Francis Picabia (1879-1953) was a prime mover of International Dadaism. He is best known for his paintings of machine-like contrivances, pistons, switch systems, wheels and gears.
Born to wealth, Picabia lived life in the fast lane. He had torrid love affairs and once owned more than 100 automobiles. During his glory years, he lived in Paris and New York.
"If you want to have clean ideas," Picabia once said, "change them as often as your shirt." An Impressionist for six years after art school, he became, in succession, a Fauve, a Cubist, an Orphist and a Dadaist. When Dadaism faded, he painted in the Surrealist manner. During the mid-1920s, he left Paris to live on the Côte d'Azur. Over the next three decades, he painted in several different styles.
"The Late Works of Francis Picabia," which was recently on view at the Arts Club of Chicago, featured 39 paintings dated from 1922 to 1952. "Until recently," said the exhibition organizers, Picabia's late works were "either seen as curiosities or 'kitsch,' and were generally ignored by art historians…. Now, nearly 50 years after the artist's death, Picabia is beginning to be seen as one of the spiritual pioneers of Postmodernism and a significant influence on many contemporary artists."
Nothing in this show justifies such claims. In the mid-'20s and after, Picabia experimented with different sources and styles, producing some handsome paintings and some junk. This show is poorly edited and diminishes rather than strengthens the artist's reputation.
Two dealers supplied 23 of the 39 works in this show -- all of the weakest ones and some that have been heavily restored. The other 16 paintings come from private collections and museums. We wonder whether "The Late Paintings of Francis Picabia" was organized to revive interest in this artist or just to make money.
The Dance (1922-24) is a Picabia "monster" painting. Vigorously drafted, this work recalls the primitive art that inspired the Cubists. The imagery comes from Catalan murals, which were restored in the early 20s.
Ligustri (1927) is one of the artist's "transparencies," in which he used water-based colors and varnishes to layer borrowed images and get dreamlike effects. In the background of Ligustri, a Greek or Roman warrior wearing a laurel wreath carries a defeated enemy over one shoulder. He raises his arm in triumph.
Layered on top of the warrior are the sad faces of two women, which are so sensuous and romantic that they could come from film. One woman holds a branch that partially obscures the warrior. Ligustri is an attractive painting done with subtle color and confident draftsmanship.
Portrait of a Couple (1942-43) is one of Picabia's "kitsch" images, so sentimental that it could be a movie poster. Though Picabia borrows from popular culture, he does so without obvious irony and it is hard to connect this work with today's mocking attitudes.
Nude Back (1942-44) reproduces an image taken from a French girlie magazine. This work is competent enough, but it sends no message. Are we to be aroused by this nude? Are we to laugh? Nude Back is just a painting, like many others that Picabia did when his best work was behind him.
A bed of Byzantinists
Last October and November, Mary Seyfarth, a Chicago ceramic artist, exhibited Byzantine Wall at Lill Street Gallery. Her installation comprised more than 50 terracotta plaques, bowls and cube-like shapes, which she calls "shards." Decorated with animals, plants, abstract designs and the "faces of Byzantine ladies looking out and about," the ceramics are colored yellow and green.
Byzantine Wall had its start in 1987 when Seyfarth, then a graduate student at the University of Illinois, made friends in the university's Byzantine Studies Center. Because she knew pottery technique inside out, Seyfarth was invited to join an archeological dig at Synaxis in northern Greece.
"I fell into a bed of Byzantinists," she says. "At Synaxis, we excavated thousands of pottery shards from an 11th-12th century monastery." These shards have since been assembled, dated and put on display at the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki, Greece. All are terracotta clay covered with a white slip, glazed with lead and colored with splashes of iron yellow and copper green oxides. Seyfarth uses these materials and techniques in Byzantine Wall.
The line drawings and images in the Byzantine pottery are made by the sgraffito technique, in which the artist cuts through a colored slip into damp clay with a stylus. Byzantine potters used brushes too. They wanted the colored lead glaze to flow and run over and around the sharp line drawings so the colors create a sunshine and shadow-like effect over the image.
Byzantine pottery was made in large quantities for households and foreign trade. Artists used a compass to make circular designs, with the result that plates have a shallow hole in the center made by the point of the compass. The footed bowls and plates were stacked on top of each other in the kiln and fired upside down.
Some Byzantine ware was decorated to look like silver. As Seyfarth tells it, these pieces were made "in hard times when the money was gone on wars and nobody could afford silver."
While in Greece, Seyfarth made drawings of her findings and used these as sources for Byzantine Wall. The "flat, bold, child-like" drawings on the 800-year-old Byzantine shards are "fresh and remarkably modern," she says.
Suspended in time and space
Andre Ferella stands at the opposite end of the technological spectrum from Mary Seyfarth, but his effects also recall ancient art. This Madison, Wisc., artist exhibited a lightbox portrait in "The Buddha Show" at the Oskar Friedl Gallery during October and November.
Ferella -- see his work at www.livingmuseum.com -- photographs a subject in color, scans the photo, takes elements of the image based on fractal technology and remaps them. He repeats the entire face -- or details such as the eye -- at different scales, then layers the image repeatedly to get a portrait that seems suspended in time and space.
Mounting the work in a lightbox intensifies the effect of suspension. Some Ferella portraits recall the heads of Roman gods used decoratively on metal vessels. Others look like pharaohs and some seem downright menacing. In an earlier body of work, this artist photographed the human eye and transformed it into dynamic swirls that suggest hurricanes or black holes.
Gotham gets a gallery
Michael Lyons Wier, one of Chicago's most capable young art dealers, will open a branch of Lyonswier Packer Gallery (LWP) at 13 East 7th Street in New York on Feb. 1, 2001. Aron Packer, partner in the gallery, will remain in Chicago. Lyons Wier will move to New York.
LWP has made its reputation as a painting gallery. "We're doing well here, but New York has a larger collector base and we think it will respond to our edgier artists," says Lyons Wier. "We're opening with a two-person show. Jane Fisher makes images of domesticity and relationships. Paul Mullins paints the figure. Later we'll show Erin Riley and Ann Gale."
LWP-2 is a storefront gallery, "right behind Gracie Mansion," Lyons Wier adds. "If everything goes according to plan, we'll end up in Chelsea."
At the weekend galleries
If you want to know what's happening in Chicago's weekend galleries, e-mail Keri Butler (firstname.lastname@example.org) and ask to join her mailing list. From time to time, she will send an e-letter with notices of openings and other events that you won't find in the newspapers.
We visited "Find" at MN Gallery, a ho-hum show of works incorporating found objects. We were more impressed with Polaroid transfers by D. Morrison Lyman and black and white photographs by Stu Paul Mullenberg at the brand-new (Impostor) Gallery.
The (Impostor) Gallery has commercial aspirations, it seems. A press handout gives prices for all works and tells how to pay by check. We learn that wholesale framing is "available at cost."
The (Impostor) Gallery is also a very civilized place. One photographer thanks his friends for "undying support," "selfless help" and "traveling melodies." Speaking to "all of the women I have photographed and have yet to photograph," the other artist dedicates these words: "Dream on all you dreamers … for it is from your loom that the lyrical beauties of life are found."
We're truly sorry we missed "Cake Fight 2000," "Pumpkin Fight 2000" and other activities organized by Meg Duguid, a recent graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The fights begin when Duguid lays down a checked tablecloth in the middle of a Chicago park. Participants come armed with cake, whipped cream or pumpkin. They must stay inside the play area, leave innocent bystanders alone and never show malice. Cake fights are an antidote to road rage, Duguid says.