It is exciting that Barbara Rossi, one of the original Chicago Imagists, is showing works that have never been publicly exhibited. For those familiar with her work, the five small black-and-white gelatin prints on display in Corbett vs. Dempsey’s East Gallery will deliver quite a shock. Rossi is known best for her colorful line drawings and kaleidoscopic pseudo-representational Plexiglass paintings executed, painstakingly, in reverse. “Slippers” is something very (but not entirely) different.
In a smart pairing, the gallery is showing Rossi’s photographs in the East Gallery and works by her student, Brian Calvin, in the Main Gallery. Calvin’s monumental, bright paintings of female faces stare you down as you turn into the intimate space of the East Gallery where Rossi’s “Slippers,” demure by comparison, meet you at eye-level. Each photograph features a piece of driftwood, its edges worn to soft curves, perfectly centered on a black background. Naturally-occurring knots and eyes in the wood submit themselves to anthropomorphic associations, but not immediately. Indeed, at first glance, the “Slippers”—with their maniacally-precise formatting, high resolution, and grayscale tones—look more like specimens of bone viewed through a microscope than pieces of driftwood picked up along the shore. The strange faces in the driftwood only emerge once we take a second look. One of the “Slippers” smiles in profile; its underbite, shadow of a nostril, and orb-like eyes evoke images of cartoon dinosaurs. Another turns its gnarled “neck” sharply to address us with two beady eyes, a button nose, and an open socket for a mouth. Images that at first seem regimented and severe transform—or do they slip?—into a capricious game of resemblance and recognition. At play, too, is a sort of kitschy delight in seeing faces where they should not be.
While, at first, “Slippers” may seem a world apart from the vibrant paintings and drawings Rossi is best known for, their process of creation—a unique cocktail of chance and meticulous craftsmanship—and their disorienting slippage between abstraction and figuration is wholly familiar. Across media—from painting to drawing to (now) photography—Rossi’s work comes alive in the juxtaposition of its confident clarity of rendering and the elusive semblances of its forms. While Rossi’s “Slippers” hold up as self-contained formal propositions, they tell a richer story when contextualized within her broader practice, and when placed in dialogue with Calvin’s bold faces around the corner. After this show, I have no idea what Barbara Rossi will do next. Whatever it is, I’ll be first in line. (Chloé M. Pelletier)