Chicago-trained, NYC-based artist David Sharpe has been painting cosmic spectaculars for many decades—a thrilling example from about thirty years ago recently hung in the Koffler collection at the DePaul Art Museum. Within that magnificence, the artist has often placed crudely rendered human figures that now feel less like the defiant scrawls of a schoolboy and more like the angry frustration of a mid-life crisis set in the sophisticated, pictorial world of early twentieth-century modernism.
His backgrounds resemble the bright, upbeat Arcadian interiors of Matisse, sometimes complete with the serpentine edges of philodendron leaves. They encompass angular female figures—sisters of the big-foot monster-women and angry wives of Picasso. Read the rest of this entry »
Bill Traylor (1854-1949) may be the most accidental of accidental artists. Born into slavery on the Traylor plantation of Alabama, at the age of eighty-five he was homeless in Montgomery, spending his days on the street, making drawings with found materials. Eventually, some artists, dealers and folklorists found him, and posthumously he became an iconic figure in American outsider art. I’m not sure that the pieces now being shown at Carl Hammer Gallery, who first brought his work to Chicago thirty years ago, would have established that reputation. They’re mostly simple, quick sketches of one or two figures, less complex than his multi-figure narratives. Read the rest of this entry »
Parents often show love by giving us too many things, so even after we’ve grown older, nothing can be quite so comforting as the clutter of useless junk. And unlike everything that’s always changing, clutter can be permanent and reliable. Which may explain Mary Lou Zelazny’s pictorial world, where, as the “Cake Lady” herself, she offers up an armful of comfort food. We all know that the manufactured pastry, whose garish advertising images she has cut and pasted, is not very healthy, so one might conclude that she is also offering up a pointed critique of modern American life. But if eating chocolate cake makes you feel good about yourself, why stop? And feeling good about yourself seems to be this artist’s mission, especially in this exhibit of recent paintings that focus so often on the female face and body, not so much how it looks on the outside, but how it feels from within. Read the rest of this entry »
"Rubber Boy," 1998
Now that he has devoted his talents for upwards of four decades to taking absurdly humorous color photos of his Weimaraner dogs in various and sundry settings, you would think that William Wegman would have run that shtick into the pound. Think again. In his latest shaggy-dog romp, Wegman borrowed a passel of vintage sideshow posters from gallerist Carl Hammer, placed the pooches in front of them in appropriate dress, and posed them as—yes—the cutest sad-sack freaks this side of P.T. Barnum. Just imagine the bliss that the long-gone scaly-skinned Alligator Girl would have felt had she actually had one of those winsome Weimaraners, complete with an alligator snout, as her faithful consort. Wegman does that for her image posthumously. One can never accuse Wegman of being a one-trick puppy. He went to the dogs when postmodern photography seduced him and he never came back. (Michael Weinstein)
Through August 26 at Carl Hammer Gallery, 740 North Wells
Joseph Yoakum, "Pleasure and Club House on Lake Placid near Sebring Florida on Indian Prairie Canal," 1964, ink and colored pencil on paper
By Jason Foumberg
In the 1990s, a huge range of contemporary art was categorized into some simple themes. There was a quick consensus that “the body” and “identity,” “memory” and “home” defined the queries and struggles of our contemporary era, as if the big world was so complex—and overburdened by art theory—that we needed to recompose ourselves using these basic building blocks of human life. These efforts at categorization promoted some excellent art works. In the “home” or “place” thematic category, Rachel Whiteread’s 1993 “House” and Gregor Schneider’s “Totes Haus ur” (1985-2003, in various iterations) defined a new genre of residential manipulation, with roots stretching back to Gordon Matta-Clark’s 1974 “Splitting” of a suburban home right in half, although Whiteread’s and Schneider’s large-scale installations were more of an effort to reconstruct the single-family home rather than destroy it.
The symbolism of the single-family home is resurging amid the American real estate bust, and a particular derivation is on view today in Chicago galleries. Where Whiteread and Schneider (and a host of others, including Do Ho Suh) investigated the site-specific qualities of “home,” the houses of today are generic and reduced to icons in the style drawn by children: a square with a triangle roof. As symbols, these houses are reductions to a universal essence of “home”; they speak about the safety of familiar objects, the comfort of domestic rituals and the fantasy of contained happiness. Read the rest of this entry »
Elizabeth Shreve, a former psychologist, mines the iconographic unconscious of our culture, tweaking the styles of grocery circulars and shoe-store catalogues. Female figures, birds and desserts predominate in paintings that are nothing if not overindulgent. Previously balancing buffets of glistening cold cuts with decapitated flowers and syrupy pancakes, Shreve mounted a full-frontal assault, turning desire into disgust. The current exhibition, “Fears and Desires Magnifique,” represents a new turn. In contrast to her previous top-heavy nauseating images, the new works offer, instead of indictment, a dreamy vision of bouquets and party hats, color wheels recapitulating Ferris wheels and all feeling playful, pleasurable.
“The pleasures of life were always at her fingertips and needed no explanation or judgment,” Shreve writes in one of the cartoons, “Jidjits,” collected alongside the new paintings, and it is a sentiment that speaks to the new tone in her work. The nude in “Four Birds” is defined by strength of stance and self-determining gaze. Populating a fantastic space brimming with food, flowers, cartoon bugs and a distant circus tent, her attention remains elsewhere. In the lower corner of the painting, at crotch level, a bee rises from a box, likewise undistracted by the chock-a-block visuals. As in its sister painting, “The Smile,” Shreve gives us the experience of pleasure in a world of boundless promise. Excess, after all, need not lead to gluttony. The cornucopias’ contents have been flung onto canvas, but the effect, rather than sickening or shameful, is exhilarating—perhaps best represented by the ever-present color wheels, exemplifications of the potentials of painting itself, the abundance of options to be fingered, tasted, and played with. Read the rest of this entry »
Photomicrograph, c. 1883-1931
Snowflakes are inimitable, as we have always been told, and if we need proof, turn-of-the-twentieth-century photographer Wilson Bentley provides it in his exquisite black-and-white studies of the ephemeral crystals. Micro-photography of nature always reveals unsuspected alluring organized detail, yet snowflakes take the lead, just because their symmetric perfection stands against their inherent transiency. How did Bentley consummate his feat? He would shovel up some of a fresh Vermont snowfall, put it on a table, search for beautiful crystals, isolate them with a broom bristle, put them on glass plates and shoot them quick as a bunny through a photomicroscope. Without the offices of contemporary technology, Bentley’s passion and discipline give us visual evidence of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s dictum that the value of things is not dependent on their duration. (Michael Weinstein)
Through January 30 at Carl Hammer Gallery, 740 N. Wells
C.J. Pyle, "Flora Dora," pencil and colored pencil on verso of album cover, 2008
When it comes to drawing, a couple of clichés are often evident. The first is that drawing is more immediate than other media and is therefore better at revealing the “essential self.” The second says that self-taught artists hold greater claim to authentic self-expression simply because they are outsiders. When combined, these assumptions form a seductive narrative mythos that can be hard to resist. Such fictions certainly inform the outstanding selection of works in “Primal: Drawing as the Mirror of Self,” but for the most part that selection (consisting mostly of gallery artists) serves to unpack the myths at least as often as it plays to them.
Inspired by the Museum of Modern Art’s 2008 exhibition “Glossolalia: Languages of Drawing,” which sought a common visual language among the seemingly Babel-like incoherency of styles, methods, and approaches in contemporary drawing, “Primal” includes better-known outsider artists like Henry Darger, Bill Traylor and Joseph E. Yoakum (who were also featured in the MoMA show) along with Lee Godie and Frank Jones. It also mixes in a few interesting up-and-comers like Orly Cogan and painter Marc Dennis alongside artists with substantial exhibition histories like Phyllis Bramson, David Sharpe and graphic novelist Chris Ware. Read the rest of this entry »
Marc Dennis’ photorealistic paintings seem not so much to appropriate or impersonate the images that litter smut magazines as to imitate them. Women’s naked bodies, in poses straight out of Hustler, are displayed against backgrounds that are at first somewhat jarring; one woman shoves her breasts out of her tiny tank top in front of a Sistine Chapel mural, while another is featured from behind on her knees against a nighttime cityscape, and one stands next to a dog in a sort of twisted family portrait. The majority of the paintings, however, simply feature naked women spread on beds in hotel rooms, with tacky bedspreads and trashy poses so that Dennis might as well have been staging a pornographic photo shoot while he composed them. There’s some sense that Dennis is trying to provoke an affective response, however visceral, as testament to what the artist statement calls the power the women in the images know their bodies have. However, as graphic as the paintings are, they ultimately don’t shock or even provoke simply because they don’t make use of the images in any new aesthetic or rhetorical way, and there’s no obvious evidence that the artist is doing much more than profiteering from the old discourse surrounding female nudes and the relationship between pornography and art. (Monica Westin)
Through May 30 at Carl Hammer Gallery, 740 N. Wells.
Leonard Koscianski’s solo exhibition is far more nuanced and impenetrable than it claims to be. In his artist statement, Koscianski fashions his line of attack on postmodern art and society. The series of paintings is described as a comment on the dark side of suburban American life, where wild animals exude primitive bloodlust against rows of identical houses and claustrophobia-inducing forests as a representation of postmodern man’s frustrations and fears. However, identifying the paintings as transparent critiques of the predatory nature of the postmodern world is hardly as evocative as the actual painted content. The artist’s overly complex criticism denies several other artistic systems that he seems either to be citing or unconsciously invoking. The overwhelmingly resonant colors, vibrant as early Technicolor and equally off-putting, evoke pornography, and in fact, the snarling dogs and sinister claws of eagles against washes of teal and magenta seem just as sexual in presentation as they are threatening; is the fear of the suburbs not a fear of violation and rape that might thrill as much as it frightens? Simultaneously, the contrast of such intensity against sinister black figures of trees and the dull sides of houses evokes Gothic stained-glass cathedral windows. Seeing the paintings in this light, as a new kind of religious imagery, reveals an altogether more provocative iconography. (Monica Westin)
Through March 14 at Carl Hammer Gallery, 740 N. Wells.