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Prairie Smoke
by Victor M. Cassidy
Elmhurst is one of Chicago’s oldest and most attractive suburbs, with mature trees, modest housing and a downtown of locally owned businesses. Over the past several years, the Elmhurst Art Museum has become one of the best places to see contemporary art in the Chicago area. This month, with standout shows by Rhonda Gates, Peter Stanfield and Rebecca Shore, the museum is on a roll. Congratulations all around!

Rhonda Gates: Weather Systems
Rhonda Gates is a painter of place, whose work embodies the steel and glass grid patterns of Chicago architecture, and the forms and colors of the Midwestern landscape. Her paintings show the sky at the end of the day when soft horizontal bands of color melt into each other. We see contrasts -- city vs. nature, water vs. sky, calm vs. chaos -- but few details, suggesting that landscape is this artist’s point of departure for explorations of color and the possibilities of paint.

Gates, who paints on panels, begins by drawing a grid in graphite that stabilizes, strengthens and animates her image. Some grids are regular, but most "expand, contract, and isolate areas, then break through to others, to create a sense of atmospheric forces at work," the artist states. Made of wide rectangles that seem stacked up, the grids emphasize nature’s overwhelming hugeness.

Gates next underpaints with thin washes of bright color that "suggest changing aspects of the day -- light, weather, mood -- which might have occurred immediately before or after the scene depicted," she states. This color peeps out here and there, but mostly its effect is subliminal. The final step is textured overpainting, done with a wide brush and largely inside the grid lines. Each rectangle within the overall grid connects to its neighbors, but maintains an individual identity. The surface of the painting is at once transparent, active, and flexible in three dimensions -- just like water and sky.

Blue Sky (2004) shows the sky over what could be a farm field. The very low horizon gives this painting stability and light hangs in the air, much as it does late in an Illinois summer afternoon. We see sky and vegetation colors in this painting, but no earth colors, for it really is a skyscape. This artist could only achieve her effects with paint -- she is a born painter.

Cold Water III (2005) shows Lake Michigan as viewed from Chicago. From an unnaturally low horizon (are we airborne?), we see an exaggerated expanse of lake, breakwaters on either side, the water’s surface near the top, and, above it, a thin strip of pale sky. The sun is setting in the west behind the viewer and its reflected light makes the water metallic. The grid is irregular in Cold Water III, suggesting temperature gradients and movement in the water and atmosphere.

Dust Bowl (2005) and Waiting for Rain (2005) are experiments that could point the way toward new work. In Dust Bowl, we see schematic tree-like forms at the bottom, suggesting woods, and two pale rectangles that stabilize the image. This part of the painting is ordered with a grid, but the sky is grid-free, painted in a dirty blue with wide, nervous brush strokes that suggest dust swirling in the air. Waiting for Rain is an agricultural landscape with a vertical bar at near-center and a thin strip of sky at the top. Inside the rectangles that comprise the grid, we see circles. Waiting for Rain, says the artist, was inspired by a flight over Kansas with views of irrigation circles.

We never see people in these contemplative paintings or more than a hint of human presence. The weather systems that give life to the sky and water lie beyond this artist’s control. All she can do is to wonder where she fits into the scheme of things.

Peter Stanfield: Myself, Among Other Things
If we imagine Rhonda Gates seated outdoors by Lake Michigan or perched on a country hilltop, we envision Peter Stanfield fussing over his work in a cramped cellar. Stanfield fashions wall-hung constructions from small aluminum bars and rods, transparent acrylic, fluorescent lights, guy wires, hardware, tiny electric switches and switch plates and glass vials in different sizes with colored silica gel inside.

This very formal work consists of rectangular boxes, which Stanfield assembles in different arrangements, often on long axes. Each constituent box contains a text or lighted vials behind an acrylic window like a museum exhibit. On some pieces, such as Second Steam (2005), Stanfield provides small magnifying glasses held on handles and positioned to allow the viewer to examine the interior. Humorously overbuilt, these sculptures have mitered and reinforced corners, tiny ventilation louvers and enough rivets and screws to hold them together for all time.

As he works on a piece, Stanfield begins to write an accompanying personal or fictional narrative, which he types and places inside one of the boxes. As a rule, these texts have no discernible connection to the sculpture. Second Moon in a Cup (2004), for example, is a wide, horizontal piece with nine rectangular boxes arranged side by side. From left to right, there is one box for text, one with an electric switch, four that contain parts of wooden branches behind dark green glass and three that contain green-colored vials. Lit from behind, this lovely, very green piece might somehow relate to nature, but here is Stanfield’s text:

Sitting in a café, staring into his coffee, he catches the reflection of what he takes to be the moon, which in fact is a street lamp. The light is obscured as it passes through the window and bounces off his slightly swaying coffee. Observing life indirectly can be so much more interesting than looking at it unobscured, like misunderstanding a conversation, hearing something fantastic in it, or thinking he saw someone he recognized ducking into a building where she shouldn’t be.

The artist insists his sculptures and texts are related -- and he certainly has a right to his opinion! But we do not perceive any relationship and this really does not matter. Elegant and beautifully made, these sculptures embody a fresh vision and the artist, who amuses us with his fussiness but also knows when to stop.

Stanfield’s work has changed slowly. Newer pieces like Observation (2005) have pairs of wing-like aluminum shapes behind the boxes that suggest open books, aircraft or even butterflies. According to the artist, this change "opens up the sculptures," allowing him to "explore non-box forms." Almost "like having a canvas," greater width gives him "more open space to explore," and brings "a sense of expansion and contraction" into his work, he says. Also, in Observation, the artist replaces some of the aluminum with transparent acrylic, which allows light to pour out in perpendicular planes beneath the wing-like structures. This innovation works well, but Stanfield reserves judgment, stating that he hasn’t solved all the problems yet.

Rebecca Shore: Geometric Play
Rebecca Shore makes egg tempera paintings. This ancient technique brings art history with it, she says, particularly "the intimate and intense religious paintings of 15th-century Siena." Shore’s images comprise circles, ellipses, hexagons, arcs and diamonds in grids. Egg tempera gives her a "beautiful surface," she states, "quick drying time and potential for layering of translucent colors, and incising and scraping." Some of Shore’s patterns suggest weaving and recall her years as a textile artist.

Because they are so flat, Shore’s pattern paintings could become dull, but her skillful layering allows subtle blushes of color to come through from behind and animate the surface. There is a surprising amount of movement in these paintings, but it cannot be absorbed in a glance. Both #23 (2003) and #04 (2004) change as the viewer walks by. This work rewards thought and effort on the viewer’s part.

Shore works on 30 x 24 in. and 24 x 18 in. panels. Her scale is just right. Expansion would add nothing and shrinking the paintings might make them precious. #25 (2003) is particularly successful at its scale with hexagon patterns floating over a multicolored, striped background. This artist works well with shallow spaces.

Shore’s show includes gouache works on paper. Figurative and more relaxed than the paintings, the gouaches depict plants and plant parts. Shore likes doing them. They’re easier and quicker than egg tempera, a nice way to recharge her batteries, she says.

Mies House Becomes Museum
The 860-880 Lake Shore Drive Apartment building (1952) is one of Mies van der Rohe’s most famous Chicago designs. As he was working on the Lake Shore Drive building, Mies decided to replicate a single floor as a prototype for a prefabricated house. Mies designed this building for Robert McCormick, a real estate developer. The McCormick House (1951-52) uses its vertical window-framing members (mullions) for structural support. There was talk at the time of adapting the McCormick design for low cost housing in another Chicago suburb, but the project never got off the ground.

During the early '90s, the McCormick House -- one of only three Mies-designed private homes in the United States -- was threatened with demolition. Instead, it was moved to a nearby park and the Elmhurst Art Museum was designed to incorporate it. As things stand now, the rescued McCormick House has become administrative offices for the museum and a small auditorium. There are plans to restore it, but nothing noticeable has happened in 12 years.

Attached to the remains of the McCormick House is the main art museum with three large spaces for professional exhibitions, a spacious center with big windows for meetings and receptions, community galleries and classrooms and the inevitable shop. The art exhibition galleries were originally box-like rooms with high, white walls, which made them good for large-scale work, but unaccommodating to more contemplative art. The museum recently redesigned these spaces, adding internal walls that humanize them.

This project is a grand success and we hope that the Elmhurst Art Museum will follow soon with a restoration of the McCormick House.

VICTOR M. CASSIDY writes on art from Chicago