Sunday, October 9th, 2011

Keeping Your Balance in the Windy City: Report from Chicago

Report from… Chicago

If you’re prone to fits of acrophobia, the 25th floor of the John Hancock Center may not strike you as the ideal location for an art gallery.  But staying abreast of the latest shows in Chicagoland requires precarious treks across neighborhoods, dizzying sprints up skyscrapers, and even trips across time-zones, all while maintaining your balance.  On rare occasions, it means facing your fears. Lately, several exhibitions have been worth the anxiety.

Philip Pearlstein, Mickey Mouse, white House as Bird House, Male and Female Models, 2005. Oil on canvas, 60 x 72 inches. Courtesy of Valerie Carberry Gallery
Philip Pearlstein, Mickey Mouse, white House as Bird House, Male and Female Models, 2005. Oil on canvas, 60 x 72 inches. Courtesy of Valerie Carberry Gallery

“Objects/Objectivity” at the elevated Valerie Carberry Gallery features the work of eminent octogenarians Philip Pearlstein and Ellen Lanyon. Conceived around their shared love of collecting, the show – selected by the artists themselves – examines their working relationships with the objects they accumulate.  The 12 pieces are a snug fit for Carberry’s intimate space and though both artists proceed from observation, the worlds they construct demonstrate a fundamental difference of approach.

Pearlstein’s large-scale paintings are dry, stoic affairs. The merciless cropping, irregular perspectives, and dense compositions the artist is renowned for are softened in the selections for this exhibition. But the augmented atmosphere creates a high-pressure pictorial stasis. The figures in Mickey Mouse, White House as Bird House, Male and Female Models (2001) are nearly as inanimate as the objects that surround them, and Pearlstein’s tendency to touch the surface in a one-dimensional manner further reduces an already sluggish pace. Observing the similarity between the flesh of the model in Two Nudes, Rabbit Marionette (1997) and the leather of the Eames chair upon which she rests, Pearlstein’s figure barely registers as human. While the artist’s eye may acutely perceive the objects around him, it seldom penetrates their surface.

By contrast, Ellen Lanyon’s work bristles with movement and tension. Spatial dislocations brought on by a modernist’s knack for composition provide the jolt of lightening that rouse her slumbering objects.  In Majolica Tea (2010) Lanyon fuses her props into an undulating alternative reality where subjects advance and recede, jostling for position among the pulsating greens and bitter oranges that permeate the picture plane. Compared with Pearlstein’s more sedate approach to surface, Lanyon’s Hanafuda (2010) shimmers and crackles with a dusting of iridescent paint. The dimensions of the canvases themselves – five of the six on view are squares – contribute to the reverie. When asked about the intentions behind her use of this notoriously challenging formant, the gracious Lanyon – who happened to stop by during my visit – shot me a wry smile and replied, “they were on sale.”

Ed Valentine, Untitled Spray Portrait with Painted Eye and Green Drip, 2011. Oil, acrylic, enamel and spray paint on canvas, 96 x 48 inches. Courtesy of Linda Warren Gallery, Chicago
Ed Valentine, Untitled Spray Portrait with Painted Eye and Green Drip, 2011. Oil, acrylic, enamel and spray paint on canvas, 96 x 48 inches. Courtesy of Linda Warren Gallery, Chicago

Just across the river in Fulton Market, Linda Warren Gallery is highlighting two distinct – but related – bodies of work by veteran painter Ed Valentine. In the main room, his large-scale paintings propose solutions to the problem of presenting street art in the environs of a gallery.  While some artists are content with importing the look of 1980s Brooklyn-style graffiti indoors – where it inevitably looks naïve – Valentine adopts the painted language of the street, its immediacy and its visceral force, while deploying it in the service of a traditional format:  the portrait. His use of the spray can delivers a wire-frame line that imparts a cartoonish appearance to Untitled Spray Portrait with Blue Painted Eye and Four Blue Drips (2011) but the caricature is undercut by audacious painterly swipes beneath the mouth and right eye. This is not to suggest that these works are easy to love, but the freshness of a painting like Untitled Spray Portrait with Painted Eye and Green Drip (2011) is undeniable.

More immediately likeable, the numerous small oils displayed along Warren’s back gallery witness the artist responding to the sheer joy and materiality of paint. In Untitled Portrait with Red-Orange and Brown Painted Eye (2011) Valentine autopsies the last 150 years of painting, tipping his hat to every major development in the modernist tradition without a hint of cynicism or irony. In addition to the strokes, spatters, and Stella-like stripes that comprise works such as Untitled Portrait with Orange Ear and Purple Drip (2011), Valentine locates his subjects in an ambiguous space that expands and contracts. These spatial alterations cause his figures to simultaneously hover along and beneath the picture plane, either dominating their environment or playing victim to it, depending on scale. Taken as a whole, the paintings’ analogous temperament  threatens to blur them together, but with time and patience the works assert their individuality, becoming a rogues’ gallery of characters that you’d swear you recognize.

2011 has yielded a bounty of quality shows around the city and two additional cases feature artists whose works on paper investigate the built environment. In River North, Amy Casey’s exceptional “Boomtown at Zg Gallery closed in August, but an echo of the exhibition reverberates in the gallery’s office space through the end of October.  The glorious detail and individuality of the industrial buildings, homes, and urban structures that encompass pieces such as the acrylic, City Blocks (2011) make you feel as though you might actually pass them on a stroll along Euclid Avenue. Farther afield, Matthew Woodward’s monumental graphite on paper abstractions take glimpses of the urban environment as a starting point and evolve into a grayed, ethereal space. His Tremendous Alone exhibit, comprising an outstanding collection of drawings, is at the Elmhurst Art Museum, located just 15 miles west of the Loop. Worth the trip, if you can maintain your balance.

Philip Pearlstein and Ellen Lanyon: Objects/Objectivity at Valerie Carberry Gallery, 875. N Michigan Ave #2510. September 16 to November 5, 2011.

Ed Valentine: Untitled at Linda Warren Gallery, 1052 W Fulton Market #200. September 9 to October 22, 2011

Amy Casey: New Paintings & Etchings at Zg Gallery, 300 W Superior Street.  September 9 to October 29, 2011

Matthew Woodward: The Tremendous Alone at the Elmhurst Art Museum, 150 S. Cottage Hill Ave. Elmhurst, Il.  September 16 to December 31, 2011

Amy Casey, City Blocks, 2011. Acrylic on paper, 42 X 56 inches. Courtesy Zg Gallery, Chicago
Amy Casey
Installation View of Matthew Woodward: The Tremendous Alone, Elmhurst Art Museum, 2011, featuring Untitled (17th) 2010. Graphite on Paper, each 95 x 95 inches.  Courtesy of Elmhurst Art Museum
Matthew Woodward
Ellen Lanyon, Majolica Tea,  2010. Acrylic on canvas, 36 x 36 inches. Courtesy of Valerie Carberry Gallery
Ellen Lanyon