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PRAIRIE SMOKE
by Victor M. Cassidy
 
Joel Shapiro: Attacking the Past?
As they challenge themselves to get to something new, artists often make awkward, ugly transitional work. In his show in late 2005 at the Russell Bowman Art Advisory, Joel Shapiro seemed almost to be attacking his past work in order to get beyond it. The artist, who is best known for off-kilter, dancer-like sculptures made from long block-like forms, showed bronze sculptures that were cast from clumsy-looking pieces of wood and joined in jumbles. His wooden sculptures, which seemed to be fashioned from workshop scrap, had clusters of bent nails driven into them and color splashed on. You couldn’t take your eyes off this work.

Shapiro’s show, his first solo exhibition in Chicago since 1987, comprised ten sculptures and five drawings dated from 1995 to the present. A six-foot-tall untitled figure sculpture from 1995, all arms and legs, seemed to represent the past. Three sculptures and all the drawings were dated 2005.

Untitled (2001-2002) is a weird combination of two elements: cast bronze blocks on the floor and an echoing white plaster block piece tilted downward and suspended above them. Neither element reads as a figure and the eye does not know where to rest on this piece. In his aggressive rearrangement of forms that he’s made familiar, Shapiro may be telling us not to take him for granted. 

Untitled (2004), a wall piece, is an unstable accumulation of oak blocks that Shapiro joins with nails, which he leaves visible. The artist then splashes on dull red casein, a medium that delivers a matte finish, allowing the surplus to drip down the side. Another wood piece from 2004 -- all works in this show are untitled -- suggests Futurist architecture with a dense accumulation of colored geometric forms at the base and a single, tower-like projection. This piece is much more palatable than the others are, though less original.

The three 2005 sculptures suggest the figure as Shapiro’s earlier work did, but are considerably less vertical. A bronze casting could be a seated bear and a wood piece painted black suggests a man in a boat, pushing with a long oar. Another black wooden piece might be a man bending over. Based on this show, we might speculate that Shapiro is evolving toward greater concentration and variety in his figures. But his transition may not be over -- and maybe it never will be.  

Joel Shapiro, "Sculpture and Drawings," Oct. 21-Dec. 3, 2005, at Russell Bowman Art Advisory, 311 West Superior, Suite 115, Chicago, Ill. 60610 

Rachel Davis: Botanical Interludes
The more we look at Rachel Davis’ forms, the more ambiguous they become. As a printmaking student in Madison, Wisc., she looked down at leaves and rocks as she walked through campus. Her husband, a botanist, showed her plants under a microscope. Davis knows landforms too, which she’s seen from above. She mixes microscopic, macroscopic and life scales in her work, experimenting freely and getting excellent results.

Davis curated "Sextet," a late autumn exhibition at ZG Gallery, showing her work and that of five other artists. She hung six acrylic paintings on wood panels that range from about one to two feet high, width proportionate. Working in flat, subdued colors, she covers the panel completely, sands down the paint, and may scratch into the surface. She puts on two or three more layers of paint, sanding again and scratching into the finished image. This procedure delivers a flat surface with visible underpainting.

Abstract, clearly organic forms, emerge from the edges of Davis’ paintings but rarely occupy the center. She crops most paintings so we see only an incomplete form and makes little attempt at creating depth. A monochromatic background unites her painting.

Consider with its rich red background, is particularly rewarding. A form at lower left that the artist has sketched in pale blue line and rough dots hovers between organism and architecture. Above, at right, is a lively, complex shape that suggests a leaf dangling from a twig. The artist paints this in a lighter blue, bright yellow, and brown. Davis’ color choice and control could hardly be better. This painting is much less simple -- and simply done -- than it looks.

How We Got Here, with its floating chloroplast-like forms and three-dimensional microstructures, evokes the botany lab. But we also see a map of Chicago with dark blue Lake Michigan at right. The juxtaposition is droll and we wonder if the artist is saying that botany brought her to Chicago.

Oh What a Lovely Sound is amiably indecent. A dynamic bladder-like -- or algae-like -- shape in browns and reds fills the leftward two-thirds of this painting. This form seems ready to kiss or otherwise impinge upon a placid apple green and yellow sphere that emerges from the right, tilted upward and with its "lips" at the ready. Is this a botanical interlude? Only the artist knows.

"Sextet: Six Artists," curated by Rachel Davis, on view till Jan. 21, 2006, at Zg Gallery, 300 W. Superior Street, Chicago, Ill. 60610

Jacob Hashimoto: Waterfalls
Jacob Hashimoto cuts rice paper into small geometric shapes and glues the shapes to delicate wooden frameworks, which he attaches to black fishing line and ties to long wooden pegs at the top and bottom of his rectangular, wall-mounted, waterfall-like hangings. The pegs are evenly spaced from side to side across the top and bottom of the piece.

The artist ties six roughly overlapping layers of shapes onto each peg, creating a dense, kaleidoscopic multi-level field in which a given shape may be visible or hidden, depending on the angle of view. The hanging seems to move as we walk past. But is it a sculpture or a painting? Where is the figure? Where is the ground?

Hashimoto’s show, titled "skip skitter start trip vault bounce -- and other attempts at flight" opened at Chicago’s Rhona Hoffman Gallery in mid-November, but closed early when everything sold. The show featured one ceiling piece along with seven wall works, constructed of like elements but with varying content.

Slip into Vapor could almost be a landscape. Measuring five feet high and four feet wide by 7.5 inches deep, it is composed of paper ovals, each roughly four inches wide, which are mounted on X-shaped frameworks and suspended between 13 wooden pegs at the top and 13 below. White and blue ovals, suggesting clouds and sky, comprise the upper half of Slip into Vapor, while darker ovals in the lower half could be rocks, soil or vegetation. The artist collages long slices of green paper-like grass onto some ovals and puts fanciful decorative designs on others. As the viewer walks by, these peep out to surprise and amuse.

Face Ache at Ice Cream Social measures eight feet square and employs hexagon shapes with a mad variety of designs. Dark and dense above and light below, this piece seems to sparkle, bubble upward, and move in all three dimensions, but it is never busy because the artist alternates decorated and plain white hexagons, both across the face of the work and in its layers.

Hashimoto begins by making wooden frames from tiny sticks, tying them together with thread, and affixing translucent rice paper to them. If he wants color or a design, he collages it onto the paper shape -- nothing is painted. When a framed shape is ready, he dips it in acrylic resin for strength. After creating a large inventory of these elements, he selects shapes of different size and design, and strings them on nylon line, which he employs because it does not stretch. Now he is ready to tie the strings to the pegs.

Hashimoto also exhibited Super Abundant Atmosphere II, a ceiling-hung work made of pale forms that suggest billowing clouds. Apparently one of the "attempts at flight" in the show title, this piece brought the sky indoors and almost seemed ready to levitate the gallery.

Jacob Hashimoto, "skip skitter start trip vault bounce - and other attempts at flight," Nov. 18-30, 2005, at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, 118 N. Peoria Street, Chicago, Ill. 60607

Pompeii: Stories from an Eruption
"A fearful black cloud was rent by forked and quivering bursts of flame, and parted to reveal great tongues of fire. . . . Darkness fell, not the darkness of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room. You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men. . . . Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness."

These words, which were written by the Pliny the Younger, come from his eyewitness account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. "Pompeii: Stories from an Eruption," an exhibition that is currently on view at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, brings the scientific, human and aesthetic aspects of this dramatic event to life. Much of what we see resonates with 9-11.

Phil Janney, a Field Museum geologist, explains that a volcanic eruption is "like shaking a bottle of pop. . . . The gas pressure builds up inside, and when the top comes off, or the blockage is released, it just explodes, taking the soda -- or the magma -- with it."

Vesuvius had an intensely violent type of eruption that is now called "plinian" after Pliny the Younger, Janney continues. "In a Plinian eruption, the gases tear up through the magma column inside the volcano, driving the debris -- ash, rocks, and solidified lava -- into a vertical column that can rise tens of thousands of feet into the atmosphere." That debris, called tephra, spreads out before it falls, leaving aerosolized sulfur compounds in the atmosphere, which spread around the globe, block radiation from the sun, and can cause measurable cooling of the earth for several years -- as happened with the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo.

For people within several miles of an eruption, the dangers are far greater and more immediate. "The first danger is burial under the tephra -- mostly ashes and pumice," says Janney. "This is what happened downwind from Vesuvius, in Pompeii and a pretty wide area around it." People there took shelter in buildings that ultimately were buried up to their roofs or collapsed under the weight of the accumulating debris. Buried under ten feet of tephra, Pompeii was abandoned and its location forgotten until rediscovery in the 16th century. Excavation and looting followed.

The second danger, even more terrifying than the rain of tephra, is pyroclastic flow. This is what destroyed Herculaneum while preserving it and hundreds of its inhabitants, for history. "Hours after the eruption began, part of the volcano’s cone gave way and an avalanche of very hot material came pouring out, driven both by gravity and volcanic gases," Janney explains. "There was no escaping the flow: it probably ran at more than 60 miles an hour, and it was so hot -- 500 or 600 C -- that just breathing near it would kill you in an instant."

The pyroclastic material hardened over Herculaneum into a dense mass some 50 to 75 feet deep. While this has made excavation very difficult, it also prevented looting and tampering. Eventually, archaeologists used coal-mining techniques to get at the city. They drove a shaft into the ground, then dug outward at the bottom.

"Pompeii: Stories from an Eruption" shows us the world of Rome as we have never known it. We see ordinary Romans at the point of death, preserved in casts made from the hollows left when their bodies disintegrated. Some victims are alone, some huddle with their families, and some, like the surgeon who clutches a box of his instruments to his chest, may be trying to help. Many died as they ran from their houses, holding their valuables in their hands.

The Roman artworks in this show are all familiar types, but in excellent condition, having been buried from light and looters for centuries. The bronze statue of Apollo, with its handsome face and lifelike eyes, is particularly attractive. Apollo’s corneas are stone and his irises are glass paste. We also liked the silver and gold statuette of Mercury, god of commerce and communication, seen with a cloak draped over his shoulders and a sack in his right hand.

The striking marble head of an amazon comes from the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum. This Roman copy of a Greek original was discovered in a recent re-excavation of the famous villa. The exhibition included part of a fresco from Pompeii’s House of the Cryptoporticus that dates from 40 to 30 BC. The work features herms on pedestals supporting the planks of a coffered ceiling, and a frieze of small, framed pictures, in this case Ariadne being carried in a chariot.

A multi-colored mosaic tile floor features a mask meant to resemble the Gorgon, a goddess whose hair was writhing snakes. One glance at the Gorgon turns the viewer to stone -- we could use her now. The mosaic, which dates from the first century before Christ, includes two small landscapes in black and white tile.

"Pompeii: Stories from an Eruption, Oct. 22, 2005-Mar. 26, 2006, at the Field Museum of Natural History, 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Ill. 60605


VICTOR M. CASSIDY writes on art from Chicago.