Wednesday, October 1st, 2003

Michael Ferris, Jr: The Artist’s Studio (Revisited)

Aron Packer Gallery
118 N Peoria
Chicago IL 60607
October 10  November 15

Michael Ferris
Michael Ferris

At the historical center of the Chicago tradition in art lie the essential themes of fantastic personal narrative, the eccentric human figure, and expressive emotion. Michael Ferris reflects the continuation of that tradition at its core through two different worlds he “narrates” in separate bodies of artwork. On the one hand his sculptures of large primal humanoid figures, some with fantastic features like multiple hands, ears, and box-like appendages, are strange totems that reflect the artist’s inward gaze: visitors from another realm. On the other hand the artist’s paintings and drawings outline a tale of personal pathos and risk, depicting the artist as his alter ego, a self consumed, lonely, and regretful old man surrounded by his unvalued and dismembered sculptural figures, his only companions.

The old man as artist has invested everything in the artistic labor of his creations, and yet remains tragically cut off from recognition and engagement in the world and life. There is also a shade of a tongue-in-cheek quality about about this scenario that Ferris depicts, a dark self humor about the kind of cliché which the artist portrays himself becoming. Resonating between the world of his sculptures and the world he portrays in his paintings and drawings is a particular story with a message, the dilemma that though we seek connection to reality and life, the impossibility of trying to fit ourselves into its framework can make reality, and artistic intention, seem absurd. Ferris relates his sculptures to “the idea of the ‘immortal’ from Chinese lore”, beings who can pass from the real world to another place. Ferris explains that “they don’t care if they don’t fit into this society anymore because their thoughts are on this other realm.” They are the foils to the real world, emotional harbingers and calcified edifices of a deeper expressive realm, sometimes revealing melancholic inwardness, sometimes leering outward with a peculiar sardonic grin.

The sculptures are deeply influenced by the art of non-western cultures, particularly African and Middle Eastern art. Their surfaces are created using a special wood inlay technique called intarsin which generates geometric patterns with a kind of primal jazz rhythm spread over the brooding heft and bulk of his figures. Ferris’ particular self invented approach to intarsin using found pieces of hardwood was influenced by his memory of an elaborate wood inlay Syrian gaming table that had been part of his household environment growing up. This also reflects Ferris’ interest in outsider art with its sense of funky invention and obsessive technique creating art out of found objects.
The artist’s drawings and paintings stand in a kind of apposition to his sculpture world, in the same way that the tradition of representational Western painting and drawing stand in apposition to the non-western intuitive and primal realm of his sculptures. In visual works Ferris depicts himself as an old man still making his sculptures and who, though lonely and alienated, is still conversant with his work. These images also stand as a critical allegory about a common artist cliché. They comment on the self centered hermeticism and alienation that the artist can become entrapped in. The images are filled with vibrations of the fantastic in the ordinary, through the strange scatter of humanoid parts, the crowding of space with heavy baroque decorative details, and the occasional blank TV screens which seem to be portals to another world. The historically important Chicago artists Seymour Rosofsky and Ivan Albright were decisive influences to Ferris’s personal vision, and helped to lay the path upon which the artist continues to explore his own particular artistic course. Like Rosofsky , Ferris sees the world with irony and otherness; a vision of the fantastic in the pedestrian, ordinary suburban world. He is influenced by Rosofsky’s sardonic humor and wit through his ability to mock his idea of being an artist while also creating a mocking vision of an absurd world to have to live in. Like Albright, Ferris is intrigued by the pathos of mortal limitations with a brooding consciousness about timely existence. On Albright’s darkly obsessive pictures, Ferris remarks they are images which have “beautiful detail and are yet repulsive, and trigger that inner psychological world of humanity … they are hard to look at, but they are true.” Coupled with Rosofsky and Albright, the artist’s painting and drawing technique reflects an interest in late Gothic Flemish art like the work of Van der Goes with its crisp detail and moody spirituality.

Like his Chicago art predecessors Michael Ferris creates a story that, even in its dark humor, has a deep psychological purpose with an existential humanism at its core. Remembering his father who was an inspired and prolific artist like himself Michael recalls him saying ” ‘Even though it is weird or doesn’t fit, believe in it because it comes from you’… I picked that up from him, what it is to be an artist and to be devoted to the human nature of art.”