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by Victor M. Cassidy
|The oh-so-fashionable men and women we see at art openings may seem tremendously important, but they have little influence in the art world. Key decisions are made by artists, who create the work we see -- and by the quiet people who form great museum collections and assemble exhibitions that define contemporary trends.
Money and eyes
A case in point is Helen Regenstein, who was born to wealth in 1896, married more, and collected art with her husband from the time she was about 30 years old. During the 1950s, the Regenstein family established a foundation that supported the Art Institute of Chicago.
From this grew a remarkable collecting partnership between Regenstein -- whose family foundation supplied cash -- and Harold Joachim, the Art Institute's renowned curator of prints and drawings who provided a connoisseur's eyes. Starting in 1958, Regenstein and Joachim collected major drawings by important 18th- and 19th-century Italian and French artists, and gave them to the Art Institute. The partners died during the '80s, but a new generation has expanded and strengthened the collection, which now comprises 125 works by Fragonard, Chardin, Primaticcio, Pontormo, Carraci, Carriera, Lancret, Oudry, Greuze and many others.
In spring and early summer, the Art Institute presented "Mainieri to Miro: The Regenstein Collection Since 1975," the first major exhibition of the collection in 25 years. Most of this work is familiar to regular museumgoers, since Regenstein Collection drawings are regularly exhibited in the museum's prints and drawings galleries.
Six of the works in "Mainieri to Miro" are special favorites. Lorrain's Panorama from the Sasso (1649), a horizontal, loosely executed view of the sea in pen and brown wash, hovers between figuration and abstraction. Very economically, the artist renders shifting light and its shadow on land.
Antoine Watteau's A Bewigged Painter, Seen in Profile, Seated at His Easel (ca. 1709) makes us chuckle at the subject's extravagant wig and big nose. A closer look tells us that Watteau has perfectly depicted an artist absorbed in his work.
The Entrance of the Academy of Architecture at the Louvre by Gabriel Jacques de Saint-Aubin (1779) is an architectural interior distinguished by an atmospheric rendering of light and volumes. Despite their sketchiness, the tiny figures are full of life.
Thomas Girtin, a contemporary of J.M.W. Turner, helped to revive the British watercolor during the 1790s. Girtin's Phineas Borret's Farm near Saffron Walden (1802) is so vibrantly alive that it could have been painted yesterday. The artist gives the farmyard a solid dignity.
Theodore Gericault's Haitian Horseman (ca. 1818) seems ready to leap off the paper into our laps. The anatomies of horse and rider -- and their intense expressions -- are perfectly done, as is the melodramatic sky behind them.
The Portrait of Eugène Lacheurié (1852) by Gustave Moreau shows an artist/musician friend of Moreau's, who had to give up his career to support his family in business. We see intelligence and sorrow in the subject's face and creative power in his sensitive hands.
"Still really experimental"
Today's art scene is chaos -- and it takes considerable skill to make sense of it. Julie Ann Charmelo, director of the Northern Illinois University Gallery in Chicago, has assembled three successful group shows of contemporary art for the gallery.
"Curating is still really experimental for me," she says. "I'm attracted to a wide variety of art -- very traditional to very avant-garde. I respond most readily to work that deals with the raw elements of pattern and structure."
When Charmelo started college, she leaned toward graphic design because she believed she could make a living at it. But she loved the slides she saw in art history class and made that her major subject. While she was in graduate school, she interned at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art and found her vocation.
"I worked with a curator there to organize a photo show," she says, "and really enjoyed doing research and visiting collectors. I wrote wall texts and was thrilled to see my work in a museum."
When Charmelo started at the NIU Gallery in August of 1997, she was given "the body in art" as subject for a group exhibition and told that it had to be up by January. "I focused the show on the physicality of the body," she says, "and got help from a lot of people."
Freshness and Humor
"Substance: A Corporeal Examination," with work by 14 artists, opened on Jan. 9, 1998. Joseph Litzenberger's I'll Eat You Then You Eat Me is six bowls cast from his own head and arranged on the floor like a table setting. Ken Rinaldo and Amy Youngs contributed Genetic Imprint, a long rug-like object that went on the floor and partly up one wall. Genetic Imprint was woven with human hair that the artists collected from San Francisco beauty shops.
Charmelo was solely responsible for "Dysfunctional Home," an eight-artist group exhibition that opened in January of 1999. Here again she took an imaginative approach to her subject, found both serious and exuberantly nutty work, and avoided obvious traps. "Dysfunctional Home" is not about alcoholism or divorce. It presents objects that are useless in a domestic setting.
Jane Benson's Painted Dust works are balls of dust, which the artist found under tables and chairs and covered with enamel, transforming them into alluring abstract sculptures. Linda Horn's Turf Lounger is an oversized recliner chair preposterously upholstered with Astroturf.
Tonya Hart's Asylum -- the unforgettable highlight of "Dysfunctional Home"-- is a full-room installation of discarded mattresses (covering the floor, walls, and pillars) that the artist collected from Chicago alleys over several months. To comment on issues of privacy and intimacy, Hart chose especially malodorous mattresses, which ripened in storage and later on exhibition.
When the staff removed this work at the end of the show, "everyone covered themselves with plastic sheeting," Charmelo says. They piled the mattresses in a truck and recycled them in various Chicago alleys, apparently because the artist did not want them back.
"My best show"
Charmelo calls "Blink: Interventions in the Salon" "my best show." For this invitational, which she co-curated with Brian Ritchard, she asked 13 Chicago-area artists to create site-specific installations that would intervene with existing architectural elements in the loft-like NIU Gallery.
The "Blink" artists are more experienced and consequently much stronger than the participants in Charmelo's earlier shows. Sally by Adelheid Mers uses colored lights to lead visitors through a door at the back of the gallery and into a storage room with stacked-up chairs, tools and an industrial elevator. Sally encourages visitors to explore a part of the gallery that is normally closed and ignored.
The gallery's east wall consists of tall windows covered by drywall. In Excavation: East Grid, Jason Peot cut square holes through this drywall, so small amounts of sunlight could enter the gallery during the day (the effect is rather lyrical). At night, artificial light from inside the gallery filled Peot's excavations.
Corey Postiglione contributed Net 93M, a striking mixed media diptych with a dot matrix pattern painted directly on contiguous walls at one end of the gallery. The piece played with our visual perception and orientation in the gallery space.
Charmelo works in the gallery full-time and likes to go home at the end of the day. "I read art criticism," she says, "but not as much as I should. I miss some good shows and don't get to many openings, so I end up feeling guilty."
VICTOR M. CASSIDY writes on art from Chicago.