By Jason Foumberg
Abstract painting made by young, academically trained artists is finding solid ground to run on in Chicago. Although it sometimes seems relegated to the realm of the decorative, doomed by its own prettiness and scorned by witty tricksters still feeding from the Warholian trough of dry humor, abstract painting finds hope on the brushes of a few young artists and rises (again). “What if abstraction is still young, only in its infant stage?” muses artist Jason Karolak. Although the cavemen were doing it, abstract art wasn’t self-aware or purposefully abstract until about 150 years ago.
“I’m totally a color whore!” half-jokingly confesses Yevgeniya Baras in response to a compliment on her ability to hold aggressive tension and elegant forms in wonderful balance. Baras’ exclamation reveals the trouble inherent in the painter’s method, for she is not only a painter of abstract pictures, but she also courts political significance. It seems easy to become self-indulgent in the intricate viscosity of paint, and therein lays the problem: how to resolve meaning with form, and still be a responsible artist? Perhaps Baras was too conflicted by her tendency to get lost in color and form; her current show, comprised of old and new work, looks as if it could have been done by two different artists. This isn’t to a fault, though. Rather, it gives an insightful look into Baras’ working method. She says she has been making political art since she began painting, and it is only her most recent pictures, more figurative than non-objective, that peek out from behind the opacity of pure abstraction.
“I’m in love,” muses Ezara Hoffman, an artist who translates the objects surrounding her life into abstract statements in paint. “I think a lot about edges,” she says, and “I can read a lot into a line.” While such statements reveal a not-so-small obsession with paints, brushes and canvas, Hoffman paints from life, and she paints in earnest. If she didn’t have things to observe—luggage, a glass, shadows—then she wouldn’t have a starting point, she explains. “Everything is abstract to me,” ponders Hoffman while nodding at her painting of a table top in a flattened picture plane. It’s as if Hoffman were reinventing her world by observing it sensitively. She discovers her surrounds slowly, as if thinking through every eye blink.
Sad stories from old people, tragic female singers and terribly disturbing remnants of Holocaust memories—these are the subjects of Yevgeniya Baras’ paintings. “I want to be considered a Jewish artist,” proclaims Baras, who feels seriously indebted to her immigrant roots. At various points through her life, from leaving Russia at age twelve, to living with Bedouins in Egypt, from being told that her art ought to be more “Russian” in graduate school, to studying the Torah, Baras has been trying to understand her relationship to her faith. Her paintings are always narrative, she says. “Return to the Colon” depicts a pile of shit with radiant neon spokes, while “Pile II” is a group of bodiless heads—all self-portraits—supported by shaky and wavy colorful lines. Baras describes both of these as metaphorically digging through crap and finding a diamond, be it the ability to enjoy color in a graying world, or the discovery of an uplifting story amidst a century of fascism and genocide.
For several years, Ezara Hoffman made monumental paintings that stood eight-feet tall by six-feet wide. The towering pieces were all glittering surface, shattered lines and streaks of intense color. Today, her paintings are modestly scaled back and some contain only a few lines on a monochrome wash. The forms come from the field; Ezara takes her watercolors with her everywhere. No longer concerned with making a grand statement in paint, Hoffman now listens to chance. She doesn’t forsake her artistic past, for these past paintings are simply part of the massive accumulation of aesthetic experiences over the course of her life, and so Hoffman is taking things a bit more slowly, and proceeding on an intimate scale, as if to get reacquainted with herself.
Hoffman describes two camps of abstraction in Chicago. There’s the one-brush, one-color esthetic, what Baras calls “dude painting,” dominated by men who like to make grand, conceptual statements, whose paintings begin and end as paintings in love with paint. Jason Karolak, Todd Chilton and David Coyle may fall into this camp; Baras and Hoffman fall into the other, where systems and procedures give way to personal history. But nobody’s holding fast to these categories. If there isn’t a definitive school of abstract painting in Chicago right now, there surely are a lot of abstract painters. And if no totalizing rules of the game can be discerned, that’s because it’s so difficult to fit oneself within the square parameters of a canvas.
Yevgeniya Baras shows at Contemporary Art Workshop, 542 West Grant, (773)472-4004, through January 15. Ezara Hoffman shows at Devening Projects + Editions, 3039 West Carroll, through December 29.