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Spring 1998, Volume 1, Number 1, page 2


Reality Bites: Contemporary Approaches to Representation in American Sculpture (Chicago Cultural Center)

This handsome exhibition of 12 artists' reflections on 'reality' via sculpture briefly chronicles 30 years of the changes in ideas about what constitutes reality, as well as in the definitions of sculpture itself. The belief that there is a reality out there is the point of departure for these artists, but how they conceive of it, understand and depict it, continues to evolve. All of the works have some sort of sociopolitical message, either within the art world (such as subverting definitions of art) or in a broader, more general set of societal concerns. Although not all the pieces in this exhibition were equally interesting, most of the works were aesthetically strong and contributed a variety of points of view to the show's theme.

Beginning with a well known piece by George Segal (his 1969 "Man in the Armchair"), curator Ed Maldonado sets the ground work for 1960s and '70s artistic preoccupations with everyday life, their choices of materials and industrial manufacture of objects (Donald Judd), and focus on language (Joseph Kosuth) as valid representations of reality. More recently, Hans Haacke's familiar 1990 "Helmsboro Country" is probably the most extreme example of politically engaged art. This gigantic silk-screened sculpture of a pack of "Phillip Morris" cigarettes (a large contributor to the culture industry) contains a warning label alluding to Senator Helms's simultaneous promotion of the tobacco industry with his attacks on art and on the NEA as being dangerous. Mary Patten's 1990-1998 videos, alluding to the political group "Resistance Conspiracy 6," reveal the six artists' engagement in political issues. Both she and Haacke have strong and unequivocal points of view regarding the "real" reality underlying appearances, which they effectively convey in works that have didactic, as well as aesthetic components.

Other works convey a more ambivalent view of the culture "out there," and the artists' relationship to it. Jo Hormuth's array on a wall of nine relief plaster pansies speaks to stereotypes of female sexuality and gender. In contrast, Charles Ray's attachment of a model of his own genitals to a generic male mannequin is a sad commentary on the reproducibility and emptiness of masculinity, a state in which contemporary man's only locus of identity, individuality, and pleasure can be acquired through his phallus. Another interesting installation by Robert Gober includes a barred window, back painted as sky, which actively locates the viewer inside a space, looking out. However, our relationship with this barred window is paradoxical: are we imprisoned or protected from outside danger? Finally, Thomas Skomski's hydrocal plaster "Bodybags" are lumpy torsos, recalling Greek ideals of sculpture while also referring to fleshy, imperfect, and vulnerable reality. This show's success lies in the curatorial choices of aesthetic objects that effectively represent multiple artistic "takes" on reality (or any subject, for that matter) are embedded in their time and continually shifting.--Claire Wolf Krantz

Paul Krainak (Fassbender Gallery)

Paul Krainak's highly conceptual, flat, gridded, abstract paintings are prefigured by his earlier, romantic, black-and-white drawings of trees, earth, and sky. These easel-size acrylics, thickly painted in pastel hues, look like birdseye views of rolling fields and vegetation covering bare earth, or the checker-board rectangles of the city, of gardens, of plazas and buildings, colors washed out by the sun. These colored fields are punctuated by abstractly painted grisaille squares hinting at elements of landscape as well as recalling the tense compositions of De Stijl paintings. The monochrome squares are orientated either vertically, evoking hills sliced through by roads, or horizontally, seeming to recede in space, like water or tilled meadows. The spatial orientation of the horizontal sections creates the most interest because of their tension with the colored grid surrounding them.

This work is an extension of Krainak's interest in rural American, landscapes now grown familiar to him after leaving the urban environments of Chicago and New York for Appalachia. His work also hints at the local handicrafts, such as quilts, to be found in abundance in his most recent home. I am particularly interested in Krainak's focus on contrasting formal elements (flat, rational geometric, abstract color, against curvilinear, monochrome, and spatial sections). Because neither grouping of characteristics clearly stands for any category (rationalism, subjectivism, realism, non-objective abstraction), these arbitrary clusters actually subvert discrete classification while maintaining the tensions among the elements. The grid also implies a disquieting sense of our attempts to control nature, to subordinate the organic to a larger, rationalized plan. In these quiet works, Krainak's use of sweet colors, appealing textures, and familiar grid-work are kept from disintegrating into comfortable modernist decorations by the paintings' taut conceptual elegance. --Claire Wolf Krantz


What WAS Ed Maldonado doing? What is this "meaningful historical context"? How does he get away with putting George Segal and Donald Judd, and Kosuth and Haacke in a show called "Contemporary"? This show is up while the ISC and Art Chicago crowds are in town. The city gallery couldn't find local artists? They had to drag the work of dead New Yorkers out of collectors' warehouses? There were a variety of sculptural viewpoints in the last thirty years? That's not much of a discovery, but if that is the point, where are the foundry boys, where are the ceramicists? How does the show explain its conceptual or sociopolitical bias? If the show considers political-action video as sculpture, where's the photography, the performance, the artists working with neighborhood groups and factory workers and prisoners?

Handsome? Effective? Interesting? Aesthetically Strong? Do these words mean anything?

And you're just explaining Krainak. Let the salesmen tell me why it's beautiful. What is "taut conceptual elegance," anyway? --Michael Bulka