Reviews, profiles and news about art in Chicago

Review: Samuel Feinstein/McCormick Gallery

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Untitled, 1950s, oil on canvas

Untitled, 1950s, oil on canvas

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Like his friend and mentor, Hans Hofmann, Sam Feinstein (1915-2003) was a teacher and practitioner of what Hofmann called “pure painting—the rhythmic interweavings of color scales.” His work is gestural, but all those dabs of thick paint that have been drawn, scraped or pushed across the canvas seem to be less about personal expression and more like a survey of paint-based ecosystems, where each shade of color has a life and a voice of its own. There is no anxiety, semiotic inquiry or reference to popular culture. There is nothing dark and disturbed, and nothing tedious or banal. There is just the seemingly endless variety of ever-emerging and ever-beautiful creation. These are not paintings that require market validation to be recognized as valuable, and the leading American galleries at the time were moving beyond Abstract Expression. So, it’s not surprising that Feinstein no longer offered his work to galleries after 1958, and even refused to sell anything at the only exhibit he had thereafter. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: José Lerma/Kavi Gupta Gallery

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"Salomon," acrylic and pigmented silicone on glass-less mirror, 2014

“Salomon,” acrylic and pigmented silicone on glass-less mirror, 2014

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Occupy Wall Street may have fizzled out, but that doesn’t mean José Lerma isn’t still paranoid about the financial industry. In one installation, a ten-percent slice of a brightly colored circular stage is multiplied by kaleidoscopic mirrors to give the illusion of all 360 degrees. He’s titled it “A Critical Analysis of Central Banks and Fractional-Reserve Banking from the Austrian School Perspective.” What it demonstrates is that banks lend money that isn’t theirs. Like a carnival fun house, you need only view it once and laugh.

But his second installation, “Gloriosa Superba,” is both more ominous and more appealing, with some of the most exuberant painting that I have ever seen. Floral patterns of rubbery, sharp-edged shapes have been laid upon, and sometimes extend beyond, five-by-six-foot mirrors that reflect everything in the gallery. Each piece is supposed to represent one of the seven founders of the Rothschild banking dynasty hiding within the bloom of a tropical flower named in their honor. If you look closely, you just might recognize them, and something like a column hanging from the ceiling, representing the pillar at the London Stock Exchange where Nathan Mayer Rothschild plotted to crash and then bought up the British economy after the battle of Waterloo. Or, at least that’s the conspiracy theory published in 1887, drawn from unspecified sources. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Modern Metaphors/Rockford Art Museum

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Bruno Surdo,  "Self Portrait (Ecco L'uomo)," oil on linen, 2013.

Bruno Surdo,
“Self Portrait (Ecco L’uomo),” oil on linen, 2013.

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Modern life is more like a problem than an opportunity in “Modern Metaphors,” a showcase for four makers of imaginary worlds from Chicago. David Kroll retreats into the stuffy, quiet serenity of a seventeenth-century drawing room, while Katherine Ace withdraws to the scary-safe fantasies of medieval fairytales. The other two artists also look backward, but are more confrontational. Bruno Surdo’s Pop-Baroque-realism seems to say: “Our world is a madhouse, but I can take it!” while Sergio Fasola’s photo-surreal conglomerations are too visually disruptive to think about anything else.

There are some amazing paintings here, beginning with Surdo’s self-portrait as a churlish tagger sporting a seventeenth-century millstone ruff collar. He carries a dripping can of spray paint that hardly does justice to this artist’s incredible facility with a brush. When he depicts a face covered with hands, the result might well be a “Penitent Magdalene” as done by Rubens or Van Dyck. He’s that good. The quality of design diminishes as he adds more figures, which might suggest that he’s more comfortable with solitude. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Nilima Sheikh/Art Institute of Chicago

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Nilima Sheikh, "Dying Dreaming," 2007–10. From the Lekha and Anupam Poddar Collection

Nilima Sheikh, “Dying Dreaming,” 2007–10. From the Lekha and Anupam Poddar Collection

New Delhi artist Nilima Sheikh has been applying the practices of traditional Indian painting to contemporary Indian life for more than five decades, and Kashmir is a beautiful mountain valley whose history has captured her imagination. It has also been in the path of many plundering armies and more recently the focus of a territorial dispute consequent to the 1948 partition of India and Pakistan. So it’s a good setting for the trouble-in-paradise theme that Sheikh has chosen for eight ceiling-hung banners.

In color, scale and beauty/violence, these cloth banners, with painting on one side and text on the other, recall earlier epic projects, like the Hamzanama completed for Emperor Akbar in 1577. Similar to those projects, the overall tonal patterns are beguiling, even otherworldly, and it is not the work of a single artist. Sheikh used patterned stencils cut by a member of a Mathura family of traditional Sanjhi paper cutters. Other details come up short. She could have employed skilled calligraphers and figurative specialists, as well. Read the rest of this entry »

Portrait of the Artist: Nazafarin Lotfi

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 "Limits," oil on canvas, 2013

“Limits,” oil on canvas, 2013

The artist begins with a black canvas. In an effort to locate her body in relationship to the canvas, she assigns herself a task—to make an arch with arm outstretched. Slowly she applies the paint. Dashes of white trace the length of her arm. Hour by hour, she turns, circles and shifts the canvas until the surface is covered in tessellated scales of gray.

“In my paintings I’ve been drawing a lot of horizontal lines,” explains Nazafarin Lotfi. “I was thinking about language, going back to when I started as a seven-year-old kid, and how I learned to write in Farsi by drawing simple lines.”

“Untitled,” 2013, is a series of five blue squares. Each sheet of paper is marked with the hatching and cross-hatching of a Bic ballpoint until the pen runs dry. Layer upon layer of monotonous markings are transformed into delicate gradations of blue.

The artist grew up in the years after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. As a child she observed the teeming metropolis of Tehran where exhaust fumes mingled with the smell of jasmine. She imagined stories of buildings and the crows that sat gently perched on the telephone wires. The stories became drawings, and the drawings became animation, brought to life by a makeshift zoetrope fashioned from cardboard and carefully incised with vertical slits. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Christopher Wool/Art Institute of Chicago

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Christopher Wool, untitled, 2010.

Christopher Wool, untitled, 2010.

Despite embodying the aesthetic qualities at the heart of my critical bias—heroic scale, painterly drips, bold gestures, a sense of existential struggle and even a little humor—I found Christopher Wool’s recently opened retrospective at the Art Institute depressing. Having enjoyed some of his pictures in the past, I genuinely expected to leave this show feeling tipsy, intoxicated from the visual excess that only a museum-scale exhibition can provide. Instead, I felt hung over.

Boston-born and Chicago-raised, Wool has been riding a wave of critical success that trades in the kind of nihilistic how-do-you-paint-after-painting-is-dead rhetoric that may have had some currency in the late 1970s and eighties, but is past its sell-by date in 2014. The various didactic panels in this almost antiseptically colorless show repeatedly emphasize words such as “sabotage,” “negation” and “obliteration.” Whether all this “eve-of-destruction” nonsense actually informs Wool’s studio practice is debatable, but its inescapable presence definitely informed my experience of the show. By the time I reached the halfway point, I was convinced that painting wasn’t just dead, it was the victim of premeditated murder. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Judy Ledgerwood/Graham Foundation

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Photo: Tom Van Eynde.

Photo: Tom Van Eynde.

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In 1919, German architect and Bauhaus co-founder Walter Gropius issued a clarion call for the synthesis of the plastic arts. Decrying divisive class distinctions, Gropius believed that together artist and craftsman alike could “create the new building of the future, which will embrace architecture, and sculpture, and painting in one unity…like the crystal symbol of a new faith.” Though the art world is more fragmented (and cynical) than ever, one can still find echoes of Gropius’ aspiration in Judy Ledgerwood’s fiery installation “Chromatic Patterns for the Graham Foundation.”

Awash in scorching fluorescent colors and metallic-silver floral motifs, the dignified interior of the stately Madlener House has been transformed into an exuberant and intensely optical experience. From floor to ceiling, the walls of this venerable structure vibrate, disarming and occasionally disorienting the viewer with fierce after-images and a bevy of simultaneous contrasts. Ledgerwood, a professor of art theory and practice at Northwestern University, has spent years exploring the fruitful fringes where art and craft, abstraction and decoration intersect and dissolve, and this installation may be her most potent yet. Read the rest of this entry »

Visiting Artist: Ryan Peter Miller

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Ryan Peter Miller, "Painthing," 2013. Photo: Russell Lord

Ryan Peter Miller, “Painthing,” 2013. Photo: Russell Lord

Ryan Peter Miller grew up in Georgia and moved to Chicago by way of Southern California a couple years ago. His work addresses the material of paint itself, making forms that look more like Play-Doh sculptures than acrylic paintings. He calls these “Painthings.” Coming from a traditional painting background, Miller’s relationship with the material has evolved to the point where he is now rolling entire tubes of paint into balls and forcing them through frosting guns.

I tease my friends a lot. That’s how I show my affection. And that’s how I show my affection toward paint, too. I’m kind of making fun of it. What debases painting more than squeezing it through a frosting gun? It’s not because I hate it, it’s because I like it.

Acrylic’s a silly, unique material—one of the only materials exclusively for making art. Pencils, plaster, stone, concrete. All these things have multiple functions. But when you go to the art supply store and you buy a tube of paint they’re basically saying, “Now go make art,” and I think there’s something funny and stupid about that. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Émilie Charmy/Arts Club of Chicago

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Charmy Portrait Royall coll

Émilie Charmy, “Portrait,” oil on canvas, 1921. Courtesy of Pamela K. and William A. Royall, Jr. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo: Travis Fullerton

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French Modernist painters were no less interested in the female nude than their classical predecessors, so quite a few iconic artists including Manet, Renoir, Cezanne and Matisse were included in a 1922 exhibit in Paris entitled “Le Nu Feminin.” Most of the collectors and celebrated artists at that time were men, so the subject was typically idealized, mystified or sensualized, i.e., objectified. But one artist in that show, Émilie Charmy, saw the attractive female body as her own, and that approach continues to be an anomaly in this genre. Her nudes are no less attractive, but they are more about a sensual woman’s personality than a man’s fantasy.

This is the first Charmy retrospective to ever be organized in the U.S. (by the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia), and it makes you wonder why it took so long. Her painting feels loose and spontaneous, but when you look close up, the strands of brushed color are as clear, distinct and perfectly located as the threads in a tapestry. Her techniques always seem improvised to serve an image, rather than the other way around. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Dmitry Samarov/Living Room Gallery

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beverly_livingroom2

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Dmitry Samarov has no mystic visions—he doesn’t travel to scenic spots, and no social, personal or philosophical issues seem to be troubling him. He just opens his eyes, and the visual world that envelops is so fascinating, he is compelled to respond in a style more expressive than descriptive, with ever increasing inventive facility. So, there’s nothing remarkably new in these paintings of domestic interiors, appropriately displayed in a West Town real estate office. Whether it’s his 2006 charcoal drawing of rumpled clothes in the closet or his 2013 watercolor of a jeep in a snowy driveway, the subject matter is as ordinary as the execution is virtuosic. Every nook and cranny of the visual field is filled with life—his life—which is calm, strong, joyful and assertive. That’s the same resilient, upbeat quality presented by American Regional painting from the 1930s—but this is not an “American Scene;” it’s Dmitry’s scene.

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