The problem with contemporary religious art is that it seems the result of conformity rather than discovery, so you get the feeling that nobody, including the artist, really believes it. Like a docile parishioner, it’s just following rules and dutifully going through the motions. But there are no rules in the contemporary art world, so when an artist like William Eckhardt Kohler (born 1962) fills a gallery with large, visionary paintings, it can actually feel like a spiritual experience. Kohler is obviously on some kind of a quest, and its goal is not especially to sell paintings. He explores the world, both inner and outer, rather than reacting with the irony, anger, humor, or disgust that is more common to successful contemporary Chicago artists. With titles like “In the Garden of the Blessed,” “Night Ceremony,” and “Up the Mountain,” his paintings lead us into high chroma landscapes that feel as much like Mughal miniatures as they do the American land or the free, swirling, calligraphic brushstrokes of Abstract Expression. And unlike his paintings from earlier years, this series from 2010 is more of a solitary journey, with only an occasional, loosely sketched human or animal figure. Are the hares and crows intended to guide the seeker through these fantastic hills of pink and blue trees? Is this the same kind of journey that the intoxicated Carlos Castaneda took with his brujo through the chaparral of northern Mexico? This may not be among the very best visionary art. Kohler is quite adept in navigating the ins and outs of pictorial space. But these paintings are just not beautifully sharp and ecstatic enough to convince this pilgrim that the Truth has been found, though I am convinced that he’s on the way, and would certainly like to see where he goes next. (Chris Miller)
Through February 26 at Linda Warren Gallery, 1052 West Fulton Market.