Reviews, profiles and news about art in Chicago

Eye Exam: Cracking the Type Cast

Multimedia, River North 1 Comment »
The letter "A" from Geoff Kaplan's "Incest" series

The letter "A" from Geoff Kaplan's "Incest" series, digital print

By Jason Foumberg

What is design but the decoration of meaning?—such that ‘good’ design is a fitting elaboration of subject matter. Words (perhaps these printed here) can be dressed to impress—Times New Roman—or be cloaked in perfect blankness—Helvetica, no doubt. But what if a serif were stretched beyond a flourish, and an italics jutted off the page, and punctuation spun on an axis too blindingly fast for the eye catch? Such formal fatuousness surely disservices the eager reader of words.

This problem, posed from the designer’s perspective, is treated in the exhibition “Dimension and Typography: A Survey of Letterforms in Space and Time,” co-curated by Jimmy Luu, a graphic design teacher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Ryan Molloy, on the faculty at Eastern Michigan University. Luu and Molloy have assembled the typographic work of fifteen graphic designers in video, print, sculptural and computerized displays. Much of the work on view is highly experimental; they are the idea sketchbooks and conceptual counterpoints to real-world applications of graphic design.

The show’s theme takes its cue from J. Abbott Miller’s 1996 book “Dimensional Typography,” a celebrated study on how the common letter form has expanded off the flat page—in volume, space and time. Miller traces formalist approaches from Baroque-era floridity to the Bauhaus’ glorification of the machine in an age when the camera heightened the design world’s sense of light and shadow. The emergence of computational models at the end of the twentieth-century caps Miller’s thesis of typographic evolution. The new code-driven typography, largely initiated at the Massachusetts Institute of Design, fuses processing language with design vocabulary. Alphanumerics have been generated from random markings drawn by a program, some of which are on view in the exhibition. But perhaps more exciting is that these new letters live on the Internet in a share-friendly format where users can tweak them at will.

The unique computer esthetic is so new, though, that it can often be difficult to apply in useful situations. Imaginatively rendered letters, such as those from Geoff Kaplan’s “Incest” series, envision the known alphabet in sleek, translucent Transformer-like shapes. They are abstracted beyond easy recognition, perhaps only knowable when the digital prints are presented in a chart from A to Z.

spaceballgonzales_crisp_prototypeLike many pieces in the show, one sees the shape and structure of the letter before one can recognize its significance. It’s a bit like the gestalt process of language acquisition, where a child first encounters the world sensorily, grasping shiny shapes and color patches, and only later understands their names and rules. Kaplan’s digital renderings are abstract enough to potentially prompt momentary defamiliarization. At first the letters appear complex and strange, but they don’t mean more than what they say. A means A; it’s just a question of how A means A.

“Design lives in the world differently than fine art,” says co-curator Luu, such that good design doesn’t sit atop a pedestal waiting to be contemplated, but is instead immediately understood. We are users—not viewers—of signs, advertisements and books. That the exhibition does present typography in sculpted and abstract forms, much like fine art, and in a white cube art gallery, encourages a thoughtful approach far from the snap judgments provoked by some disposable consumer media.

daevel_detroit_alphabetYou’ll rarely find a designer’s signature in the corner of his or her work. Vernacular design may be expressive, but only expressive of its brand identity, not its maker. Increasingly, museums are beginning to collect and display the innovations and turning points in the design industry, from chairs to wallpaper to exhibition catalogues, and celebrity designers are emerging, identifiable by their style—itself a signature. The exhibition “Dimension and Typography,” which proudly announces the designers’ names, seeks to motivate the designer’s creative agency—but in a vacuum, without the input of a client. It’s hoped, though, that practical needs will catch up with innovation.

Luu is both an academic and a working designer, so he balances the theoretical and practical worlds of design. “Working with words,” he reflects, “the hard thing is that they have to say something.” How far can a designer push formal choices before alienating the subject matter—and become an artist? Luu is hopeful, though, that if the medium is the message, then perhaps it can contain its share of poetry and elegance.

After winning a public art commission in Austin, Texas, Luu installed the word “onward” in the turf outside the Health and Human Services Building using metal edging and planting the 30-foot letters with a different seed. As viewers interact with the landscape, they cannot read the word in total, but are able to witness the letters’ growth and fluctuations throughout the seasons. If message and form, object and idea, could always dynamically conflate in this way, we’d be well-versed in artful design.

Through February 7 at I space, 230 W. Superior.

Review: Criteria/A+D Gallery

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“This exhibition is about sustainability,” a wall text declares at the beginning of “Criteria.” What the show is not about, curators Jimena Acosta and Emiliano Godoy stress, is “green design, ecology, environmentalism” and other hot-button issues. The effort to distinguish their goals from those other movements’ lies partly in the organizers’ overtly fatalistic outlook. None of that ‘we can do it if we try (and buy green)’ brand of consumer-oriented optimism; this show wants to drill us out of complacency by confronting the miserable human costs of unsustainable growth.

At this, it largely succeeds. “Criteria” is beautifully installed, providing an aesthetically compelling framework for its grim subject matter. The coupling of artists and up-and-coming designers heightens the sense that this is a laboratory for ideas. Most of the design is more conceptual than practical in nature. For example, a network of stoneware piggy banks with curlicue incandescent bulbs doubling as tails, and a wax pendent lamp that melts when illuminated question wasteful patterns of energy consumption without being useful themselves.

The show’s large-scale color photographs tend towards the “vast gorgeous wasteland” variety that’s become a photographic cliché, but at least in this context they retain their essential bleakness. As is common in thematic shows, the curators have selected works that further their own agenda but threaten to slide into “message art” territory. Good art is polysemic; good design, concise. The show’s most memorable projects fall into the latter category, but so provocative are its underlying principles that everyone’s work is shown to its best advantage. (Claudine Isé)

Through February 28 at A+D Gallery, 619 S. Wabash.

Review: Beautiful Beasts/Almquist Gallery

Painting, Suburban No Comments »
Brent Houston, "Goliath II"

Brent Houston, "Goliath II"


Ross Martens, Darren Oberto and Brent Houston have worked together at the Alley Gallery in Evanston for years, where ideas and influences on subject matter and color palette have bounced between them regularly. “Beautiful Beasts” marks their first group show outside of Evanston’s cafes.

Each artist approaches the theme “Beautiful Beasts” uniquely. Considering how to make the grotesque palatable, Oberto creates masterful oil paintings of industrial smoke stacks and landfills, and his eloquent “Self Portrait Inspired by Estee Lauder’s ‘Knowing,’” in which he’s painted himself in a gas mask, seems prescient. Capturing the beauty that often resides in the ugliness of modern living, Houston notices everything from political and religious iconography to architecture, deconstructing symbols and painting the eerie silence of the no-fly period after 9-11 in “Goliath II,” haunting with its gray-blue emptiness and grounded perspective. Levity emerges with Martens’ undeniably charming photographs of rubber-pencil-topper monsters blown up to frightening proportions in electric hues, playful and exquisite shadowboxes of handmade tiny galleries and topiary gardens with enough vivid detail to yield equally compelling photographs of their own.

All three artists leap across their own personal landscapes of experience in the world and often arrive at similar points, especially Oberto and Houston, who display amazing understanding of the deceptively lean, David Hockney-like shorthand of visual language. Where Martens strays most from the literal is also where he’s most akin to Oberto and Houston, in his photo series “Hall of Great Men,” showing close-ups of beards soiled with whatever their owners just ate. They are as disturbing as the giant black glittery “Escalade” by Oberto and the snapshot reality of Houston’s incredible and tragic “5.5” series, small disparate images which unify a concise picture of pop culture confusion. Beauty manifests with these artists’ acceptance of the humanity in our beastliness. (Damien James)

Through February 27 at the Almquist Gallery, 310 Green Bay Road, Winnetka.

Review: Overlap/David Weinberg Gallery

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Beverly Kedzior, "Gummy Trail I," mixed media on paper

Beverly Kedzior, "Gummy Trail I," mixed media on paper


This group show at David Weinberg Gallery brings together the work of three female Chicago artists: Stephanie Serpick, Beverly Kedzior and Tricia Rumbolz. Rumbolz’s work is one part meticulous technician and one part performance. Her “Dots” series is displayed in the gallery’s intimate back room. Accomplished in 12-, 24- and 48-hour periods, the artist committed herself to stitching tiny white dots in a loose, draping square shape. The sheer persistence at work in these pieces is impressive. Beverly Kedzior’s paintings function as a bouncy contrast in color and form. Her layered patterning presents a kind of ethereal cartoon world and all the works reference each other. The third artist, Serpick, culls the meditative element from Rumbolz’s work and contains evidence of Kedizior’s overlay of structures.

It comes as no surprise that Serpick is a graphic designer by trade. The designs that course through her work are emblematic of trends that are widely used across print and advertising mediums. Fleur-de-lis decorative trails run throughout a number of popular advertisements, and despite the overuse of these designs, her skill as a painter gives a luscious and layered treatment to what would otherwise be an overused motif. Her careful drafting is all hand-done and she expertly executes the veil-like layers that are evident in all of her works for the “Overlap” show. The gradation of color in these paintings defies photographic representation and I found that the Web site images differ significantly from the real thing. If there is one thing that links all three of the artists in the “Overlap” exhibit, it is their defiance of digital reproduction, and each would best be considered in person. (MK Meador)

Through February 21 at David Weinberg Gallery, 300 W. Superior.

Review: Two Lithuanian Printmakers/Chicago Cultural Center

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Egle Vertelkaite and Birute Zokaityte provide distinctive studies of female identity and form in their Chicago Cultural Center printmaking exhibit. The two renowned Lithuanians’ work ranges from minimalist silhouettes to embellished plays on perspective and narrative.

Zokaityte’s work is best described as a series of vignettes, capturing microcosms with multiple viewpoints for the viewer’s imagination. “Landscape with Chimneys” resembles a panel in a graphic novel, where a large smokestack in the background competes with street signs to become the focal point looming over a small silhouette of a person. In an adjacent panel, a woman sits in a chair adjusting her stocking as she focuses on her foot. The circular panels in which the work is laid indicate the perspective of an outside observer. Other pieces shift the focus between a female image and her surroundings or activities. “Perfection” emphasizes the soft, detailed head of a cow as a faceless woman carefully cradles it in her arms. “The Picture in the Bedroom (I)” emphasizes the vibrant eyes and full lips of a black woman, while other small images appear almost as reflections in the background.

In contrast, Vertelkaite seems to break down perspective through horizontal lines, meant to demarcate time. “Spinning Girls” shows a repeated silhouette of a dancing girl alternating from light to dark on a continuous line, which leads to a more focused, elegant woman wearing a shimmering pink dress. “Singing Woman” features several frames of close-ups of women’s open mouths; the repeated horizontal lines create continuity while the mouths themselves could elicit rage, astonishment, or joy. Both artists provide portraits that elicit the mysterious allure of womanhood. (Ben Broeren)

Through March 29 at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington.

Review: William Conger/Roy Boyd Gallery

Painting 1 Comment »


How long has William Conger been showing his hard-edged abstract paintings in Chicago? It’s been almost forty years, and this exhibit of his most recent work shows him just as keen, high-spirited and menacing as ever. Menacing? Just a little, because the world he has created is beautiful but also a bit scary, like the illustrated covers of paperback science-fiction novels. And as his paintings take you to “Cuba” or “Chinatown” or the “Kabuki,” watch your back because Conger is not offering a sweet and peaceful refuge from our busy world. But still, the visions are appealing, charged with energy and finely crafted enough to draw a viewer right up to the canvas to feel the thickness of the paint or the straightness of a line. There’s a certain elegance and crispness of style as might be seen in the fine suits and coats worn on Michigan Avenue and, happily for those who have seen Conger’s shows before, that style isn’t always the same as the painter is always setting different formal challenges for his design. He hasn’t tried to be a regionalist but his paintings feel like Chicago, or at least the upscale urban canyons that stretch along the lake. (Chris Miller)

Through March 3 at Roy Boyd Gallery, 739 N. Wells St.

Review: Robin Bowman/Catherine Edelman Gallery

Photography, River North No Comments »


They are black, white, Hasidic, Muslim, Christian, urban, rural, disciplined, dissolute, protected, abandoned, poor, middle class, straight, gay and much more; they are the youth of Gen Y whom Robin Bowman photographed in black and white, and induced to write capsulized autobiographies so that we might understand the plight of the contemporary American teenager. Unburdened by any ideological baggage, Bowman’s ambitious series of informal portraits is less a reflection on the triumphs and tragedies of adolescence than a reflection of the sheer diversity of American lives. The stories are all worth reading, but the images could stand alone without any text, because Bowman is a sensitive shooter who eschews a signature style in favor of leaving her subjects sufficiently free to project their own attitudes without allowing them to take on self-staged poses or to vogue. Of course, the eternal teenager makes an appearance; with a cigarette dangling from his lips, Patrick Roberts looks quizzically into the camera. He writes, “Recently, I think I feel lonely, if that’s a legitimate emotion. (Michael Weinstein)

Through March 7 at Catherine Edelman Gallery, 300 W. Superior.

Review: Beautiful Form/65 Grand

Painting, Ukrainian Village/East Village No Comments »


Recent openings seem to  agree that it is time for geometric abstraction. “Beautiful Form” at 65 Grand is no exception, offering titles such as “Untitled (Green/Pink/Black),” “Untitled (polygons),” “Untitled (monochrome)” and “Untitled.” Although some of these works stand out as gems, I struggle to understand the appeal of such an organizing principle as geometric abstraction. Todd Chilton’s three paintings have nuance, subtlety and, in some cases, uncanny technique, but the attempted dialogue between Chilton and Steven Husby reduces the work to exactly—and only—what the show’s title claims. Chilton has an expressive awareness that Husby’s conceptual rigor fails to match. Peter Shear, on the other hand, stands alone on the strength of his flat gouache-on-paper abstractions where formal compositions transform into signs and symbols teetering on the edge of a concrete language. In a break from the titular trend, Titus Dawson Polo’s “Caligula” also evokes a mythology of symbols, but next to Shear he seems to be overstating his case. If gold acrylic on velvet doesn’t say decadence loud enough, “Caligula” certainly does.

If it is true that during a recession people nest, than they also look inward. Moreover, in the case of painting and sculpture I can understand how formalism crops up as a seemingly essential starting point. Speaking of the works individually, one can appreciate each on its own terms, but as contributions to a world not lacking for aesthetic form, beauty is the least interesting characteristic. (Tim Ridlen)

Through February 14 at 65 Grand, 1378 W. Grand.

Review: Of or relating to the sky or visible heavens/Western Exhibitions

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Gallery director and curator Scott Speh looks toward the heavens for this exhibition, titled after the dictionary definition of the word “celestial.” Here six artists deal with the skybound through symbolism, metaphor or literal depiction.

The rainbow as a celestial phenomenon is evident in Michelle Grabner’s “Untitled Flock Drawing,” a wall installation composed of shimmering bits of rayon flocking with subtle pastel color gradation created by spray-painting onto the gallery walls. This piece falls just short of visually mesmerizing, as bits of flocking have been blown off the wall by viewers, leaving dangling chunks of fibers, but also emphasizing the ephemeral nature of the material.

Shane Huffman’s “Forevering” is a spacescape photograph taken by the Hubble Telescope overlaid with a wash of semen and menstrual blood. Here, Huffman conflates the beauty and immensity of space with human biological functions, toying with notions of microcosm and macrocosm, and the limits of infinity.

Sprinkled throughout the exhibition are Stan Shellabarger’s photographs of jet trails against blue skies, which are a continuation of his inquiry into human-made marks on the earth, and in this case, on the sky. Unfortunately, these fit more interestingly into Shellabarger’s body of work at large than they do into this exhibition, where they seem an obvious inclusion and are overshadowed by larger works. (Jamie Keesling)

Through February 14 at Western Exhibitions, 119 N. Peoria.

Review: Scott Fife and Todd Chilton/Tony Wight Gallery

Painting, Sculpture, West Loop No Comments »


Todd Chilton’s paintings offer a broken geometry rendered in a handmade manner. Drips escape certain strokes and imperfections allow the composition to shift slightly. The canvases are variations on repeating geometric (almost fractal) patterns, emanating from the center but bound to and by the edges. Paintings such as “Untitled (blue diamonds)” have a shallow crystalline topography that the perceptual properties of color serve to deepen and heighten. These structures grow more intricate and exaggerated in his canvases from 2009. Chilton’s color is often optically charged as in his zebra-striped canvases where the boundary between the striped regions form an optical illusion. With Chilton’s canvases you can feel yourself looking, and you can see Chilton’s hand in painting. The result is a tenuous exchange between the painting and the viewer that never quite fully assembles into a concrete meaning.

Scott Fife crafts iconographic busts from familiar materials such as cardboard, wood glue and drywall screws. Four large heads protrude from the gallery walls looming slightly above eye level. Possibly with an eye toward the imminent inauguration, Fife includes a young Abraham Lincoln. Also present is a hot pink Cassius Clay and two busts of artist Ed Kienholz. The disembodied heads are authoritative, imposing and a touch monumental. Hollows exist in each face that that allow an interior view of the overall structure. Fife allows his materials to exist in a dual state of transformation simultaneously as cardboard and as persona. Each figure’s visage, combined with the familiarity of the materials, creates a distinctly palpable sense of their own hollow, mask-like forms. (Dan Gunn)

Through February 21 at Tony Wight Gallery, 119 N. Peoria.