By Jason Foumberg
At seventy-six years old Linda Kramer makes oil paintings of floating fetuses. She has been painting in and around Chicago for more than six decades, and her latest series contains flesh-pink fetuses hovering over other bodies, some of them dead. Sometimes a red hotdog (also floating) takes the place of the fetus. What comes next in this series of morphing objects? Only Kramer knows, and she has worked in this stream-of-consciousness method for awhile, meandering among formalist and figurative strategies for most of her career. “Unstable Variations” is the title of her retrospective exhibition at the Evanston Art Center.
Because she has not taught in local art schools, her name may not be familiar to everyone, but her artwork and her presence in the art community seems well-known to many. Kramer co-founded Artemisia Gallery, a cooperative for woman artists, in 1973, and showed there often. (Artemisia closed in 2003). Some of Kramer’s best-known work are a series of drawings from 1972 of mock Playboy Bunnies, rendered anxiously in colored pencil. Playboy, and its undressed bunnies, were targets of feminist artists in Chicago when Hefner and company were based here. Kramer says her drawings were “cynical.” Three of these now hang around the Evanston Art Center’s stairwell like pictures of ancestors.
Kramer dyes her bangs cobalt blue and wears them spiked up in a signature style. A self-portrait in the show mirrors this look, and shares a wall with eleven other portraits, all painted in the last few years. Combined, the dozen faces provoke the subtly unnerving feeling of being watched. Some of the portraits seem like ghosts, and others like real folks.
Kramer’s latest work sometimes invokes Jim Lutes’ paintings circa the early nineties. Kramer’s fans are eager to situate her in a Chicago painting tradition, but her work also channels LA’s Kenny Scharf and NYC’s Elizabeth Murray, showing that Kramer has contributed to an international conversation on quirky, creative, animated abstraction. It takes a good retrospective to parse this all out. This is Kramer’s second retrospective. Her first was held in 1999 at the Hyde Park Art Center. Kramer has been prolific since that show fourteen years ago. The fruit of her studio life is on view in Evanston.
A retrospective exhibition is not the easiest thing to organize. If many works are in private or public collections, then collectors and curators have to be convinced to loan. If all are successfully assembled, the artworks tell a story like a novel.
The success of Kramer’s retrospective prompted me to think about other Chicago-based artists who could use a retrospective or two.
Richard Rezac: His painted wood and metal sculptures, often small-scale and all abstract, are like minimalist sculptures dipped in a vat of riddles. As much as Rezac’s sculptures are elegantly formal they are also quietly strange. Rezac has taught in Chicago since 1985, and shows at Rhona Hoffman Gallery. A local museum survey of his sculptures and drawings is overdue. Ideal venue: Museum of Contemporary Art.
Ellen Rothenberg: She has made political and activist art in Chicago since 1995. Her performance and public artwork is important, like the recent Chicago Torture Justice Memorials. Ideal venue: Renaissance Society.
Kay Rosen: Based in nearby Gary, Indiana, she has exhibited internationally since the early eighties. A perfect venue for a retrospective of Rosen’s text-art might be inside a book, but imagine walking into a giant gallery filled with her obsessive puns. Ideal venue: The Poetry Foundation.
James Valerio: The hyperrealist painter and draughtsman taught at Northwestern University for many years. His masterpiece hangs in the Union League Club for just a few invited guests to see. Ideal venue: Block Museum of Art.
Buzz Spector: An innovator of book arts, Spector has not lived in Chicago for a couple of decades but he has deep ties here, having co-founded WhiteWalls magazine and exhibiting here often. Ideal venue: Chicago Cultural Center (a former library).
Philip Hanson: Imagists get better with age. A Chicago Imagist original, Hanson continues to paint and exhibit here, but his last retrospective was held in 1985. Ideal venue: Art Institute of Chicago.
Michiko Itatani: One of her large, shaped paintings hangs in a spot where every visitor to the Harold Washington Library can see it. Itatani has exhibited in Chicago since 1983, and a large survey of her work would be powerful. Ideal venue: Hyde Park Art Center.
Gertrude Abercrombie: Her small, surreal paintings that occasionally pop up in group exhibitions have whet many viewers’ appetites for more of her unusual artwork. Abercrombie, who lived in Hyde Park and died in 1977, last had a retrospective in 1983. Ideal venue: Smart Museum of Art.
Linda Kramer shows at the Evanston Art Center, 2603 Sheridan Road, Evanston, through July 21.