The sea, with its legends of mermaids and serpents, phantom ships and lost continents, has inspired man’s creativity for millennia. From Japan’s Katsushika Hokusai to Germany’s Caspar David Friedrich, the raw power of towering waves and the quiet foreboding of impenetrable fog captivate equally across cultures. But one need not look to the distant past or far-off shores to find tales of mystery and imagination; our own Great Lakes, a seamen’s graveyard for centuries, will suffice.
Enter artist Peter Skvara, whose new works are tales of misfortune on the high sea embodied in the form of hard-edged geometric abstraction. The six paintings in “Approaches” take their compositions from the colorful language of maritime signal flags: brilliant banners emblazoned with litanies of colored Xs, crosses, dots and stripes that, when strung together in a ship’s rigging, communicate vital information to other vessels.
Spray painted on loose woven polyester mesh—an oblique reference to a fisherman’s net?—the pictures have translucent surfaces that reveal the stretchers beneath. Like peering under the surface of shallow water, or maybe beholding a ghost, they have a subtle, captivating effect. Titles such as “You are Running the Risk of Going Aground / I am Going Ahead” or “I Am Drifting / Will You Give Me My Position” evoke a sense of frantic desperation that stands in stark contrast to the order and clarity of the crisp edges and primary hues.
Of course, it is possible to know too much about an exhibition. Artist statements and press releases often provide useful context, but they are just as likely to restrict the range of a viewer’s interpretation. In the case of “Approaches,” a little knowledge of signal flags can rapidly turn a series of evanescent abstractions into a collection of unimaginative readymades. Fortunately, aside from an incongruous floor installation that succeeds mainly in making it difficult to get near a few pictures, the delicate material forms of the paintings transcend the literalness of their origins. The wind is at Skvara’s back. (Alan Pocaro)
Through September 5 at Andrew Rafacz Gallery, 835 West Washington
Elliot J. Reichert is a Chicago-based curator, critic, and editor. He is a currently a Hatch Projects Curatorial Resident at the Chicago Artist Coalition and Art Editor of Newcity. Formerly, he was Assistant Curator at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University. His writing has been published in The Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of Visual Culture, and Newcity.