Frank Piatek became known in the seventies as a practitioner of “Allusive Abstraction.” His paintings show tubes intertwining, crossed and knotted. Early on he was compared to Frank Stella, but as he developed, his paintings became elegant biomorphic emblems, situated in a kind of no-man’s land between figuration and abstraction, often full of a ripe sexuality and made perhaps for the contemplation of a simple biological fact—that the body plan of all animals is a tube, and that at a fundamental level we all are tubes, made for processing the materials of the world. But in Piatek this brute materialism is imbued with an intense spirituality: the knotted and intertwined forms come from the Book of Kells, from Aztec, Minoan and pharaonic Egyptian iconography. They are part of what Piatek calls his “archaeology of knots.”
Born in 1944, Piatek attended Lane Tech—the high-school classrooms were often filled with screams from the roller coaster at Riverview across the street. At the School of the Art Institute he achieved a string of early successes—in 1967 he won the foreign travel fellowship; in that year Don Baum brought a curator from the Whitney to visit the studio Piatek built with his father, a visit that led to his inclusion in the Whitney Biennial before he had even finished his BFA. He took the fellowship money and embarked on an intense regime of travel and work, filling notebook after notebook with seminal drawings and sketches and ideas, leaving Paris just as the May 1968 demonstrations began to boil over. He was back in Chicago in 1969, and had one-man shows at the Hyde Park Art Center, as well as the Phyllis Kind gallery, the place to go for all things Hairy Who—Jim Nutt, Barbara Rossi, Karl Wirsum, Gladys Nilsson—at a time when everyone was talking about “the Chicagoization of New York.”
But Piatek was not really one of that crew. Over the following decades he cultivated an art of spiritual resonances and concatenations, making the basement of his studio into a place of esoteric symbolic investigations. A turning point for him, he says, came on December 9, 1972, when, after dreaming of a dead man in a boat, he created his first boat sculpture, an emblem of shamanic communication between macrocosm and microcosm, between this world and what he calls “the Great and Timeless World.” As early as 1977 he contributed one of these death boats to N.A.M.E.’s “Daley’s Tomb,” a show otherwise full of political sarcasm. For example, there were works like Tom Palazzolo’s “The Presumption” that showed the late mayor as Christ in Raphaelite ascension into the clouds. But Piatek’s shamanic boat was a gesture not at all in the mocking spirit of his Hairy fellow travelers.
This same gravity can be seen in the current installation at Finestra. “Almost Voyage Time/Traveler’s Report” is an altar-like installation of two boats placed together to form a dehiscing seedpod. Hanging from lengths of intertwined and knotted string are paper tags, gessoed and covered with drawn marks, word fragments and printed matter like stock quotes, etymologies and Egyptian sacred writing. It is a gathering together of materials on the verge of being transmitted; there is an aura of readiness and anticipation. It is a moving emblem of death and finitude. (David Mark Wise)
Frank Piatek shows at Finestra Art Space, Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan, Suite 516, through July 30.