Tom Torluemke is one of Chicago’s most gifted contemporary artists. Prolific in output and prodigious in scope, his three-decades-long career is chameleonic, effortlessly embracing complex figuration, non-objective abstraction and two- and three-dimensional works like few others. “Born in the USA” at One After 909 is his latest foray in a series of “the end is nigh”-style visual homilies addressed to a wayward flock, and his best yet.
Like the works in previous exhibitions “Fearsome Fable–Tolerable Truth” and “Symptoms,” the paintings in “Born in the USA” are both a reflection of contemporary political events and a dire prediction of the future. Where this show differs from earlier efforts is in the complexity of the visual statement.
Take “Sickly Decline,” an eleven-foot spiritual and scatological descendant of Belgian painter James Ensor’s razor-sharp brush. Rich with power brokers and pawns, handshakes and hand jobs, the events depicted are set against the backdrop of a bloodied United States Capitol and feature big shifts in scale and perspective. These aren’t the simplified figure/ground relationships of your friendly neighborhood abstractionist. This is the awe-inspiring, complex space of history painting on a grand scale.
Compositional prowess notwithstanding, viewers should debate how Torluemke crafts his figures. The gun-toting, pussy-grabbing, micro-penis-afflicted redneck in “Sinister” is a favorite trope of the left. The caricature, though viscerally satisfying, risks reducing complex issues into cartoon grist for leftist mills. The subtler and more significant implications of the painting, that we’re walling ourselves in, rather than keeping others out, is in danger of being obscured by the glare of the figure’s garishness.
“Born in the USA” is the perfect antidote for those who’ve soured on the milquetoast abstraction that routinely leaks from the bloated walls of the city’s art programs. Outward-facing and fully engaged with the social zeitgeist of the here and now, no one does satire like Torluemke, and no one needs it like we do. (Alan Pocaro)
“Born in the USA” continues through June 8 at One After 909, 906 North Ashland.