Reviews, profiles and news about art in Chicago

Review: Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections/Art Institute of Chicago

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Icon of St. Prokopios, 14th century. Byzantine; Greece, Veroia. Church of Saint Prokopios, Veroia.

Icon of St. Prokopios, 14th century. Byzantine; Greece, Veroia. Church of Saint Prokopios, Veroia.

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The story of Renaissance painting begins with innovations in naturalism that were a welcome liberation from the schematic strictures of the Byzantine style. Or at least, that’s how the leading art historians of the last century, like Ernst Gombrich, told it. Perhaps that’s why this is the first special exhibition devoted exclusively to Byzantine art at the Art Institute of Chicago in 124 years. But as this exhibition proves, the best Byzantine figurative art in painting, sculpture and mosaic was no less fresh, expressive and exciting than subsequent art periods are known to be. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Jaume Plensa/Millennium Park and Richard Gray Gallery

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"Looking Into My Dreams, Awilda," polyester resin and marble dust, 2012. Photo by Tom Van Eynde

“Looking Into My Dreams, Awilda,” polyester resin and marble dust, 2012. Photo by Tom Van Eynde

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Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa designed his first gigantic head, “Dream,” in 2009 on the site of an abandoned coal mine to help a former mining town, as his website puts it, “fill the void left by the colliery since its closure.” Since then, similar heads have popped up in cities around the world, with four now installed in Millennium Park. All of them are derived from digitally modified 3D photographs of girls on the verge of puberty. All have their eyes closed, as if peacefully looking inward.

The shining white, thirty-nine foot “Looking into my dreams, Awilda” serves well as the Madison Street gateway, inviting the public into what is essentially a contemporary art amusement park. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Jason Reblando/City Gallery

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"Daffodil House, Greendale, Wisconsin," archival pigment print, 2009

“Daffodil House, Greendale, Wisconsin,” archival pigment print, 2009

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Shooting in lucid color and adopting a no-nonsense straight-on documentary approach in his project “New Deal Utopias,” Jason Reblando has taken contemporary photographs of the three Greenbelt Towns—Greenbelt, Maryland; Greenhills, Ohio; and Greendale, Wisconsin—that were planned, built and owned by the federal government in the early years of the Franklin Roosevelt administration in order to “resettle” unemployed American families in pleasant community environments during the Great Depression. Their original residents were chosen to reflect social diversity (though not racial), and they were laid out to encourage neighborliness. The towns represented progressivism at its cutting edge, and the movement that inspired them had lost its momentum by the mid-1930s, a victim of political pragmatism. By the 1950s, the government had divested itself of the towns, but they have continued to exist as parts of burgeoning suburban landscapes. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Jeff Britton/Bert Green Fine Art

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"Drunken Devil," oil on panel, 2013

“Drunken Devil,” oil on panel, 2013

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“Wow! That’s wild,” seems to have been the thought behind each of Jeff Britton’s oil paintings. It could have been provoked by a huge construction crane parked outside Britton’s studio window, or by Peter Paul Rubens’ painting of “Saturn Devouring His Son,” or by the ragged edge of a weather-blasted field in winter. The artist doesn’t seem to be pursuing any particular direction other than a need to depict whatever has grabbed his attention. He likes to be grabbed—and then aggressively push back with a brash, expressive, gutsy expression in oil paint. Nervous, spontaneous dabs of paint are more dramatic on smaller panels, so several of these pieces are less than ten inches on a side. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: David Hockney/Richard Gray Gallery

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"Montcalm Pool, Los Angeles," 1980

“Montcalm Pool, Los Angeles,” 1980, oil on canvas

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Is David Hockney a major international contemporary artist? Apparently not major enough to yet merit a retrospective in Chicago over the past five decades of his career, and he has been a celebrity art-star from the very beginning. Since the 1980s, though, Chicagoans have gotten to see some of Hockney’s pieces for sale at the Richard Gray Gallery. The painter often depicts contemporary life, but like a painter from the Italian Renaissance, it’s the fashionable life of the highly privileged. And like all famous paintings from earlier centuries, his works of art “announce themselves as such, which can only be done by what we call sensual beauty and grace,” as Goethe put it in 1798. As fresh and brash and spontaneous as Hockney’s paintings feel, his mimetic pursuit of those delightful qualities sets him outside the dominant discourses of contemporary art, and he hasn’t been shy about advocating his position. He’s always experimenting with materials, techniques and patterns, but he doesn’t push the conceptual boundaries of art or meaning. Instead, he uses the traditional subjects of portrait, still-life and landscape to celebrate the ecstatic possibilities for a wonderful life on planet earth—just like a high-end fashion or interior designer. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Alex Katz/Richard Gray Gallery

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"Ada with Blue Scarf," 2012

“Ada with Blue Scarf,” 2012

I have been looking at Alex Katz paintings for nearly fifty years, but mostly as page-size reproductions in contemporary art magazines, where they stand out as rare attractive depictions of the real world, but this is the first time I have seen a roomful in all their original, full-sized splendor. Well, perhaps splendor is not the right word, even if these paintings are very well made.

Katz displays a well-studied discipline for design and execution. You can see the instantaneous pull of his brush through paint, as well as the dynamics and scale of the design within which it operates. The resulting decorative effect is almost like an eighteenth-century Japanese screen, except that its beauty is more like off-the-rack, ready-to-wear casual fashions from a mail-order catalog than a precious, unique kimono. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Gaylen Gerber/Museum of Contemporary Art

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Installation view. Image courtesy of the artist and Tom Van Eynde

Installation view. Image courtesy of the artist and Tom Van Eynde

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For decades, Gaylen Gerber has rendered conspicuous the assumed neutrality—both perceptual and rhetorical—of exhibition spaces and the institutions that house them, through gray monochromatic paintings and wall-sized supports upon which other artists’ works are displayed. Expression is outsourced, and Gerber’s parenthetical interventions make note of the factors that contribute to an audience’s experience of the discrete works shown therein. In recent years, he has transitioned into sensory riots of color and light, such as the project now on view at the MCA. Bracing tangerine and sweltering yellow blast over the gathered artworks, recalling earlier MCA installations such as Rudolf Stingel’s “Untitled (Orange Carpet on Floor)” in 2007 and Olafur Eliasson’s hallway of intense yellow light in 2009. Remembrance and art-historical play are apropos here as Gerber has included works produced over the past fifty years by other artists living and deceased, men and women, drawn from the MCA’s collection and on loan. Read the rest of this entry »

Portrait of the Artist: Morgan Sims

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Morgan Sims grew up in a world of straight lines. As a teen he laid orderly rows of pipe with his father. His first exposure to art was his mother’s quilts, works of abstract blocking in careful grids. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Sims trained as a printmaker and found satisfaction in the process. “I really enjoy the steps in printmaking. The process is fun, I like that it’s hands-on.”

While he still makes prints, Sims is starting to become known for his rich, pixelated paintings and neon sculptures. He has been in well-received group shows at Heaven Gallery, and his tent-like neon sculpture “Palisade” was a standout at the MDW Fair last year. At Bert Green Fine Art, Sims is having his first solo show in three years. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Helen Maurene Cooper/City Gallery

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"Rocker," from "Jazzy Nails,"  2013

“Rocker,” from “Jazzy Nails,” 2013

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Fascinated by the practice of adorning the human nail in the most elaborate, intricate, textured and glistening designs, Helen Maurene Cooper began by taking color photographic studies of these objects of body art at close range in lush settings, creating images of sumptuous eye candy. Now she has ventured into a nail salon, shooting sensitive formal portraits of its female patrons, showing off their decorations to be sure, but much more allowing them to express their personalities, indeed, so much so that the individuals dominate the images at the expense of their nails—a clear case of life trumping art. In one instance—the show’s banner image—Cooper brings together her early and present series in a portrait of “The Rocker,” a young, raven-haired fashionista inscribed with flowing tattoos, including “BABY DOLL” across her knuckles, in which her nails—each one strikingly different—are the culmination of her visual transfiguration. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Spectator Sports/Museum of Contemporary Photography

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Julie Henry, "You'll Never Walk Alone," 1999

Julie Henry, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” 1999

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In the world of sports, spectators are fanatics. And fanatics can only grasp the seemingly unexplainable psychical prowess of professional athletes as artful renditions of otherworldly beings. The media, on the other hand, is complicit in the creation of these false idols. Their job is to provoke a calculated emotional response on the spectator and to have them spend their hard-earned cash on trivialities worn or endorsed by their idols.

Canadian artist Brett Kashmere responds sarcastically to the ways in which spectators place their hopes on the shoulders of these false heroes. In “Anything But Us Is Who We Are,” from 2012, a diptych that consists of a burned LeBron James Cavaliers jersey and a flat screen displaying the video game NBA 2K10, we see LeBron’s digital clone acting like a puppet, locked in perpetual practice mode on the center of the court, dribbling the ball while giving his back to his fan base. Perhaps proof that money means much more to professional sports than civic pride and loyalty. Read the rest of this entry »