As art galleries do during the summer months, Corbett vs. Dempsey is showcasing their roster of artists in a group exhibition. But this show is far from typical. In an art world where size is proportional to value, the gallery has dared to go small. Twelve inches is the norm, allowing contrasting paintings to co-exist on the same wall, and fifty pieces to fit into the same room.
Edie Fake contributes one of his typical architectural fantasies. When done on a larger scale, the symmetrical rows of rainbow-colored dots can feel oppressive. But at fourteen-inches high, his 2019 work feels enjoyably precise, mysterious and alluring. Similarly, the small 1987 monochrome by Christopher Wool has far more charm and far less despair than his wall-sized work shown at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2014. In contrast, Charline Von Heyl’s abstract expression feels uncomfortably crammed into its limited space. There is barely a hint of the explosive power found in her larger work.
Von Heyl and Wool are represented by the gallery, but Fake, like more than half of the thirty-three artists on display, is not. Some artists come from northern Europe or Canada, many live or show in New York. Kristy Luck and Alice Tippit graduated this decade from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Tippit characterizes most of the art on display in her statement: “Ambiguity of meaning in an image that otherwise indicates it can be easily understood poses a question for the viewer.”
Corbett vs. Dempsey is certainly not the only local gallery to show visual puzzles, but they seem to be a leading proponent. A high level of execution suggests a strong sense of purpose, but attempts to discover that purpose have been calculated to fail. Visual appeal entices viewing, but not enough to confirm that visual pleasure was itself the purpose.
Even when a piece front-and-centers a recognizable object, the question of intention is unavoidable. Why did Ryosuke Kumakura paint that damp, wrinkled handkerchief? It’s hardly as compelling as the wrinkled surfaces rendered, for example, in the work of Claudio Bravo. Why did Helene Appel paint a single pasta shell? Isolated against an unpainted canvas, it has no connection to food, ambience or even a formal abstract dynamic.
There’s nothing puzzling about Jimmy Wright’s tiny self-portrait from 1987. It feels at least as personal, troubled and edgy as those by Van Gogh. But Daniel Richter’s expressionist self image is accompanied by a second painting and a puzzle regarding attribution. Daniel and his son David are credited as collaborating on the two works. Both paintings are loosely drawn representations, but in one, the paint has been skillfully applied with a sharp eye for design. The other feels like it was thrown together by a twelve-year-old. You guess who did what.
It’s too bad that the show included no miniature landscapes. Plein air painting is often done small enough to be finished in just a few hours. The only landscapes that do appear are tiny paintings-within-a-painting by Ann Toebbe as she depicts the living space of a “Republican donor.” Presumably, only troglodytes and philistines appreciate that kind of art, reminding us yet again that this gallery targets a sophisticated elite.
An enjoyable surprise are six mini-masterpieces of abstract expression that measure between two and four inches. Created by the octogenarian Louise Fishman, they feel heroic, even if they could only cover the wall of a doll house. They offer an ever-timely alternative to outsized masculine ambition.
The exhibit serves well as an introduction not only to this gallery, but also to the kind of contemporary art that strikes a cool, distant stance of bemusement rather than a passionate engagement with humanity’s adventure on the planet. And so it summons more respect than enthusiasm. (Chris Miller)
“Small Painting” is on view at Corbett vs. Dempsey, 2156 West Fulton through August 17