Art Letter


This is a fortuitous moment. There are several excellent exhibitions opening in Chicago this evening and the weather is amazing for a night out in January.

Not only that, the long awaited opening of the brand new
Alfedena Gallery is here.  Director John Brunetti has been a seminal art critic in Chicago for years, championing Chicago artists in particular. Is it any wonder I like him? And now he is opening a gallery focusing on his peers - mid-career artists who are arguably making the best work of their lives.  Tonight's grand opening is with Vera Klement, the doyenne of the Chicago art community.  The gallery is expansive, ever so slightly removed from the other galleries and Klement's work is significant.  She is an exemplary painter, a woman of vision creating work that's full of content.  I like that the content doesn't beat me over the head, that it has what I call "positive ambiguity;" content that it is stimulating and open to interpretation. So we've got a great artist at a new gallery entering the fray at a high level. This is all unusual and worth checking out.  First or last stop material.

My sense is that art-making falls into one of two categories.  In the first, artists make art that is evidence of a philosophy.  The image is largely preconceived and exists to illustrate or prove a point.  In the second, the artist makes art to discover him or herself and brings us along for the ride. The process and motivations are quite different. Perhaps these affinities are ego driven.

Now, within each of strains of development, I like art that is accessible. I don't think art has to be snooty to be good. On the contrary, I like art that anyone can appreciate.  This doesn't mean that it need be simple, simplistic, or for simpletons; or that some study, knowledge and artistic awareness is undesirable. It means that it is not so esoteric as to be incomprehensible or so remote that it mandates massive wall-label reading or didactic explanations. A wall-label should enhance the visual and/or aesthetic experience, not determine it.

Sorry for the digression.  I was looking over some of the work that follows and one could argue that there's an example or two here of insider art meant for those who appreciate the pretense or are in on the joke.  Shees, they may make money, may be vogue today, but for my buck the joke's on them.

We already know that I like Vera Klement's art.  She's a good example. I think her work is intriguing on a purely visual level.  Read a little bit about it, or get insight from her informed dealer, and the work gets better. That's fine.

Take a look at
Vadim Katznelson's art at Roy Boyd.  I can't say that this is particularly serious work. I just find it a joyful riot of fun; a bombastic, visual experience full of discovery, questions, intrigue and fascination. Yeah, I bought one.  If you saw Katznelson's last show you can see how much he's progressed and how the work I thought successful once was in fact formative and how much better this art is. And you know what's interesting? I play poker with Vadim every now and then and he is so disciplined, studied, focused, serious and purposeful. To some extent his art is like that, especially the process, but mostly it's just fun.

Across the street at
Hammer Gallery is wonderful exhibit by the veritable doyen of Chicago Art, Don Baum.  Baum has been seminal and instrumental in a lot of the art that has been associated with Chicago, like the Imagists, the Hyde Park Art Center and Outsider Art.  He is an artist, a curator, a visionary and a friend and it is a tribute to Hammer Gallery for the quality and variety they have assembled. If you want to know about Chicago Art, of today and of the past several decades it is imperative to include a visit to the Baum exhibit and the Klement exhibit discussed above.

Maybe January is the month for the artists who have contributed to Chicago over the long haul. 
Ellen Lanyon has an array of solid works on paper at Printworks.  She has always drawn beautifully from and of nature, sometimes didactically, always sympathetically. There is a warmth and passion to her work that seduces and resonates. The hand, the heart and the eye connect. The pieces flow and follow. We learn about her and ourselves and she does.

Robert Hudson has been making a difference for quite a while too.  This is his second exhibit at Perimeter Gallery in as many years. I've known and revered his work for about 30 years. I find it formal, fun, whimsical, creative and pretty damned close to exciting.  What I didn't know is that he has been working in clay, besides metal, for a long time and this show at Perimeter is almost entirely clay. He comes from a Northern California tradition of the interplay of color and form, with peers like William Wiley, Bob Arneson, Tom Holland and Richard Shaw.  I'm thrilled that Perimeter is doing well with his work.  We get to see more of it.

I'm always interested in the relationship of an artist's personality to his or her artwork. Sometimes there is a oneness like with Klement and Baum, and sometimes they balance one another like Katznelson's art and personality. And sometimes I'm just not quite sure, as with
Michelle Grabner who is showing at Shane Campbell, opening Saturday.  Her art is special, thoughtful and meditative.  It is quiet and labor intensive. Mark after mark. One mistake and she throws it away and starts anew.  She is warm, friendly, considerate and accessible. I think her art is like that too. And she also writes about art, sometimes reviewing, sometimes philosophizing.  She has a point of view, is educated, and is a natural teacher. Maybe with Michelle the art, personality and writing balance one another and resonate too. That would be remarkable.  Maybe that's what it is.

Fred Holland's work, at Flatfile, is evidentiary and I like it.  His political, antiwar statements lead him into diverse media and expressions and generate personal, artistic growth.  Several months ago I was asked by Michael Bonesteel for examples of political and/or antiwar art.  I couldn't give him much. Now I'm seeing more which may be because he raised my consciousness. Holland is showing with Dread Scott.  Their art is pithy. Sometimes it makes me smile and chortle. Sometimes in makes me feel self-conscious and awkward.  Good art has lots of different kinds of power.  This is good stuff and not what we often see. We should see more of it.

Holly Holmes and Tom Burtonwood make political art too. They are in a group show at Allrise Gallery in a show about commercial excess.  And Burtonwood & Holmes's art sure fits. Looking like they've inherited Hans Haake's bailiwick, they build near life-sized tanks from cardboard and cover them with all the ads from the Sunday newspaper supplements. Greg Stimac and Jonathan Gitelson impress too. Consumerism and (anti)war. There is a relationship.

A show by Chicagoan
Scott Short at the Renaissance Society that opens Sunday confuses me.  This work is certainly process driven with little room for insertion of the artist's prerogative - well, maybe.  He photocopies copies of construction paper over and over until whatever was there is gone and all that remains is some black and white trace of something that was lost long ago.  He then blows the image up and rigorously paints it on canvas. Short has selected the image to paint based solely on personal whim and then removes his emotions and perhaps himself from the creative process, religiously transcribing the photocopy to the canvas.  Some find this a commentary on art and art history, and the state of art today. For me, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.  This is beautiful work. All the gobbledygook is irrelevant - even if it makes somebody feel good.

To end with a reference to where I began, John Brunetti has curated a fascinating show at the
Evanston Art Center that opens Sunday.  Titled Not Fade Away it includes Scott Short and delves into art about material and optical disintegration.  (For years Brunetti as been great at conjuring up concepts that inform the viewer, the artist, and the art without pontificating on something that the art is not about.) Also in this show are Noelle AllenMarie Krane Bergman (a personal favorite), L.J. Douglas and Jiwon Son.

Well, that's what I think.

Happy New Year
Paul Klein