Reviews, profiles and news about art in Chicago

Review: David Hockney/Richard Gray Gallery

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"Montcalm Pool, Los Angeles," 1980

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


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


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


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


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 »

Review: Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College/Chicago Cultural Center

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Founded by former slaves in 1867, Talladega College, in Alabama, commissioned six murals for their new library in 1939. Three panels tell the story of Africans aboard the slave ship Amistad, their successful revolt and legal aftermath. The other three panels commemorate the Underground Railroad, the founding of the college, and the building of the library in which the murals were installed. It’s an epic that begins with violence and ends with constructive cooperation toward higher education. The artist was Hale Woodruff (1900-1980), professor of art at a historically black college in Atlanta. He had attended art schools in Indianapolis, Chicago, Cambridge and Paris, and spent a summer in Mexico with Diego Rivera. Read the rest of this entry »

Portrait of the Artist: Shawn Decker

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photo by Soohyun Kim

photo by Soohyun Kim

The brass rods shudder as the wind sweeps through the prairie. Steel grasshoppers click in the tall grass. A small mole cricket snaps its wings. And rain falls metallic on black soil.

In the sound installation “Prairie,” currently on exhibit in the Yates Gallery at the Chicago Cultural Center, artist Shawn Decker composes an abstract symphony of microcontrollers, computers, motors and recycled cellphone speakers. Subtle algorithms echo the dynamic movement and rhythm of the Illinois grasslands.

Decker grew up at the end of a dirt road in Western Pennsylvania. He remembers canoeing down the Susquehanna River, camping in the hills of the Allegheny Plateau, and watching the flutter of cardinals and blue jays in the trees outside his window. His artistic practice involves making meticulous tape and phonograph recordings in order to deconstruct rhythmic and spatial patterns of sound. He says, “The algorithms I compose are derived from natural processes. I often use configurations of Brownian motion of particles or fluctuations of 1/f noise to translate and reimagine the sound of leaves falling on the ground or raindrops hitting a blade of grass.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: They Seek a City: Chicago and the Art of Migration, 1910-1950/Art Institute of Chicago

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Walter Ellison, "Train Station," 1935

Walter Ellison, “Train Station,” 1935


The flight from oppression makes such a compelling, if predictable, story; it has been made the primary theme of this exhibition about the art of Chicago’s immigrants in the first half of the twentieth century. Since Jews have been fleeing oppressors ever since the time of Pharaoh, Chicago Jewish artists dominate the exhibition. Thanks to loans by local collectors, especially Bernard Friedman, there are many fascinating works by Todros Geller, Morris Topchevsky, Misch Kohn, Max Kahn, Aaron Bohrod, David Bekker, Rifka Angel, Fritzi Brod, Emil Armin, Leon Garland and Moholy-Nagy.

The eye-opener for me was the prints and paintings of Bernice Berkman. Her career in art was brief, but she really had a fiery spirit and a remarkable empathy not only for her own people but for displaced African Americans as well. (She ended up marrying one and running a wallpaper company with him in NYC). Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Herbert Ferber/Valerie Carberry Gallery

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HF123_lgYou might not guess that Herbert Ferber (1906–1991) was a dentist by looking at his paintings and sculptures, yet it’s not hard to see the impact of one career upon the other. His metal sculptures have twisting sharp edges that slice through space, and his ominous paintings feature large saw teeth that seem immersed in a viscous, red or yellow streaked liquid. You couldn’t call him a hobbyist. He pursued an education and practice in both careers simultaneously from the very beginning, and since he was interested in gestural, abstract sculpture decades before it could become lucrative, he needed another source of income. Read the rest of this entry »