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May 1999, Volume 2, Number 1, page 3


Adrian Piper: MEDI(t)Ations
Adrian Piper's videotape of her performance-art piece Funk Lessons may be old (1983), but it's a classic. Here she is, conceptual-art diva, Wellesley philosophy professor, former fashion model, and light-skinned African-American woman activist, teaching white people how to dance funky. Educational phrases flash on the screen to get the lesson across: "vulgar," "head nod," "sexually expressive."

It's a fascinating little piece on race, class, and hierarchic thinking about art, among other things. Best of all, it's wicked funny, although you wouldn't know it from reading the oddly pompous explanatory text that appears on the wall next to the video monitor telling us that sometimes this piece makes people cry. Huh? Museums have been over-instructing us in what to think for years; now do they think they have to tell us how to feel as well?
-Margaret Hawkins

Checkmate: the Work of John Pittman
People often ask critics what makes art challenging and why art has to be "difficult" in order for us to obtain pleasure from it. Even pleasurable experiences need, ideally, to invigorate our minds or energize our spirits. That art provides these through its infinite subtleties is its greatest reward.

John Pittman's restrained pieces provide a classic example of rich work that yields such rewards, but may be overlooked by the uninitiated. His small, abstract paintings and constructions of a select vocabulary of geometric shapes mark the deliberate movements of his hand like pieces on a chess board. Like the beauty of chess, his works require an appreciation for a well constructed game, the anticipation of the result of a move yet to be played. It is this unseen movement that animates what appear to be motionless images with the tension of anticipated activity.

Seeing this requires an unusual degree of patience for viewing such intimate minimal compositions of shape and color. But, for this established artist, requiring anything less of his audience would make his pursuits seem trivial, and Pittman's paintings are nothing of the kind. If you need a mental stimulant to beckon you from the quiet corner of a room, sit down with a Pittman. His distinctive color harmonies may recall a past landscape or experience faded in the memory. You look at the arrangement of his markers of time. Can your memory focus? As Pittman suggests, "Its your move." (at Thomas McCormick Gallery, 2055 N. Winchester, 773-227-0440, the exhibition closed April 24)
-John Brunetti

Say It Ain't So, Ed: The Classical Demise of Ed Paschke

Viewing this recent exhibition of Ed Paschke's work was like viewing an aging champion whose diminishing agility makes one consciously recollect the grace of a previous era. Remember the Paschke images that were capable of raising the hair on the back of the most cynical neck? They comprised the most distinctive rogues' gallery of freaks, outcasts, and anonymous masked sentinels, culled from America's consumer and media-saturated underbelly, hauntingly staring back at us through electronic particles of twentieth-century technology that gave fleeting form to their transient souls, which in the end were taboo reflections of who we have become.

But where is this city's painterly descendent of writer Nelson Algren as our society stumbles toward the year 2000 with more societal rot eating at our culture's foundation than ever before? He is painting predominantly single images of nice, classical busts, such as the face of the Statue of Liberty, large and in an assortment of trademark Paschke colors. To quote the current Apple computer ad campaign advertising colorful computer packaging: "Yumm."

Beautiful painted surfaces yes, yet what made Paschke special was that he was never a pure painter's painter. He was an image-maker, an adept editor and assembler who could transform and elevate the most saturated media images into stark, neon-bathed elegies. One looks at Paschke's current motifs for some caustic social commentary, yet is only met with a numbing neutrality. Say it ain't so, Ed. Don't stop swinging for the fences. (at Maya Polsky Gallery, 215 W. Superior St., 312-440-0055; the exhibition closed April 24)
-John Brunetti

Swimming Upstream: the Paintings of Pala Townsend
Tough and Lyrical; Seductive and Blunt; Understated and Complex; Pala Townsend's recent gestural paintings are all of the above and, as a result, probably easily capable of slipping through the cracks of an art community which all too often awkwardly stumbles over itself in search of the tragically hip, especially regarding painting. If you missed her exhibition and are looking for more bang for your buck in the painting scene, go back and ask to view one of her large-scale paintings in private. Like a diver who succumbs to the dangerously disorienting effects of the "rapture" for staying underwater too long, you won't want to leave the depths of her watery worlds, despite the perils of sensory overload. In the process, you will get the opportunity to view an increasingly rare category of painting where observation and abstraction do a sensuous tango for both the eyes and the spirit.

Though Townsend's compositions are based on her continuing perceptions of the distorting optical effects of natural bodies of water, to describe her work merely in relation to its aquatic sources is akin to saying Diebenkorn simply painted suburban California. These images are the definition of Modernist painting's idea of plastic space as sublime metaphor rendered with an in-your-face confidence. Townsend skillfully sandwiches layers of beautiful light in blurred, buttery slathers of pigment whose sustained wetness drags us into works with an unseen emotional undertow of unusual gravity. Her "Yellow Diver" series keeps one searching for a figure whose physical manifestation is perpetually beyond our recognition, but whose allure is continuous. (at Fassbender Gallery, 309 W. Superior St., 312-951-5979; exhibition closed April 17)
-John Brunetti

Bob Thall: "Archaeology: Chicago Alley Pictures"
Bob Thall photographs Chicago as if it were a stage set, while the actors are off on break. The title of his first book, "The Perfect City," can make his elegant, large-format architectural studies look like miniature models. With his most recent body of work, Thall goes backstage into the alleys of the Loop. Harry Callahan made some of his jazziest multiple exposures in these alleys half a century ago-an example that can't be lost on Thall, whose teachers were Callahan's students at the Illinois Institute of Design. But these new pictures eschew Callahan's frenetic designs and reach back to those Eugene Atget made in the backstreets of Paris a century ago, while acknowledging an ongoing debt to Walker Evans. Though firmly modernist, this is deadpan documentary work.

Histories and architectural intentions collide in these dark, unvisited canyons, where renovations seldom occur. Like the basement to the Loop, the alleys are an alternate set of city streets, known best to delivery men, janitors, and hobos. The City's rat poisoners chalk the dates of their visits on the walls, leaving cryptic messages to their brethren. The pictures do something similar. As the show's title announced, this is urban archaeology. The places are real, and realistically described, but there is something surreal about a place so populous and so empty at once. It's as if Thall has finally discovered his ideal city, one where people are never seen to go, but where they leave their signs in secret, like the animals who wander the West's Great Sand Dunes at night, leaving only their tracks by day. Thall's black-and-white pictures are rectilinear as graph paper, like the grid of the midwestern metropolis he loves. Three of the strongest images in the show were enlarged to 32" x 40", a refreshing departure from the photographer's usual 16" x 20" size. (Carol Ehlers Gallery, 750 N. Orleans, 312-642-8611; the exhibition closed April 17, but Thall's photographs are currently on view in the gallery's side room)
-Stephen Longmire

Ellen Lanyon: "Homage a Poyet" at Jean Albano and Printworks
Exhibiting easel-sized acrylic paintings on canvas from 1969 and 1999, Ellen Lanyon's zinger of a show sets forth, within the space of Jean Albano's small gallery, many of the concerns that have shaped her career. In addition, her exquisite, small paintings on paper at Printworks flesh out, in compact, jewel-like radiance, her current concerns.

Lanyon's works have always been allusive narratives in which seemingly realistic objects interact in ways that suggest, but then subvert, our notions of a rational and tangible world. The paintings in both shows contain images borrowed from nineteenth-century scientific and magic books, in particular from engravings by Louis Poyet. In the paintings from 1969, her simplified drawings on a flat ground were fairly up front in their subject matter; for instance, her proto-feminist The Puppet depicts a toy soldier astride a knife floating above a flatly painted background. The burden of meaning lay in the objects themselves and in their relationships.

In the later works, while continuing her interest in magic, toys, and games, Lanyon's works have become far more complex. The new paintings' colors and compositions add layers of information to those developed in 1969. Composed with a number of planes on which images weave backward and forward, the arrangements subvert stable notions of space. Objects occupy one plane. Curiously, both anthropomorphic and technological, they look recognizable from the real world, but they are not. The background plane is of foliage. Immediately identifiable as symbolic of natural processes, the way they are painted points to cultural productions instead. Monochromatic colors never seen in nature, flattened planes, and stylized drawing suggest decorative elements for architecture, such as wallpaper and murals, or alternatively, in Persian miniatures. Other planes may contain superimposed line drawings or a second, larger canvas adhered to the back, on which the drawing is fainter and sketchier.

Lanyon's sense of humor is most evident In her 1999 Graying of the Bud. In it, a fresh, bright red rose floats on top of a patterned plane of graying flowers and a top-like object sprouting tube-like protuberances suggesting a spinning wheel of time, endlessly watering the flowers. Youth (the red bud) demands attention, while the crowded group of fading, blown flowers sinks into the background.

Refreshingly unburdened by long texts, the works nonetheless have meaningful conceptual underpinnings. The magical and pseudo-scientific allusions of Lanyon's objects; her flattened, planar compositions intimating painting and decoration; and her linear drawing style, often imitating engraving, all point to a reality that is neither natural nor constructed, one that cannot be separated into easily delineated dichotomies. Lanyon's works have always been a pleasure to look at and decipher. In these two exhibits, we are able to see the effects of 30 years of painting experience. The static quality of her earlier drawing has become fluid, the underlying content has become more subtle and complex, and the intricate internal relationships of her compositions have become an important source of the works' meaning. (at Jean Albano Gallery, 215 W. Superior, 312-440-0770, through May 29; and Printworks Gallery, 311 W. Superior, 312-664-9407, through May 30)
-Claire Wolf Krantz