Lucien Clergue at Flatfile
Lucien Clergue (b. 1934) has shown his photography at an international level for almost half a century. When he was just 19 years old and working in a factory, he somehow met Pablo Picasso and initiated a life-long friendship that gave him a strong artistic direction and many contacts. Clergue started on Les Saltimbanques, his first mature series of photographs, when he was 20. Two years later, he took the first of the "Sea Nude" photographs that made him famous.
Clergue has exhibited in major venues worldwide and placed his work in top museum collections. He designed ballet sets for Jean Cocteau and made films with him, collaborated with other artists and writers, lectured and taught, and published his work in many books. In September and October, Chicago's Flatfile Galleries had a Lucien Clergue retrospective -- 42 photographs from all periods of his life. This was our first substantial encounter with the artist's work.
Clergue acknowledged an affinity with Edward Weston and visited Point Lobos, California, in 1972 -- 14 years after Weston's death -- to take photographs there with Wynn Bullock. We see the Weston connection in Clergue's black and white photographs of sand, rice stalks in winter, and flooded grapevines. The cropping, angle of view, and darkness of these images recall Weston, but Clergue's images are cooler and less fussy. The Sea Nudes are also dark like Weston, but Clergue makes studies of form and shadow which employ nudes, while Weston photographed his lovers.
Clergue's bullfight pictures, which date from the late 1980s, are the most exciting works in this retrospective. We see the red cape and elaborate toreador outfit, the dazzling red painted walls of the corrida, and the shadow of the lurking bull. As with the sea nudes, these photographs are about visual phenomena -- the forms, patterns and surfaces of the bullring.
Doubles, a series of color images produced between 1995 and 2002, is pointless and offensive. Here the artist makes double exposures of nudes and portions of devotional paintings. He pillages religious art (as his friend Picasso did with secular art), treats it as mere visual stuff, and combines it with girlie-magazine-quality nudes. These pieces fail on every level.
Regardless, the Lucien Clergue retrospective is a welcome event. It brings an important contemporary photographer into focus and justifies his international reputation.
Rubi Chisthi at Walsh Gallery
It's hardly news that Muslim culture discourages achievement in women. When Rubi Chisthi was born in Pakistan in 1963, her parents wept because they had hoped for a son. She grew up feeling unwanted and ignored, but used what freedom she had to explore the world around her and to make things from discarded fabrics. Chisthi went to art school, but after her mother was paralyzed by a stroke in 1991, she spent eleven years caring for her until she died. In spare moments, she made little figures from rags stuffed with straw. Now she lives in California and has begun her art career with an exhibition at Chicago's Walsh Gallery.
My Birth Will Take Place a Thousand Times No Matter How You Celebrate It (2001) consists of six doll-like female forms, each about 18 inches high, seated in a circle on the ground with their hands in front of their faces. Coarsely stitched together from rags, the forms have hair made from yarn and are stuffed with straw that leaks out here and there. The women have no faces and just look beaten down.
Given Identity (2002), four figures made of rags and straw and measuring about 18 inches high, suggests how women are valued in Pakistan. The dolls, all dark, have ample hips, no heads, and bare breasts filled with milk. These drabs exist to bear and nurture (male) babies. Ever After (2001) seems a bit more optimistic. We see two headless dolls of indeterminate sex seated next to each other. Maybe they are married -- and happy.
Few of today's feminist artists have experienced the numbing environment of traditional Pakistan. Rubi Chisti's work is effective because she has a real story to tell and has found a powerful way to tell it. She may be the next Shirin Neshat.
Chisthi's is the most recent show at Walsh Gallery, which specializes in contemporary Asian art. Established in 1997, the gallery has steadily gained strength and is now one of Chicago's premier venues for strong, fresh art.
Vadim Katznelson at Roy Boyd Yum, yum, yum! Luscious, glistening wavy stripes of thick white acrylic paint mixed with rich blues, reds, yellows, greens or browns. Every surface shimmers: the colors seem to change with the light. Some color fields have unlimited depth like the sky. Vague forms float through others. This work is so very tactile that the gallery had to ask the artist, Vadim Katznelson, to supply a sample of the paint he uses so visitors could hold it in their hands instead of touching his paintings.
Katznelson showed three groups of new paintings at the Roy Boyd Gallery in September and October. Gandalf, which filled the entire north wall of the gallery, is comprised of 116 squares, each measuring 12 x 12 inches, arranged in ten roughly vertical rows. Sorcerer's Apprentice, installed in the gallery stairwell, consisted of 23 paintings measuring 12 x 12 in. or 12 x 20 in. A separate exhibition of Katznelson's easel paintings was in the back of the gallery.
Each piece in Gandalf and Sorcerer's Apprentice is mounted flat to the wall without a frame. The artist places squares of mylar on glass, squeegees on paint at the top of each square, then spreads it downwards, leaving tracks in the surface. Surplus paint makes a little flare at the bottom. Paint spreads over the sides of each square, activating the edges.
According to Katznelson, this show continues his "investigation in painting as object making" and explores "how to free paint from the constraints of its support." In the installations, the "individual square slabs of paint are removed from their visible support, free to engage the wall and activate the interior architectural space," he states. The installations are "playful," he adds, and "could be arranged in many different ways."
Katznelson gets a variety of color effects. In Gandalf, there are three rows of blue squares, all together, whose abstract patterns seem to hang in space, suggesting the sea or the Northern Lights. Some of the green squares recall spring landscapes. Patterns in the brown and yellow squares struck us as abstract and sturdy. The red squares suggest gloriously fattening flavors of ice cream.
The Sorcerer's Apprentice paintings have an entirely different feel, in part because each color field is divided with horizontal lines into five areas. Roughly half of these pieces are blue and white, while the others are black and white. More sober and orderly than Gandalf, this work seems to come out of the artist's earlier pattern pieces, which were easel paintings. Now and then we see touches of yellow in these works and surfaces that could be photographic.
This show is a series of cheering encounters with little painted personalities. There is an air of pure delight about it. We left in an excellent mood.
Steph Roberts at GwendaJay/Addington
Recently, we saw oil paintings by Steph Roberts in a group show at GwendaJay/Addington Gallery. Clearly conceived and vigorously painted, her work shows divers in mid-air, bodies tensed and expectant. Just a few years out of school, Roberts has established herself in Chicago with several shows and commissions. We'll hear much more from her in years to come.