The Fox River is a 202-mile-long tributary of the Illinois River, flowing from Wisconsin to Illinois. Along its winding path, the river brushes up to the Dr. Edith Farnsworth Weekend House in Plano, Illinois. The Farnsworth House is an architecturally significant home designed by Mies van der Rohe—the modernist structure epitomizes the architect’s “less is more” ethos.
Adjacent to the Farnsworth House visitor center and a soybean field is the Barnsworth Gallery, designed with a vernacular rural aesthetic by professor Frank Flury and his design-build studio at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Together, these contexts provide a starting point for Joel Sheesley’s exhibition, “Less (and) More: Modernism Greets the River Landscape,” at the Barnsworth Gallery.
Sheesley is a landscape painter based in Wheaton whose work addresses the environments and ecologies of northeastern Illinois. He began a three-year project in 2017 with The Conservation Foundation to paint landscapes of the Fox River Valley, including the Farnsworth House’s relationship to the Fox River. According to the artist, “Initially I planned only to paint the river landscape around the Farnsworth House, but my curiosity drove me to the house itself as a kind of lens through which to view the surrounding land.”
In the gallery, twenty-eight paintings stacked in pairs take us on a multi-seasonal tour of the Fox River. The first painting, “Down on Indian Creek,” is an eighteen-by-thirty-six-inch green-hued landscape showing a smooth rock outcropping topped by trees without their leaves and a browned understory. Below is a smaller vignette of a similar overhang on the water, titled “Lower Fox River Sandstone, Aug. 23.”
Passing through the industrial and small-town scenes of “Fox And Illinois Rivers Confluence, Nov. 20” and “Elgin, March 2019,” we arrive at our first view of the Farnsworth House in “January Farnworth House.” Blanketed with snow, the white rectilinear house hides behind trees bending to the river’s unfrozen edge. The architecture of the house and the architecture of the forest are inseparable. In the next set, “House View #1” takes us inside the house, with a purple-black silhouette of two modern chairs, plants and a set of binoculars. The cold landscape is framed by van der Rohe’s large iconic grid of windows. The flat snow extends our view to a sliver of blue and bluffs beyond. Below the interior painting is “Fox View Farnsworth.” This oil-on-canvas twilight painting steps outside the house where the same trees from the painting above cast violet and charcoal shadows on the snow. These two works are the strongest in articulating the relationship between the house and the Fox River.
Each plein air painting was started along the river. Anecdotes from Sheesley are peppered throughout the gallery in cut vinyl lettering, giving additional context for his work. Sheesley writes, “I chose onsite painting as a starting point for my work and so placed my observations on the side of intuition and instinctive feeling.”
Circulating around the gallery, the riverscapes can feel repetitive, but each painting encourages introspection and contemplation. Time is an essential element for experiencing Sheesley’s paintings of the land and waterways of the Fox River. Sheesley spends time within each scene, painting the nuance of the Fox River, and the viewer is then drawn in through Sheesley’s brushstrokes. The soft land and delicate plants dipping down to the river function in much the same way as the actual landscape. We can feel the seasonality and ephemerality of the landscape, the mystery of the river and the modernity of the home. A missed opportunity in the Sheesley project is the inclusion of Indigenous perspectives and a land acknowledgement situating this work within a larger understanding of the land and waterways, past and present.
Within his series, especially after a guided tour, the paintings that stand out are the ones featuring van der Rohe’s architectural marvel—particularly the silhouette paintings. These paintings expand our contemporary understanding of the storied site and appear to push Sheesley in a new direction. Overall, Sheesley presents his studied vantage where the Farnsworth House is the destination and the rest of the Fox River is the journey.
“Joel Sheesley: Less (and) More: Modernism Greets the River Landscape” is on view through September 19 at the Barnsworth Gallery, 14520 River Road, Plano, Illinois.