May 22, 2014, 8:44am
When Western painters in the mid-late 1800s imagined the exotic landscape of the East, it was filled with caricature and hyperbole. Style comes into question more in this genre than any other, because the paintings are topical – what you see on the surface, its stylization, its aesthetics, all contribute to the imaginary. In many ways, each painting from this genre is an open letter to an enemy. This is the same type of address cited in the title of Nicole Eisenman’s recent exhibition, Dear Nemesis, which just closed at the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) St. Louis and will soon be travelling to the ICA Philadelphia – a survey collection of over 120 works, primarily paintings and some sculpture, since the early 1990s. Just over a century apart, and yet so related in method, the opponent in question for Eisenman is not outside of the artist, as it was in the past, but is used instead as a frame for her method of production. Both styles of painting beg the question: without gross inaccuracy, how else can you paint pure invention? - Stephanie Cristello, Chicago Contributor
March 04, 2014, 7:00pm
We trace history in a similar way we trace source. The significance of certain symbols have a sense of time to them, which is neither part of the object, nor a prescription onto the object – but an affect of belonging, in a condensed perspective, from a certain point in time. This is how a lot of subjects in pre-modern painting history operate. However, how we are able to codify and redact certain elements in this history as belonging to a stylized moment is always overthrown by quotation. Styles are recycled, borrowed, and misplaced within a linear timeline – as if painters were forever throwing the images within the current object they are painting into the cannon of the past by sampling tropes and motifs of another time.
Conor Backman is a versatile painter who is able to engage with this cannon, while still existing very much in the present. The sense of time in his paintings belongs to various moments at once, carrying the significance of pre-modern subjects that once operated as symbols, the preoccupation with flatness as a form discovered with modernism, and the post-modern all-over appropriation that works its way into how we deal with mediated space through a different, more contemporary lens of painting. Like most artists whose work I discover, I first accessed Backman’s work online. His work can also be viewed in person in Fruits/Flowers/Appliances, currently on view at LVL3. Below is the record of a series of conversations we had on ideas of flatness, painting as trade, trompe l’oeil, and levels of mediation and reduction in representational painting. – Stephanie Cristello, Chicago Contributor
January 23, 2014, 3:35pm
Record collectors are only ever concerned with what track is on the a-side. Not many will pay attention to, or often even know, what exists on the flip of their 45s. An exhibition of Zoe Nelson’s (NAP #95, #107) newest paintings, currently on view at Western Exhibitions, questions the very nature of a “good side.” My go-to reference for Nelson’s work has always been its lyrical qualities – though this exhibition references the history of that trope in painting as much as it does an x-y coordinate system. What better way to reference the spatial placement of the work than through its Cartesian properties? For Nelson, the grid is treated not as a pretext, but as a challenge. Paintings extend off the wall, appearing to fill the visual gap of the wall space left behind it – the sound or harmony within the work, if the exhibition has such an affect, directly plays off their relation to the viewer, as if the exhibition itself is a changing composition, shifting space ever so slightly as the viewer navigates around it.
While Nelson’s past paintings were entirely evocative of Supprematist abstractions, the new work exists more dimensionally, in the round. Favoring a democratization of space – or we could just as easily say the flipside – the “front” or the “back” of her paintings seem to not exist, or be discernable. There is an equality to the treatment of the painting’s entire surface area as an object that speaks to retelling of dated mid-century patterns and ideologies; a history of steadfast modernism unhinged from its context. In line with its audile perspective, the emphatic physical presence of the work maintains a discordant tension – at once occupying space, as it attempts to flatten it. – Stephanie Cristello, Chicago Contributor
January 13, 2014, 8:40pm
Generosity is rarely immediately questioned when viewing an exhibition for the first time. It is often a given in the work, in many ways expected, though it is not to be underestimated. In his current exhibition on view at Shane Campbell, Parallel Processing, local painter Paul Cowan stages a void – a scarceness of information and material that favors a sparse collection of work, mainly a flush series of monochromes with minimal demarcations. In a very pop delineation of surface reflection, the canvases represent windows. They do not look within, or reflect anything other than their own emphatic presence. - Stephanie Cristello, Chicago Contributor
December 26, 2013, 10:40am
How do we prescribe shape to flatness? For the earth, it was a ship. For painting, it was once the illusion of space opening up though the canvas into other worlds, other imaginaries. The preoccupation of rendering the dimensional out of the un-dimensional is one that the conception of pre-modern painting has struggled with from the start. This revolt, against flatness, is more deeply a fascination that centuries of artists and thinkers have since worked to undo. The rejection of depth has historically been the revolutionary voice in overthrowing “truths” in art – the denial of space representing the ultimate mutiny against illusionistic and pictorial ideologies, “changing the system against a utopian promise.” The full potentials of this upheaval are realized in a current exhibition of Paul Sietsema’s work at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
In a stunning survey of paintings, drawings, and films, Sietsema recreates the photographic vernacular in its most spectacular trompe l’oeil representations; never capturing the thing itself, but instead the lens that looks onto the tactile object. Sietsema’s images often reference his own process, imitating the material inherent within the making itself – the folds, wrinkles, and markings of wear on a piece of paper painstakingly rendered on the surface of an ink drawing, the sun stained quality of a Technicolor photograph replicated in washes of de-saturated hues. The stamp of time that occupies Sietsema’s historical, and often archival, encyclopedic subjects is reworked, recontextualized, and eradicated from history – replaced instead by a commonly constructed memory of romantic subjects – sailboats at sea, pages torn out of books, postmarked parcels and traces of transcontinental travel, the paint brush on the canvas itself – a fragile texture that floats on its viewers own image of nostalgia, while opposing any facile or comfortable recognition. Like a film that erases itself as it plays, Sietsema locates a moment between the vanished and the never present – a revolutionary relationship to flatness that can only be imagined as emulating the very first moment the ship fell off the horizon. –Stephanie Cristello, Chicago Contributor
Paul Sietsema | Folded Corner, 2012. © Paul Sietsema. Photo: Ron Amstutz, courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.
November 17, 2013, 6:23pm
The image of the female nude is arguably the closest thing the subject of painting has to a readymade. The recent exhibition on view in the West Wing at Corbett vs. Dempsey by Jonathan Gardner, Nudes, consists of just three paintings installed in the corner of the main space, otherwise occupied by an exhibition of Konrad Klapheck’s charcoal drawings. The images recall twentieth century favorites – namely Picabia, with hints of Magritte and Balthus, currently featured in a similarly titled exhibition Cats and Girls, on view at the Met. In each of the three images, Gardner sets up simple parameters that allow for an immediate read, but not a simple one. In an off-the-cuff throwback to an antiquated genre, it appears that the approach of artist as stylist, or rather painter as the painter of styles, presents surprisingly interesting challenge for Gardner. Of course the depiction is nothing new – we’ve seen a million of paintings on the subject – but these three hold strong. Undiluted by any satirical content, the paintings are direct, yet comic and complex; for this reason they are different. Walking a fine line between representation of a subject, and representation of a style, the three tableaus are not quite sexualized enough to be perverse, nor awkward enough to be sympathetic. Instead, the nudes represent a removed and distant caricature of painterly female representation of the teens and twenties, in particular – though sans personality, and without any symbolic content; purposefully emptied of any recognizable trait that would tie them to that context. Nude or otherwise, the figures are somehow ontological – in the sense that despite their seemingly forward appearance, they are a material that serves themselves. Just as the physicality of paint serves the formalist, the image of the girl Gardner paints is the subject of that painting. – Stephanie Cristello, Chicago Contributor
Jonathan Gardner | Nude with Lemons, 2013. Oil on linen. 40 x 46 inches. Image courtesy of Corbett vs. Dempsey.
October 16, 2013, 8:00am
It is an image we all know well when we think of soccer. A player frozen in mid-air, as if swinging on an axis, legs outstretched, climbing above the head as the cleat reaches for the ball, seemingly out of reach and incredibly high and far away, until it makes that miraculous contact of an overhead kick. This image is remembered with the echo of a loud roar; it is the image sportscasters lose their voices to, where the crowd hits fever pitch – utterly spectacular and quintessentially European. But more than this, it is heroic and performative, a show of strength and superiority – it is, in a word, how sports culture codifies “male”. What is the opposite of this image? Wendy White’s (NAP #22, #28) exhibition Pick Up a Knock, currently on view at Andrew Rafacz, delivers the reverse (though not necessarily the antithesis) of the rainbow kick – the international soccer phenomena known as “flopping”. This image is almost equally as ubiquitous, though it champions the idea of failure toward success – the melodramatic falls, and frivolous collapses, all with the hopes of tricking the referee to call a foul. Within this idea of failure towards success – what has the potential to fail more than a young white woman taking on a canonized male subject matter, specifically that of a different race and language? White walks a fine line between representation and metaphor, quietly side stepping the urge to ask too many questions through the form of the exhibition itself. – Stephanie Cristello, Chicago Contributor
Wendy White | El Azteca, 2013, Acrylic on canvas, wood, enamel, 101 x 79 in. Installation view. Photo courtesy of ANDREW RAFACZ.
October 02, 2013, 8:30am
Not all paintings that pare down form and color in an indexical manner are immediately about language – though that is often the initial read. The urge to codify work that has the aesthetics of being a signifier to an unnamed symbol is as much a grasp to make meaning from where form lacks, as it does ignore what the potential of unnamed form can represent. In his current exhibition, Notes, at devening projects + editions, Alain Biltereyst displays a series of small paintings that not only question what it means to deny language, but also how purely formal exercises hinge on the spatial, and tactile qualities of an installation, beyond the painting itself. – Stephanie Cristello, Chicago Contributor
Alain Biltereyst | Notes, installation view at devening projects + editions, September 2013
September 17, 2013, 8:00am
Not very often does an abstract painting exhibition keep a level head – but the casual, unruffled discretion of Party Cut, a collection of new work by Rebecca Morris currently on view at Corbett vs. Dempsey, is refreshing in more ways than one. The quick, and perhaps even preparatory nature of the paintings holds a certain degree of immediacy –however, all too often, a discussion surrounding paintings like these is fixated on the idea of a formal language. Acutely focused on gesture, the use of line, the myriad of descriptives used for compositional devices, and other criteria that certainly applies to this work – strictly formal terms like these kill conversation if not applied correctly (let’s pretend that there is such a thing); which is to say, if they explain the medium, but miss the affect. Morris’ paintings avoid this pit fall. The repetitive forms and all-over fields of high-keyed color are charmingly typical of midcentury patterns and decoration; yet remain distanced from an ornamental context, at once attractive and idiosyncratic. And while I was admittedly surprised by the dry, stained surfaces of the works on canvas with their more moderate and measured treatment, and less brazen tactile qualities, it would be partial to say that those material qualities were the only ones driving away the initial Pop impression of the work. - Stephanie Cristello, Chicago Contributor
August 07, 2013, 9:00am
Is the myth of paradise all that compelling? The resort paradise, the motel bliss, dreams of tropical shores and youthful ocean air – are these the same dated visions of vacationing we still cling to, or has anything supplanted their modern aspirations? Do we really delight in a shallow image of shared retreat locations, or long to buy our piece of time from out of a brochure or agency – just another one of many touristic occupants? The theme of the temporary vacation and all its shortcomings has garnered quite a lot of attention by contemporary artists over the past few years. An exhibition by this very namesake, Timeshares, currently on view at LVL3, pictures three artists preoccupations with the idealism the term represents – if not the effects that summer tends to have on more “relaxed” thematic group shows, as well. Paintings and objects by Josh Reames (NAP #89, #95), Calvin Ross Carl, and Maria Walker prod at this artificial fabrication of time as it relates to art and practice; while some pieces directly picture seascapes, palm trees, and other brochure-ready visual ephemera, others take the spirit of vacation as a material cue – works that deal with pattern, perhaps belonging to a swimsuit, a lawn chair, or mosaic brickwork, and detritus wrapped in colored fabrics, the idea of something less refined simply wrapped into a higher context, masking themselves as paintings. – Stephanie Cristello, Chicago Contributor
Calvin Ross Carl and Josh Reames, “Mañana,” 2013. Sand, 136” x 54”