The further we get from twentieth-century America, the more bizarre its normalized gender identities now appear to us. Barton, Thecla and Abercrombie lived in Chicago throughout that era, but defied social conventions by becoming artists and working all kinds of jobs to pay the rent. Given their unconventional lifestyles, is it any surprise that an entire wall in this exhibit is devoted to depictions of flying saucers and other extraterrestrial phenomena?
The most talented painter here is Gertrude Abercrombie. She was also the least schooled. Somehow, she picked up an ability to seamlessly join craftsmanship to imagination with an intensity that echoes back to religious painting from the late Middle Ages. But she was hardly religious, except in approaching the world with awe. Renaissance figuration is missing, but powerful expression within a rectangle is not. Like the New Yorker cartoonists, she seems to be coming from a clever and sophisticated place. Every image draws both admiration and a smile. I have never seen her do a dull painting.
Macena Barton demonstrates the ability for figure drawing that was a prerequisite for art schools in her time, but she was less interested in the subtleties of painting than in making bold statements. Her linear, edge-defined figures jump away from their often garish backgrounds. The pieces resemble circus posters, in which the headlining act is her own, rebellious spirit.
The most intriguing part of this show is the seventeen drawings and paintings by Julia Thecla. Some are on loan and many have never before been exhibited. She seems less interested in entertaining the viewer than in exploring her private imagination. Several of these explorations seem muddled and pointless, possibly constrained by the requirements of conventional pictorial space. But her interest in varied and vibrant surfaces sometimes led into exquisite, transcendent visions both strange and beautiful.
Standing aside from the social idealism that informed so much prewar figurative American art, this show can be seen as the triumph of individuality. One might also note that the careers of all three women benefitted from the socialist ideals of the Works Progress Administration. (Chris Miller)
Through November 25 at Mongerson Gallery, 875 North Michigan
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.