Artist clubs were important to art careers in Chicago back before we had many commercial galleries. They were an opportunity to present work to community leaders and collectors, as well as to the critical eyes of peers. Today’s collectors look elsewhere for important new work, and the art world has become too atomized to hope for critical consensus on anything. But art clubs still offer the company of fellow creatives, and so we have the Artist’s Breakfast Group, which meets periodically at a restaurant in Lakeview.
The breakfasts are open to all, and artists are selected for group shows on the basis of regular attendance. Now, for the first time, the exhibition has a theme, “Celebrating Survival,” though the theme is not immediately apparent in most pieces. Sandra Holubow is showing the kind of pleasant cityscapes that she usually paints: people and automobiles are absent; buildings are reduced to planes of solid color; the view faces upward as if the viewer had stopped to reflect. The sense of lively urban sophistication found in her pre-COVID work is missing, however—replaced by a touch of sadness. Likewise, the quirky liveliness of George Clark’s pre-COVID landscapes no longer appears, leaving them to express nothing beyond the perfection of his watercolor technique. James Mesple has explicitly addressed the ongoing pandemic, though his three mytho-buffo-poetic paintings would better be called whimsical than celebratory. The COVID worm has broken into the Garden of Eden—survival and humor are our only options.
I have seen these three artists in local museums and galleries. All the other participants are too unfamiliar to sense how their work has changed over the past eighteen months. They would be better known by those who regularly join them for coffee and toast, and that is perhaps the greatest benefit of such gatherings. They provide artists with sensitive, educated viewers who know them personally, an empathetic audience to whom they can target visual expression.
Overall, the exhibition is uneven—even among works by the same artist. Visual quality is not the issue here, despite all the apparent skill, especially in the print-making. Nor do politics matter, despite how intensely political, possibly even transformative, the pandemic continues to be. What matters is how each artist feels after months of lockdowns, fear, and maybe the loss of friends or family. What matters is a sincere answer to the question that friends must ask whenever they get together: “How have you been?“
Ruyell Ho’s wall-hung sculptures are some of the most poignant replies. At age eighty-four, a COVID-19 infection is only the most recent of many physical calamities he has survived. His biomorphic black-and-yellow ceramics suggest nothing so much as personal defiance at the cellular level. Leslie Robin’s watercolor portrait, “Covid Isolation,” gives us a young man whose deep, soulful stare tells us all we need to know about that subject. Yet it also appears that for some artists, COVID has been just one of many obstacles to overcome. Same old, same old.
It may be months before it’s safe for these artists to get together again. But when they do, if you’re an artist, you might join them for an omelette. They appear to have grown up back before contemporary art had to be annoying or puzzling or provocative or political, but they do seem rather open-minded. (Chris Miller)
“Celebrating Survival” is on view at Leslie Wolfe Gallery, 1763 North North Park, through October 21.