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    Prairie Smoke
by Victor M. Cassidy
Frances Barth
Leslie Baum
So Long
Leslie Baum
Portia Hein
Sam Prekop
Elana Gutmann
au ciel
Barry Tinsley
Potawotami Crossing
at Navy Pier
Tinsley at work
Barry Tinsley
In summer, many Chicago dealers have group shows that include work by unrepresented artists. This year we were lucky to have "Grounded," an intelligently chosen exhibition of paintings by Frances Barth, Leslie Baum, Portia Hein, Sam Prekop, and David Wells at the Jan Cicero Gallery.

Talking to each other
The work in "Grounded" references the "urban and natural landscape," says Brian Willey, who organized the show. The artists "play consciously" with "the flatness of the pictorial surface," he adds. Willey installs the paintings (they are all roughly the same size) in small groups so they relate to each other.

The most accomplished artist in "Grounded" is Frances Barth, who teaches at Yale and has a long exhibition record in Chicago, New York and around the U.S. Barth paints semi-abstracted architectural and land forms on smallish (14 by 15 inch) panels. With subdued color, thin washes of paint and ghostly lines, she creates striking images.

Five years ago, when she was just out of school, Leslie Baum produced some precocious paintings. Next, she detoured unaccountably into blurry photography for a few years. Now she is back, stronger than ever with semi-abstract landscapes whose flatness and simplicity recall Chinese art.

Baum's So Long has a soft blue background and dark blue and yellow forms that suggest water and trees. Not a stroke is wasted in this crisply conceived work. Baum is a born painter -- one of Chicago's most gifted younger artists.

Portia Hein has enormously expanded her conceptual powers since we last saw her work five years ago. Today she makes flat images in quiet colors that suggest plant life and land forms, but go beyond nature into worlds of her own creation.

Sam Prekop paints active fields of subdued color that could be sky. He then places tiny repeating shapes or marks on these color fields, arranging them to suggest a horizon or land meeting water.

One step farther
The paintings in "Grounded" are relatively easy to read because they rely on forms with clear outlines, which are often set against monochromatic backgrounds. It seems that Barth, Baum and Hein start with form and go from there.

Elana Gutmann, whose semi-abstract imagery suggests landforms, water bodies, vegetation and the human figure, creates the background first, then adds gestural paint. Gutmann deals with fundamental issues of painting -- figure-ground, color and line, form and flatness, perspective and more. Her work rewards those who take the time to absorb it slowly.

Gutmann had a one-person show at the Perimeter Gallery in July and August. Born and educated in Chicago, she now lives in New York and exhibits throughout the U.S. and Europe. She is both a printmaker and a painter.

The artist paints on linen and wood panels. She applies support elements (gesso, rabbit skin glue, marble dust or titanium white pigment) to the surface, then sands and reapplies them several times until she feels ready to lay down oil paint mixed with oil media, varnishes or waxes.

"Different viscosities create different kinds of movement," Gutmann explains. As she applies paint, she rubs and wipes the work. Unexpectedly, the surfaces of her paintings are very smooth. We can see through the color to the wood grain of her panel pieces or to the crossweave of the linen.

Nadja (2000), a triptych on panel, could be a Japanese screen -- or a very loose Monet. This is a challenging work, with imagery that suggests much and a very active ground.

The forms and colors that unite Nadja recall sand and water, but the perspective is different in each panel. The leftward panel seems to be a plan view with water, sand, and a rowboat form at right. In the central panel, we view the ground from a 45-degree angle. The images suggest a sandbar or marsh with vegetation throughout at left and organic debris at right.

The panel at far right is hardest to read. Are we looking at water or at the sky? From what perspective? Here the artist combines the rowboat form with the organic debris pattern.

We see a suggestion of flowers, buds and fruit in Of the Time Between (1999). An orange field in the background unites this tranquil, yet active painting. Here again, it is difficult to determine our exact perspective.

Barry Tinsley at McCormick
Traditional wisdom has it that artists should exhibit as often as possible to get their work and their name out. But Barry Tinsley, one of Chicago's most capable and successful sculptors, just had his first one-man exhibition since 1980 -- and he does not seem the least bit concerned. Public art is a "major career direction," Tinsley explains. Regular exhibition can distract an artist who lives on commissions.

Since the early 1970s, Tinsley has completed more than 30 public and corporate commissions around the U.S. His patrons include the City of Chicago, Borg-Warner Corp., Tweed Museum of Art at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and Broward County, Florida.

For many years, Tinsley incorporated plow forms into his work. Now his sculptures suggest Chinese characters transformed into three dimensions and charged with tremendous energy.

In July and August, Tinsley showed a maquette at the Thomas McCormick Gallery of Potawotami Crossing, his latest large-scale sculpture. The full-sized work (13 by 19 by 6 feet) is up until November at Navy Pier. Consisting of three major steel plate parts painted red and four burnished stainless steel units, it is built around Chinese character forms.

The Art Enterprises, Ltd. commissioned Potawotami Crossing for a sculpture garden in Sawyer, Mich., about two hour's drive from the city. "Potawotami" refers to the tribe of Algonquian-speaking Indians that once lived in the Illinois-Michigan area, while "Crossing" alludes to the intersection of walkways where the piece will be situated.

Tinsley spends a lot of time at the site before he proposes or builds a sculpture. "You must experience the site," he says, "because it has a specific quality. Traffic, climate, sun and much more can have a bearing on what you do." Before he was satisfied with Potawotami Crossing, the artist made several visits to the site and spent six months working with life-size paper cutouts of the piece.

Tinsley knows that his work is not for everyone. Years ago, he was hauling one of his sculptures through Missouri in an open truck. As he stopped for gas, another driver pulled up and shouted "What in the hell is that thing in your truck?" Tinsley smiled and replied, "I don't know! I just haul it!"

VICTOR M. CASSIDY writes on art from Chicago.