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The C.A.C.A. Review
An occasional publication of the Chicago Art Critics Association
October, 2002, Volume 3, Number 1

Table of Contents:
Lisa Erf, by James Yood
Cat Chow and Les Christensen, by Margaret Hawkins
Andreas Gursky, by Fred Camper
Natasha Spencer, by John Brunetti
Mary Borgman, by Ann Wiens
Michiko Itatani, by Claire Wolf Krantz

Lisa Erf
Chicago Cultural Center
78 E. Washington Blvd.
Reviewed by James Yood

Erf spelled backward is free. Well, not exactly, but pretty close. Her name, however, following or rotating its 4-3 construction, does anagram into "rise fal," "arse fil," "ail serf," "ars life," "sarf ile," "fear ils," and "ril safe." These considerations came to mind when viewing this exhibi-tion, which was composed of 42 more or less identical portraits of Walter Foster. Walter Foster (and I had no clue about this either) was, we are informed, an entre-preneur who published one of those popular anyone-can-paint-portraits manuals in the 1950s, and used his self-portrait as a sales pitch. His avuncular head was repeated by Erf three and a half dozen times, a sea of canvases of repetitive, sketchy good humor, an exercise in exorcism that has a particularly distinguished Chicago pedigree.

Repetition as mantra, as a kind of blue-collar, meat-and-potatoes work ethic made manifest in sheer pictorial stubbornness, can claim local forebears such as Ivan Albright, Ray Yoshida, Barbara Rossi, Gaylen Gerber, Amy Yoes (you may fill in ten more names, please), and, for that matter, Georges Seurat, whose painting at the Art Institute may have set this whole taste in motion. It speaks to a kind of highly focused scrupulousness, a gritty determination to follow some painstaking task to its end no matter how labored and quasi-maniacal it might seem. In the case of artists such as Erf and Gerber, it is somewhat leavened by a kind of cheery conceptual disengagement—this work is both obsessive and re-moved. It reminds me of those people who wash their hands repetitively; it speaks to an internal logic that finally has to satisfy a constituency of one. Well, make that two—I always fall completely in love with this work, and surrender unconditionally to its whisper of sweat equity and up-yours obstinacy. Of course, one could luxuriate in the little differences in Erf's deadpan and necrophiliac serial evocations of Foster, how this one is slightly more stippled while that one is vaguely less tan, this one is a bit more ruddy while that one is clearly tonally reduced. It doesn't matter much, unless you're seeking some inventory of 1950s painting clichés, some autopsy of painting that somehow ends up reifying the practice. I like to think instead of Erf punching some art-clock and making the same painting (pretty much!) day after day after day after day, like On Kawara appearing with Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. These ain't your grandma's Monet's Haystacks—here repetition is insidious, deflating, treasonous, and true.

Why 42 paintings? I've figured it out. There are seven letters in Lisa Erf's name. There are six letters in both "Walter" and "Foster." Six times seven is 42. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

I am unaware of this series being reproduced anywhere on the web; however, similar projects by Erf can be seen at the site of Byron Roche Gallery

Cat Chow
Chicago Cultural Center
78 E. Washington Blvd.
Les Christensen
I Space
230 W. Superior St.
Reviewed by Margaret Hawkins

Everyday domestic stuff like teaspoons and baby-bottle nipples makes up the substance of work by two artists now showing around town. Both are women, and the domestic nature of the materials they use, as well as the stereotypical feminine forms they make out of them, serve to both exploit and skewer assumptions about women.

For years Cat Chow has been making dresses out of odds and ends, the kind of stuff we hardly notice, which, when multiplied by the hundreds and sewn together, makes beautiful patterns. These patterns are even more beautiful when pieced together into elegant dresses and then hung on svelte dressmaker dummies that give them just the right drape, as they are here in her long-overdue first one-woman show at the Chicago Cultural Center.

Chow’s dresses point up the relationship between the constraints of gender-specific clothing and the roles women play in society. Ethnic stereotypes about Asian women are addressed in her Kimono, which is pieced together out of Power Ranger trading cards; while a fragile, hooded, powder-blue parka sewn entirely from Kleenex tissues references a stereotype of female vulnerability that is both partly true and infuriatingly condescending. A mini dress fashioned completely from folded Band-Aids suggests the conventional wisdom about women solving the world’s problems at their kitchen tables, but also makes one cute little dress.

Though intended as sculpture, some of the works look fairly wearable. Not for Sale, which is composed of 1,000 one-dollar bills woven into a sleek evening dress, makes a statement about the linkage between fashion, money, and the perception of sexual worth, and it looks not only wearable, but comfortable, too.

These works are a perfect mesh of concept and material, and ultimately they are delightful to look at, offering a satisfying visual flip-flop between recognizing the material and getting lost in the visual pattern Chow has made of it.

Much of what is appealing about Chow’s work is the implicit humor created by her disrespect for the boundaries between high art and the world of fashion. By making haute couture dresses out of sewing-machine bobbins, she turns assump-tions about both worlds upside down.

Les Christensen is doing some-thing similar in her sculpture, now up at I Space. Also tackling feminist themes, this artist builds elegant objects through the accretion of worthless stuff. Rather than working within the convention of women’s fashion, though, she uses popular icons of femininity such as the heart and the wedding dress. By forming these saccharine symbols out of incongruous materials, she challenges their meaning, to put it mildly. One big, spiky heart is made out of broken green glass, while her wedding dress, my personal favorite, is formed of broken white dinner plates. One can only imagine how many plate-throwing sessions it took to supply enough shards for this eight-foot monument to marital disappointment.

Andreas Gursky
Museum of Contemporary Art
220 E. Chicago Ave.
Reviewed by Fred Camper

Art that offers cultural commentary or critique implicitly poses the question of whether the work is offering something genuinely different from its raw material. Indeed, all too often works of commentary merely replicate, in vaguely aesthetic clothing wrapped around a more academic, even desiccated core, the ethos of the subject matter they purport to be critiquing. Though praise has been heaped on Andreas Gursky, his just-closed retrospective at the MCA struck me as a prime example of this phenomenon.

Untitled V presents rows of shoes, for example, multiplied by digital cut and paste, in an image that's far less interesting than the actual excesses of real store displays. Genuine over-the-top displays often have out-of-control elements, things that don't fit, and a winning sensuality that gives some sort of pleasure even as one is also repulsed. Gurksy's colors and compositions instead evoke the feel of the operating room — or the autopsy table. Is the way to address the self-destroying soullessness of industrial society to simply replicate it in impersonal, nearly "inhuman" images? Photographers such as Lee Friedlander have been using the contradictions of the contemporary landscape to produce humorous incongruities for decades, but Friedlander’s photos actively engage the viewer in the process of perceiv-ing them. Gursky's huge prints have a very different feel: flat, commanding, even imposing, they lack inner complexity. They are even, dare I say, a bit totalitarian.

Among my favorite images anywhere, and icons of Chicago, are the actual views of the trading pits at the Chicago Board of Trade and Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Though not as hectic as they once were due to the encroachments of electronic trading, they are still essential stops on any tour of Chicago I offer a visiting friend. The movement, the shouting, the sense of controlled chaos and of continual exchange, the way that the trading of financial instruments, the transfer of money, the hand signals, the yelled words, all become equivalents to one another, signifies a reduction of human inter-action to money that offers one view of the essence of capitalism. But Gursky's Chicago Board of Trade, II is sterile, still, without even the sug-gestion of movement. Focusing on a grid of desks rather than a huge pit, it views every detail of a normally chaotic scene as if it were well-ordered, in its proper place, just like the shoes in Untitled V, just like the repeating patterns of office buildings in several of his other images. It is, in other words, far less interesting visually, and far less conceptually profound, than the actual scene. When an artwork is less compelling than its source in every respect, it certainly makes one question its value.

Natasha Spencer
Zg Gallery
300 W. Superior St.
Reviewed by John Brunetti

Natasha Spencer’s irreverent combinations of hair and text at Zg Gallery are notable for their inability to fit easily into familiar conceptual categories. Recent series of instal-lations and sculptures developed by this emerging Chicago-based artist have focused on codes of identity for young women as shaped by the subliminal sexual messages of teen fashion and consumer marketing. Artificiality, exaggeration, and humor have been used by Spencer in these works to address serious themes that could be easily dismissed because of their pop-culture associations. As powerful subcultures, preteens and teens live in private worlds of ever-changing rules that limit access to those passed over by market research. Spencer is adept at pushing the viewer into these worlds through skillful sculptural manipulations that deftly blend innocence and seduction, humor and creepiness.

Spencer’s work is particularly effective in putting a new twist on the vocabulary of feminist work of the early 1970s. Hair was often used by these artists for its strong associations with the female body. Evoking the spirit of the times, hair in those works was often used for its raw truthfulness as a material and symbol. Spencer’s choice of synthetic hair, however, reflects a slightly different interest in a bodily feature that is so strongly connected to feminine identity. For her, hair is a tactile metaphor for the theatrical manipulations of a woman’s physical appearance and the flawed realities they can create.

Her current series uses single words as the physical and conceptual foundation to build three-dimensional projections from canvas and the gallery wall. Words such as "loose" and "hot," which serve as the subject and armatures in Spencer’s pieces, are physically descriptive and psycho-logically loaded. The simplicity of dangling hair shaping the word "loose" takes a tongue-in-cheek examination of the slang for promiscuity, while a mass of flame-like curls shaping the word "hot" emphasizes the archaic stereotypes that still define sexual attraction. Working as both objects and images, words and abstractions, Spencer’s pieces stretch what would seem to be quick commentaries into something more elusive. As with the best text pieces by Kay Rosen, formal economy belies conceptual complexity.

Mary Borgman
Ann Nathan Gallery
218 W. Superior St.
Reviewed by Ann Wiens

While there are those who would consider the act of making straightforward, highly represen-tational, charcoal portrait drawings conservative to the extreme, it’s actually pretty risky business if an artist wants to be taken seriously beyond the circles who continue to view most art of the past 60 years or so with suspicion. It’s a risk St. Louis-based artist Mary Borgman takes with impunity, and the results warrant a serious look indeed.

Borgman’s current show is a series of deftly executed charcoal portraits on frosted mylar, most of them vertical, slightly larger than life size, depicting their subject gazing steadily at the viewer. This gaze is one of the many enigmatic characteristics that make these deceptively straight-forward images so powerful. While Borgman’s subjects vary in age, ethnicity, and gender, each projects an aura of confidence, pride and calm self-assurance that manages to appear slightly defiant without seeming confrontational or unfriendly. These people seem to know them-selves well, and appear so intelligent, interesting, and approachable that we want to know them, too.

The show’s title, "In Black and White," makes dual reference to Borgman’s choice of media and the ethnic diversity of her subjects. While this diversity in Borgman’s choice of models seems important, each subject’s membership in a group like "black," "white," "Asian," or "Latino" is very much secondary to their shared humanity. It feels almost painfully clichéd to write about issues like "humanness" and "the universal," but they are the issues that give these drawings such presence, and seeing them addressed visually rather than verbally, they are not trite at all. Another risk taken, another potential pitfall avoided.

Although this is Borgman’s first major solo gallery exhibition and she earned her M.F.A. only last year, her work demonstrates a rare maturity in both concept and execution. Her capable draftsmanship and facility with her medium of choice are obvious and unusual, and seem to have increased even through the short time span this work covers (2000 – 2002). This facility is kept admirably in check, however, particularly in the more recent works. In images such as Portrait of Daam Tapiwa Barker and Portrait of John-Carlos Mariño (Seated), for example, one is seduced by Borgman’s way with the charcoal, arrested by the impact of these simple, strong images that appear almost photographic from a distance, but dissolve into intricate masses of fluid, sure marks and smudges as one approaches.

Borgman’s portraits seem not only noble representations of her individual subjects, but of the best aspects of our time: bringing together a wealth of influences, a recognition of (art) history, and a strong, thoroughly contemporary attitude to create images that are fully of the moment, but appear well-equipped to remain relevant for the future.

Michiko Itatani
Fassbender/Stevens Gallery
835 W. Washington Blvd.
Reviewed by Claire Wolf Krantz

A long-standing theme in Michiko Itatani’s work is her negotiation of personal and sociopolitical contra-dictions and clashes. Her current show of paintings continues, in some works, to emphasize these contradictions, while in others a new impetus toward integration is beginning to emerge.

Itatani’s mixed cultural background and her sensitivity to the unresolved conflicts in the world around her underlie many of her artistic decisions. Born and reared in Japan, she moved to the United States as a young adult. The aesthetic and cultural inheritance from her formative years in Kyoto are reflected in her asymmetrical but balanced compositions and her use of somewhat flat, chromatically related color. This Japanese influence is a factor in the subtle, under-stated surfaces and the overlays of areas of intense feeling and forms that seldom integrate. By her acquiring a sympathy with Western culture as an adult, Itatini’s work has become increasingly complex and fraught. As she has also shifted her interest from literature and a career in writing to that of painting, she has begun to include images related to the page in her paintings. This shift from East to West has never been complete or comfortable, however, and this gap between her Japanese soul and her American one is always tentative and shifting. Itatani has made a career of exploring these personal gaps and dissonances.

Itatani’s paintings typically contain dissonant elements skillfully and loosely held together as she balances unrelated sections of material. The most noticeable and beautiful elements are shapes containing raised, ruled, gray lines made by squeezing paint through a veterinarian’s syringe. Referring to the look of writing on a page, this correspondence is enhanced because the lined areas are shaped like pages irregularly stacked, even fanned out. The shapes float above a loosely painted all-over ground that implies deep space. This sense of cosmic space is enhanced in some pieces by painted oblongs that imply a perspectival pathway leading deep into infinity. The collision of these crisply demarcated, lined pages hovering over huge, open areas is unsettling.

This cacophony is most evident in Itatani’s practice of attaching to the expanse of her enormous pieces small, rectangular paintings that deliberately interrupt the flow and resolution of the whole. While her compositions have always functioned as though they had transparent layers sitting on top of one another, the viewer could always provisionally resolve the dissonantly painted and layered pieces because of Itatani’s strong sense of design and placement. However, the actual attached canvases force the viewer to acknowledge the separation, because there are physically raised planes that cannot be integrated into the whole. The result is uncomfortable, reflecting Itatani’s discomfort with the boundaries in her own life and in that of the world as she sees it.

However, her newest pieces are different in feeling and content, although some of her basic building blocks of patterned shapes and subdued color remain similar. "America Blue," a series of five giant, spectacular paintings is hung in a gentle arc across one wall, giving a sense of moving through an integrated universe that is new in her oeuvre. The paintings still contain disparate sections that float above an amorphous atmosphere of air or water, but the way they are painted suggests that they are a part of a complex whole, not separated from it. Patterned oblongs march their way into infinite depths. The tops of the paintings are pink half-circles, sensuous shapes that could be bodies but also suggest a pink sky, a sun reflecting and lighting up the earth. Below this, paint dripping from the glowing pink zone seems to be rain — a light, nurturing rain that alternates with the sun to nourish the earth. Page-like sections containing Itatani’s signature ruled lines float over a dark field scattered with brightly lit dots. A fascinating contrast is at work here. The bottom sections of the painting, alluding to deep space, are black, while the upper half is painted glowing shades of pink and red. For me, these allusions to the dichotomies of life and death, joy and pain, are fully integrated, as though Itatani has come to an acceptance that in the fullness of life, both factors are in play but are not necessarily in conflict. These paintings emanate a universe of hope and beauty that I have not seen in many years, creating a new beginning in her long and fascinating career of making abstract art out of the elements of her life and her vision of the world.

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