Five decades of the Chicago Imagists tradition are alive and well in “Faces,” the first exhibit of the new year at Jean Albano Gallery. Whether the human face is directly engaging the viewer or part of an entire figure, these faces are far removed from a Rembrandt self-portrait. They evince no naturalism, no idealism, no profound drama, no soul. These are not the faces of people on life’s journey. These are the human products of modern civilization—stamped, printed and marketed—like the woman in Bonnie Lautenberg’s photograph. A dehumanizing social system has turned participants into freaks or monsters, as fetishized as the faux primitive sculptures constructed by Margaret Wharton.
But who else is responsible for this system if not the people who collect or make this art? Not all of the participating artists are as politically connected as Mrs. Lautenberg, the widow of a five-term senator from New Jersey, but all of them are successful Americans, and this social critique is no longer fresh and bold.
The most powerful, most confrontational—and yet, the simplest—example is a Karl Wirsum work on paper from the late 1970s. Part football helmet, part leering skull, it’s the only piece that creates a strong sense of discomfort. By comparison, everything else in the show feels decorative. The painting by his son, Zack, is as complex and highly crafted as a circuit board, but virtuosity alone seems to be its message. Likewise, the watercolor by, another second-generation Chicago Imagist, is more charming than disturbing.
The exhibit is exceptional for a high level of craft in a variety of techniques that include video and digital prints. Especially remarkable is the photorealistic pencil drawing by William Harrison. But as he renders the light on every delicate hair of his subject, a Euro-pop musician, the results resemble taxidermy.
A comfortable cynicism seems to be the message. We can’t expect artists to have more idealism than any other profession, but should we expect any less of them than we do of mechanics, school teachers or even Chicago cops? (Chris Miller)
Through March 11 at Jean Albano Gallery, 215 West Superior