Art Letter

January 2009 Archives


There are not many openings tonight but the shows that have receptions this evening are remarkably strong - and 3 of them are courtesy of the Department of Cultural Affairs - remember a previous ArtLetter surveyed our readers and they graded the Cultural Center the highest. These shows will help you understand why.

One of the most impressive exhibitions I've seen in a long time - the kind of substantive, meaty, thoughtful presentation I've been yearning for is titled
Collaborative Vision: The Poetic Dialogue Project. (Thanks Fletcher for the reminder.)  Curated by Chicago artist Beth Shadur, the exhibit pairs a poet and a visual artist.  Obviously both have their artistic inclinations, but here there's mutual respect and the challenge of responding to and incorporating the vision of the other. 

This is the slowest exhibit I can remember; slow in the sense that here you want to spend a lot of time with each piece, to experience the different affinities of each contributor.  Sometimes the most obvious collaborative act of putting words on art was what was done, but even so, reading the wall text, reveals the many different ways a consensus was arrived at.  Other times words and images meld, like the time the text is laid on the painting in wax - and then melted. Or submerged under a reticular plastic so that alternatively you see text or an image.  I found the show to be intensely rich, filled with thoroughly competent artists I was unfamiliar with and populated by a vast preponderance of female artists who did not succumb to gender art that I revealed my difficulty with in the last ArtLetter. Well done, everyone.

Also on the 4th floor is an unfortunately overcrowded exhibition titled
William Conger: Paintings 1958 - 2008, which is accompanied by a beautiful catalog. In fact, looking through the catalog gives a better sense of the range of work and Conger's ability because we are not bombarded by too much information. Conger's 50 year body of work is a meditative exercise of slowly and conscientiously morphing art.  Most paintings, if considered and deciphered slowly, reveal a beauty, appreciation and understanding of Chicago that cannot be garnered quickly or when interrupted by visual 'noise.' As good as the art is, the show would be much better if there were one-third the number of paintings.

Across the street, but also under the auspices of the DCA is the fun, creative
Exquisite City: City in Cardboard.  70 artists each created a city block out of cardboard.  Cheap materials, but what a fabulous range of visions. Much of the work is for sale, by Chicago artists, some known, most not, at really cheap prices, but then again you'd need some space to accommodate these pieces. This is the kind of show that inspires the kid in me.

Okay, over to the commercial sector. There is adventurous presentation at
Walsh Gallery by one of the hardest working artists in Chicago; Von Kommanivanh.  Willing to use just about any material he can find, I particular like Kommanivanh's sculptural objects that balance somewhere between not quite believable and absurd. He sees possibilities where the rest of us see garbage, and he transforms those possibilities into fanciful airships that look like they flew right out of Thunderdome.  The paintings are equally whimsical and more comic in their genesis than his earlier work that looked inspired by Basquiat.

Four exhibits of unusually strong art have openings tonight. They are free, fun, thoughtful and stimulating. I know where I'm going to be.

Hope to see you. Thank you,
Paul Klein


Cold Day.  Some good art on the horizon.

Born in Illinois, William Conger has been a significant figure in Chicago's art landscape for many decades. But more than that he has witnessed the growth of art in Chicago as a participant for even longer.  Conger is wise and experienced and the evidence is clear in his new paintings which open tonight with a reception at Roy Boyd Gallery.

Conger is a professional whose work I used at
McCormick West where he was commissioned to make a huge 12 x 14 foot painting. And that considered aspect shows up here too, with thought out compositions and and measured color combinations.  Most often his paintins combine abstraction and illusions to real topographical content, like the lake, a skyline, highways or other urban elements. I've always enjoyed the intensity of color and light, and the intelligent compositional play. Well done, William, for a long and solid career. I look forward to seeing more Conger paintings in his comprehensive survey exhibition which opens at Chicago's Cultural Center in the weeks ahead.

Scott Fife is damned good. He makes sculptural portraits out of mundane cardboard and drywall screws that are lyrical in their ability to reveal the soul of his subjects (A young Cassius Clay, Abe Lincoln and a young and old Ed Kienholz.). The offbeat use of divergent materials doesn't feel the slightest bit gimmicky in his convincing renderings of our real world and art world heroes.  It's like getting to stare at someone you know almost intimately but would be too self-conscious to actually do so. Most of these heads appear to be over two feet tall and one seems to be almost 4 foot. All the simplicity of the materials is present for us to examine, but somehow the whole of these pieces certainly transcends those materials and the art seems to breathe. This is the kind of quality I expect to see more often in Chicago and unfortunately don't.  In this exhibit, Tony Wight sets a high bar for the level of gallery exhibits we should be seeing.

Two shows at
Rhona Hoffman open tonight. Usually I agree enthusiastically with Rhona's taste and presentations. E.V. Day, one of those women who neutralizes her femininity by dispensing with her first name, of course makes art about women's issues.  This feels so 1973. She takes archetypal women's undergarments like a corset or underwear and pulls, tugs, and stretches it in ways that are actually interesting . . . until you realize that her intent is to free it from it's restraints; argh, restraining garments set free. The constructs are clumsy. She works with erector set looking corner bead, but Chris Burden she isn't, nor do I sense that she is comfortable with her materials. Wire, filament, couplings, and chain do not work well together and fight for attention.  E.V. Day has talent.  My hope is that by the time she realizes her content is passé she will learn how to make better use of her ability.

In the smaller front gallery at Rhona's,
Stephanie Brooks presents simplistic poem facsimiles that have a profound beauty.  They are so well fabricated they start to feel morose, as if E.E. Cummings stressed penmanship separate and over content. I like art that has some ambiguity to it, where I get to participate in the aesthetic deciphering. Here the work just exists, elegantly, perfectly and frozen. I sense a presence of humor in some of the work, but mostly I think it's good work that just isn't for me.

Feel free to let me know what you think. The shows I've discussed will get you thinking - or feeling. I'm interested in your response. In the meantime, I still want to see better exhibits more often.

Stay warm,
Paul Klein

1/06/09 Winter Art Season Starts Now

Tonight is theoretically the start of the 'Winter Art Season" in Chicago. Yet many galleries don't have openings until next week.  And to make tonight's gallery hopping more marginal a lot of the galleries seem to think that the way to address the economic malaise is to present mediocre art.

In many of the galleries I've visited in the last month I noticed that some where selling exceptionally well - surprisingly so. Art is not something folks need the same way they need food. It is much more about satisfying the soul than feeding the stomach.  I guess there are different kinds of ways of measuring need.

As I've said previously, galleries need to be particularly creative in addressing this economic downturn. So many have already had their agendas compromised by the internet depriving them of their secrecy and exclusivity. After all a collector can search out an artist and contact him or her directly and artists are certainly capable of generating their own mailing list without relying on galleries and can distribute jpegs every time they complete a worthy piece of art.

Unfortunately I sense that there are numerous galleries that are not going to be around much longer. I doubt they have anyone to fault but themselves.  Good art at good prices will sell. I'm seeing it happen.  But galleries that expect to sell the same borsch they have been getting away with for years are in for a cold awakening.

That said I did find several exhibits that stuck out for their quality.  The best show opening tonight is at the solid, conscientious and thoughtful
Catherine Edelman Gallery, where Robin Bowman's powerful photographs are coupled with the narrative of the subject. These are mostly troubled kids, from all over the U.S. who were photographed and then interviewed. Their images and their stories are moving and bracing. Very strong work - a great show to see with teenagers.

Just barely down the block is and impressive exhibit at
David Weinberg Gallery where staff curator Aaron Ott has put together another nice show of work by local artists Beverly Kedzior, Stephanie Serpick, Tricia Rumbolz. Both Edelman and Weinberg are thoroughly professional galleries that work with the artists and seek to move them along in their careers, as opposed to galleries that merely present exhibitions. The show at Weinberg is titled Overlap and features artists whose work does just that.

One of my favorite artists,
Vera Klement, has an exhibition at Printworks.  The show includes newer and older works on paper and the contrast between them is interesting and informative. Klement's art often exists in visual stanzas, themes fragmented to add an ambiguity that asks us to engage and complete the content.  She's a keeper.

Over in the West Loop is a well-conceived group show at
Western Exhibitions about sky references. Scott Speh, the gallery's director curated this show.  It has been gratifying to watch Scott grow over the years, from the off-the-beaten path spaces he used to occupy to the more prime-time space he has now. Furthermore the loyalty he and his artists have had for one another pays off as our response is enhanced by greater familiarity with their vocabulary.  I suspect we're going to be paying attention to Scott Speh for many years to come.   I was surprised by the strength of the show.  Too often group exhibits fall somewhere near the lowest common dominator, but here all the work is strong and some of it unexpected, particularly Michelle Grabner's flocked corner piece; simple and beautiful. Stan Shellabarger also contributes work that was new to me that continues his exploration of marks made by humans. It is not a big show but it's a good one. And in the 2nd gallery is an installation by Pedro Velez. A powerful contrast. I'm glad to see Pedro back in Chicago after a 5 year hiatus in Puerto Rica. We benefit by having artists of his caliber, strength and insight here.

There are a lot of excellent apartment galleries in Chicago; a phenomenon that is fairly unique to our city.  Many only last a year or two, which is often their intent and some just keep growing until they are like Western Exhibitions. 
Caroline Picard is one of those extremely talented individuals who has shaped much of the alternative art scene here. She is smart and savvy and her gallery, Green Lantern has consistently presented slightly aberrant thought-provoking shows.  This one, which opens Saturday, is no exception. It's a small group exhibit of works in tactile mediums documenting various approaches to illness in our society by an array of artists whose work often borders on the whimsical  All good, I particularly like Clare Britt's work 

Jim Lutes' fine exhibit opened last weekend at the Renaissance Society.  I like his work, feel fairly familiar with it and enjoyed seeing some familiar paintings, pieces I've forgotten and work that was new to me. Jim works most in the painstakingly slow process of egg tempera. The work takes a long time to complete. Paintings are not made haphazardly.  By definition they they are made through contemplation and are best unraveled by a slow looking, conscientious consideration.

Going to Chicago's fine art galleries doesn't cost a thing.  And if you go to the openings you get free wine.  Let's see: new experiences. nice people, warm environment, free culture, a glass of free wine and you might fall in love.  What could be better?

And, as I said in the cover letter, I'm participating in
a panel at the Renaissance Society on Sunday at 2 PM, talking about whether here is such a thing as a Chicago artist anymore.  Look at the participants.  Some of them I believe have opinions different than mine. Could just be volatile.

Stay warm
Paul Klein