builds her mysterious forms, and lays in deep color. Over time (and through reading the gallery's website) I've come to know too much. I am reminded of a discussion a long time ago with New York dealer Mary Boone, who simply said "art must transcend its materials."  It has stuck with me. Ko's work used to transcend its materials better than any artist I'd known, until the how of the process became clear to me and now I'm more critical.  The moral of the story is to not ask questions you don't want the answers to. Ko makes great pieces and I didn't follow my own advice. They are elegant, formal, luscious gems made from paper and ink. Knowing more than that doesn't help.

I appreciate
Joan Livingstone's art at Roy Boyd Gallery because she works with issues I avoid, in a manner allowing me access. She makes works about human and animal figures without making figurative work. She deals with humanistic issues without directly referencing humans. She embraces issues of skin, containment; inside and out, without making icky stuff like the figures in the "skinned alive" show at the Museum of Science and Industry. Livingstone works in fabric - pieces that could reference taxidermy, but typically are more reminiscent of my old blankets from camp.  There's a compassionate quality that makes her work endearing while challenging, warm while provocative, and accessible while knowledgeable.

(I'd like to offer an "aside" here.  All the time, when I had a gallery I battled with myself to make exhibits sparse - to limit the number of pieces on display.  And just about every time, I lost the battle, thinking I couldn't eliminate a piece because who knows who might want to buy it, and they couldn't buy it if they couldn't see it.  And I would weaken the overall power of the exhibit by over-installing it.  Artists are probably victims of the same thinking. I see this problem at almost every gallery I go to.  I see it much less at museums, which leads me to conclude that it is a byproduct of commercialism. It is a disservice to the artist and a disservice to the gallery to crowd the exhibits.)

In the West Loop: 
Siebren Versteeg is powerhouse of a mind learning how to channel his vision. Though we've seen Siebren's genius on lots of opportunities over the last several years, this is in fact his first, grown up, one person show. Some of pieces I saw at Rhona Hoffman Gallery are brilliant and I immediately respond. Others baffle me and make me wonder who is missing the point.  Repeated visits may well reveal that it is me. But still, as sure as I am that Siebren will be an artist we are challenged and intrigued by for eons to come, I find this show uncomfortably uneven.  Maybe I just want less.  It is hard enough to be an artist without having to deal with issues of career strategy or editing, but those issues are damned important and influence our read of the work, and by extension or appreciation and comprehension. That said, Siebren ponders our (humans') relationship with technology and wryly comments on some of the absurdities. Some pieces are brilliant. Some are fun. And some make me groan.  There's no doubt about Siebren Versteeg's talent; it's just that in this, his first show, we see too much.

Upstairs at
Peter Miller Gallery, we have another first show; focused, labor intensive quilted "paintings" by Ai Kijima, a very recent graduate of the School of the Art Institute.  Born in Japan, Kijima came to the School for undergraduate study, also got her graduate degree, and has stayed.  These are wonderful for their excessive focus and the mantra of labor apparent in each piece. Ai Kijima scours Chicago's thrift stores collecting Disneyesque images on used sheets, towels, pillowcases and shower curtains which she combines into new fantastic compositions, which she they obsessively sews with miles of thread.  The act of sewing melds the divergent imagery into a powerful, fun, overall composition easily appreciated by adults with memories or kids with dreams.

I see two main threads here. One is the quality of the individual pieces an artist makes, and two, is my response to the overall presentation. And young artists are the subset we are looking at.  In all these examples I feel like I'm getting too much information and we'd all benefit from more editing.  On a good day, a good art school helps an artist make a good work of art, but they rarely venture into what constitutes a career or what strategies to consider when beginning one. We are privileged to have numerous examples for study, yet not necessarily fortunate. These factors are relevant to how we experience an exhibit and a single work of art.

Rashid Johnson at Monique Meloche has a longer track record than the two artists we've just visited, yet the issues are the same. I find his work enigmatic. Some pieces are great enough to be mightily impressive and some seemingly so shallow I wince.  Sometimes I see Rashid as the pithy, perceptive commentator (a la Chris Rock) on what it means to grow up black. Sometimes I see him as an opportunist calculating what he can get away with without having to put in real substance. (It is unfortunate that in our society any artist of color must make a decision about playing the race card. Race is an issue in America and even if an African-American artist avoids the issue - by so-doing, he or she is still addressing it.) So, where would Rashid's work be without race?  Why do white people buy a jersey inscribed "White people like me?" If white people are going to fall all over themselves to show how tolerant and accepting they are, we have to expect black artists to play into that.  Rashid Johnson is talented.  He certainly is affable.  Unfortunately I see him playing in the shallow end of the pool of issues about race in America, jumping up and down, yelling "look at me - look at me. Throw money at me and you'll feel better about yourself."  Well, it's working, and that's too bad. It's time we grow up.  I'm eager to see what Rashid will do when he tires of this successful game of white people liking him.

Chicago is the land of opportunity.  We have great artists exhibited here and we have artists on their way to greatness getting exposure. We have shows by young artists who have received major international acclaim and are back home building up a head of steam to take out into the world again.  We are fortunate. 

There are lots of openings tonight and the start of
Around the Coyote. The shows I discussed were the ones I was most eager to see.  This weekend I'm going to check out less familiar territory and seek artists and venues that are new(er) to me.  I hope you do the same. Let's compare notes soon.

Thank you,
Paul Klein