Six local painters were asked to fill a room in the Elmhurst Art Museum with whatever art they wanted, the only requirement being that they include at least one of their own works for reference. That’s the kind of clever idea that contemporary museums ought to dream up more often. In almost every case, however, it was the artist-curator’s own work that attracted and held the most attention.
Magalie Guérin selected sculptures whose “thing-i-ness” related to her kind of oil painting, which she considers “sculptural in application.” I could see the resemblance, but her shapes work with the pictorial energy compressed by the rectangular edges of a painting, while the sculptures she chose mostly ignore the space that surrounds them. It’s the difference between a galvanizing speech and a humorous anecdote. Guérin’s painting, on the other hand, is gutsy and compelling.
Leslie Baum selected paintings that, like her own, might query the definition of “landscape.” None closely follow European or Asian traditions and are much more about personal expression than natural forms. What’s special about Baum’s paintings is a sense of mystery, liquid pleasure and delight. Instead of strife, anxiety, angst or compulsion, she approaches the unending mystery of life as it might appear microscopically in a single cell or cosmically in the entire planet.
Suellen Rocca, of Chicago’s original “Hairy Who,” chose to showcase two of her lesser-known colleagues. Frank Trankina continues the Chicago tradition of creating ironic narratives with skillful representations of vintage dime-store figurines. The abstract paintings of Susan Frankel complement that tradition with repetitive, dynamic and compulsive patterns whose units seem to have been machined and then painted with the dull, solid colors of mass production. Compared to that work, Rocca’s own contribution, “Ocean Ladies” (1988) is an especially gentle, pleasing and transcendent fantasy.
Kay Rosen presents the work of just one painter, Kevin Wolff (1955-2018), her former colleague at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Rosen’s own contribution is a small piece of block-letter word-art that conflates Wolff’s name with that of his husband. It’s personal, affectionate and clever. Wolff’s paintings offer a deeper, wider view of life as he knew it. He drew the observed human figure, with special attention to its inner volumes and outer spaces. It’s a skill rarely needed in contemporary figurative art. He used it to present loneliness and isolation with a convincing freshness, vulnerability and honesty.
Nancy Mladenoff appears to be exclusively interested in her girlish self. She and her playful green avatar are depicted in nine colorful ink panels. Unburdened by adult responsibilities, they romp through a bright summer day in the suburbs. Pulling from her own collection, she also brought nine paintings by eight other artists, in the hopes that they might “bring out another aspect” of the artist for the viewer. They are also consistent with a child’s worldview, though Mladenoff’s own work is more joyous and athletic.
José Lerma assembled the most entertaining but the most frustrating of the six displays. Inspired by Jim Hodges’ “Diary of Flowers” (1992), seventy-five artists were persuaded to submit an ordinary white paper napkin on which something had been painted or drawn. Like the napkins marked up by Hodges, most of the results appear disposable. If one napkin accidentally fell off the wall, it would likely be thrown out by the cleaning crew after hours. This is conceptual art—it’s the validation of an idea that matters. A few, however, are beautifully executed miniatures, made even more astonishing by the challenge of working with such a small, soft and absorbent surface. It’s a shame that none of these exceptional artists could be identified by name.
Five of the artist-curators studied or taught at the School of the Art Institute, and the show has an academic flavor. As the exhibition website tells us, it presents “a wide-ranging conversation about process and media” — the legacy of Bauhaus art education. Thankfully, many of the artworks seem less concerned with technical issues, but the show still feels more appropriate for an art school than for the Chicago area’s only suburban art museum. (Chris Miller)
“With a Capital P: Selections by Six Painters” is on view through August 25 at the Elmhurst Art Museum, 150 Cottage Hill, Elmhurst.