Since its database has yet to be made public, there’s no way of knowing whether this exhibition is representative of the scope of figurative art found in the Illinois State Museum archives. There’s only one piece made before 1900, and there are some obvious omissions of the most famous Illinois artists since then, like Leon Golub and Ivan Albright. None of the best-known African Americans are included, such as Archibald Motley, Kerry James Marshall or Nick Cave, and there’s not even one artist with an Hispanic surname. Also, entire genres are missing, like our popular cartoonists (Chester Gould of “Dick Tracy”) and leading illustrators (LeRoy Neiman).
The show has been curated with cross-purposes. On the one hand, the curator explains, “The artworks were selected to create a better understanding of the pluralistic styles which share an adherence to representation.” Yet, “additionally they have been selected with an eye towards something fantastic—a heightened sense of the super-real, super-natural,” and, indeed, there is hardly any naturalism done after 1950, and nothing liturgical or heroic either. The post-war work presents personal dream worlds, possibly reflecting the artistic practice of the curator himself, Doug Stapleton, whose remarkable, surrealistic collages are, coincidentally, currently on display at LUMA.
Still, there are many wonderful discoveries to be made, beginning with the rarely seen and very accomplished Jessie Pixley Lacey. Indeed, Illinois’ female artists really shine throughout the entire exhibition, with work by mid-century artists, like Macena Barton, Gertrude Abercrombie, Fritzi Brod and Julia Thecla, beside current artists, like Eleanor Spiess-Ferris, Linda Kramer and Gladys Nilsson. There are also some remarkable rarities, like a figurative “Adam and Eve,” done by pioneering abstract painter Manierre Dawson at the age of twenty-one; a life-size bronze nude by Chicago’s most famous architectural sculptor, Alfonso Iannelli; and a swooning, voluptuous nude by Leo Seyffert that was once owned by the Art Institute. My favorite has to be the series of eleven small interior views painted by Mark Forth as studies for murals in a state building. His luminous dream world actually seems to be a comfortable one, a tribute to the kind of peaceful, nourishing, contemplative domestic life that seems ever more difficult to achieve. (Chris Miller)
Through May 25 at the Illinois State Museum Chicago Gallery, The Thompson Center, 100 West Randolph.