Tom Torluemke’s recent shows have featured narrative painting, and something like a human body is represented in the large watercolor “In Search of the Lost Sole by the Sea” in this exhibition. The cartoonish fragments of leg, nose and eye, as well as the wordplay, continues the tradition of Chicago Imagists. Specifically, the cheerful, gentle humor and flat, slithering elongations echo the work of Gladys Nilsson. But otherwise, the watercolor worlds in this exhibit are unpopulated and non-objective. In their own laid-back, watery way, they explore decorative rather than narrative possibilities with translucent, tubular structures halfway between the industrial and the vegetative.
The watercolors are hung unframed like tapestries. But unlike the soft, inviting surfaces of fabric, these crisply executed works-on-paper do not offer comfort. Linda Warren Projects has hung a seventy-two-inch-by-fifty-one-inch piece above a sofa, suggesting that it belongs in a living room, but it really belongs where people work, not where they relax. Torluemke’s pieces bustle with energy and invention. Even with flawless execution, they do not offer close-up pleasure at the surface. They feel like preparatory designs, and I would love to see them executed by an electronic loom.
Seven of the pieces date back to 2003. They offer mystery and a sense of emerging elegance. The other eleven pieces were made over the last eighteen months and are bolder and brighter. The two twenty-four-inch circular tondos, executed just this year, are extraordinary. They capture the highest high of a psychedelic trip—that moment when, as George Harrison wrote: “life flows on within you and without you.”
Torluemke also works with cut-and-painted wooden strips. Without the constraints of a border, they erupt into three-dimensional space as sculpture. Displayed at waist height, they serve to liven up the space rather than seize and design it, like a bouquet of flowers. On careful inspection, they can be seen to depict sexual activity. With its emphasis on Adam’s twelve-inch penis and Eve’s basketball breasts, it’s hard to find any moral dilemma in Torluemke’s “Garden of Eaten.” If sex is just harmless fun, like flying a kite, why not let the colorful willowy shapes stay as abstract as the paintings that hang above them? Does the laid-back goofiness of the sixties still need promotion?
Throughout the exhibit, there is a sense of driving linearity and of forms flowing outward, constrained perhaps by boundaries, but never by an inward force in opposition. So there’s also a sense of emptiness at the center, like cleverness without self-awareness or successful marketing without responsibility. Which makes this work all the more appropriate for a contemporary American corporate setting. The main thing to be enjoyed is the fecundity of Torluemke’s imagination. Rather than developing ideas, it feels like he turns on the spigot of his creativity and waits, along with the rest of us, to see all the new, interesting things that pour out. (Chris Miller)
Tom Torluemke shows through June 17 at Linda Warren Projects, 327 North Aberdeen.