Time lets the air out of everybody’s tires, but that’s hardly noticeable in this exhibition of the last two decades of paintings and sculptures by Thomas Kapsalis, born 1925, and a longtime teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The paintings are just as playful and buoyant as ever. Occasionally his work has been contemplative of art history, but in his recent work he’s more like a kid who’s discovered a new playground and has to try out all the equipment, or like a Chinese acrobat trying to keep as many spinning plates in the air as possible. Anger, angst, dismay, self-doubt, irony, puzzlement, popular culture, alienation—all that stuff never seems to have interested Kapsalis—so it’s as if the last sixty years of contemporary art just never happened and the Bauhaus is still our house.
Fifteen to twenty-five-feet seems to be the ideal distance for viewing Kapsalis’ paintings. They do not reward close-up inspection. But, the whizzing, whirling, jumbling graphic energy is so intense, you wouldn’t want to come any closer anyway. So, you have to be very careful, whilst backing up to better see the paintings, not to bump into his sculptures scattered on pedestals across the gallery. Possibly he has chosen to work in three dimensions throughout his career in order to escape the confining edges of a rectangular painting. He so badly wants to feel free. But since he doesn’t seem that concerned with mass, three-dimensional space, or surface texture, these sculptural pieces lack the pure joy of his graphic work, and the pieces sink into clunkiness, however brightly they may be colored. The clunkiest piece of all, however, may also be the most poignant. It’s a small, tight, twisted, bronze construction representing “World War II.” It seems saturated with memories of his participation as a soldier in those dark historic events. That may explain why he usually wants to take his art in a completely different direction. (Chris Miller)
Through August 4 at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, 2320 West Chicago