People are turned on by drama, especially when it evokes bohemian values: loneliness, obsession, poverty, lust. Vincent van Gogh is a master painter but he also cut off his ear. This kind of drama is good for the museum business. In fact, it has become so trite that the Art Institute of Chicago, with its new exhibition, "Becoming Edvard Munch: Influence, Anxiety and Myth," Feb. 14-Apr. 26, 2009, pretends to close the door on the hyperbole surrounding one of the art world’s most famous bohemians.
AIC associate curator of prints and drawings Jay A. Clarke, the organizer of this intense survey, contends that the popular notion of a loony and lonely Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was in part a cultivated one. Munch had a tough life plagued with illness, sure, and his best-known masterworks are melodramatic depictions of vampires and screaming aliens. But Munch was also as a savvy self-promoter, according to Clarke, seeking his own kind of "Sensation," once even playing to scandal by charging admission to a show that had previously been censored by the Artist Union of Berlin in 1892.
Munch wrote rather poetic letters about his life, letters that seem custom-made to provide a biographical trail perfect for psychoanalysis. To clarify her case for a sane Munch, the curator has provided simple-to-read labels that tend to reveal the artist’s printmaking process rather than any juicy biographical details.
But what is really great about "Anxiety" is the inclusion of works by Munch’s contemporaries: James Ensor, Paul Gauguin, Claude Monet, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh, the Norwegian painter Eilif Peterssen and others. Close to 150 works give viewers a clear sense of the context of Munch’s achievement, both through his travels across Europe and, more directly, by his admiration for artists like the German Symbolist Max Klinger (1857-1920).
Deconstructing an artist’s myth is a fine pastime, but myths are persevering all the same, and it turns out that Munch was at his best when dealing with claustrophobia, anxiety, solitude, femme fatales and romantic drama. The uncomfortable sexual dynamic of Summer Evening (1889), the ghoulish crowd in Evening on Karl Johan (1892), and the fantastic scene of a topless redhead turning away from a horde of pursuing, disembodied hands (The Hands, 1895) are cases in point.
One of the exhibition’s perfect moments occurs between Munch’s Night in St. Cloud (1893) and Monet’s The Red Kerchief, Portrait of Madame Monet (1873). Both paintings show a view from an interior looking out through a window. In Munch’s shadowy scene, painted in proto-Expressionist tones of aqua and violet, a melancholy man in a top hat sits at the window and stares out at a nightscape. Monet frames his view from an empty room with white curtains on a French door, as a woman in a red cape passes by outside in the sunshine, glancing perhaps at her own reflection in the window. The Monet is festive, the Munch is austere, and his Nordic romanticism could hardly be clearer.
Munch’s depiction of raw emotion in The Sick Child (1896), which is based on the death of his sister, leaves us in awe. Clarke has installed the painting in a dark green room, accompanied by three small prints in color variations focusing on the head of the child, and the tense masterwork looks entirely contemporary. Limned in a maddening storm of brushstrokes, the child is a fading figure with sunken eyes and pale greenish skin, in contrast to the healthy pink of the grieving woman who holds her hand. We don’t see the woman’s face and don’t need to, since we already know the outcome of this scene, but the way Munch places the child, sitting straight up against an abstracted white pillow, gives her the commanding pose of a religious icon.
Davis/Langlois "Rock Opera"
A few blocks from the Art Institute at the Chicago Cultural Center, the Chicago-based collaborative team of Robert Davis and Michael Langlois -- who exhibit paintings apparently made by a single hand -- have dared to put on display a large (7 x 10 ft.) work that flouts three politically incorrect nudes. One is a skinny Asian "lady boy"; another is an African refugee running in fear, and; the third, in the center of the painting, encrusted among phallic Art Deco columns growing like vine, is a sinful stripper biting her upper lip.
Titled Babylon (2008), the painting indulges a now-familiar contemporary excess. We can also find in ita Confederate flag, a gay pride rainbow flag, crashing airplanes, dead whales, masturbating demons, hallucinatory inducing flora and a pig engaging in sex with a goose. The work is one of four paintings in a show titled "House of the Rising Sun," Jan. 16-April 15, 2009.
What’s most striking about the Photo Realist fantasy is how comfortable people feel with it. Not a single red flag has been raised in respect to any of the dozens of school groups that have visited the center. Are the culture wars a tactic of fading efficacy, as curator Greg Knight recently remarked at a gallery talk?
This new equanimity could also signal what might be called a hardening of sensibilities. The mass media now treat geopolitics the same way that the nihilistic fringe does, presenting a glossy amalgam of documentary imagery and cynicism packaged with a healthy dose of terror porn.
Balancing Babylon is Dads (2007), a diptych based on old photographs of the artists’ own fathers, shown at the age the artists are now. Their dads never met; their pairing is nevertheless a point of spiritual origin for Davis Langlois. A third painting, Face of God,channels formalist spiritualism through Op Art to hit the viewer with a blinding sunburst of orange and yellow. "House of the Rising Sun," then, is like a Rock Opera: the four paintings are verses in a mystical narrative about acceptance and forgiveness of the prodigal son.
Currently, an alternate version of Face of God is on display at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburg as part of the group exhibition "The End: Analyzing Art in Troubled Times."
Michelle Grabner "Silverpoints"
Craft and conceptual rigor go hand in hand in Michelle Grabner’s "Silverpoints," Feb. 7-Mar. 14, 2009, at Shane Campbell Gallery. We have grown used to seeing her delicate photographs of homemade rainbows, spider webs and beautifully patterned weaves on paper, but this time Grabner throws us a curve -- the new works are deprived of color and large scale has replaced domestic simplicity. What stays the same are the laboriously worked surfaces, this time done in the ancient silverpoint technique on six large black squares, installed in a tight row on one wall.
Closer inspection reveals hundreds of lines spreading from the center outwards, like a perspective exercise with OCD. Part drawing, part painting, these works aren’t perfect: you can see the pinhole in center from which the silver or sometimes copper lines originate. Scratches in the glossy almost-metallic surface are also visible, along with the embossed logotype of the paper. In addition, the paper edges are rugged. Apparently Grabner doesn’t fear comparisons with Ad Reinhardt or Richard Serra or Mark Grotjahn, and her bravery pays off, giving viewers amazing moments of silence on truly precious surfaces.
Also in the exhibition is a mobile, done in collaboration with artist Brad Killam, that looks good but doesn’t necessarily fit with the silverpoints. Made of flattened iron, steel, wire, wood and galvanized metal, painted to match the tone of the silverpoints, the thing looks like a dream catcher constructed out of torn material left by a tornado. All silverpoints go for $5,000 and the sculptural installation $10,000.
Matt Nichols at Thrones Gallery
The Southern California artist Matt Nichols, in his first show at Thrones Gallery, Feb. 6- Mar. 10, 2009, makes a good impression with Gotcha, a rather odd sculpture including a working bug-zapper, covered with chocolate and hung in a corner. On the wall behind it, from floor to ceiling, are rows of red, yellow and blue stickers that look like dots o a graphic digital equalizer. Gotcha, which is affordably priced at $1,200, is one of many polygraphic works in "Brink," as the show is called. Nichols' experimentation with materials, which is a little bit suggestive of a more demonstrative Richard Tuttle, is enjoyable to watch -- he seems to be having fun.
In Mind Scape (Siberia 2), Nichols obsessively draws the word "Siberia" across a large piece of paper that stretches from ceiling to floor, as if trying to make sense of the place he has never visited. Another work, The Plutonic Bubonic Family, is a delicate take on those Robert Morris hanging felt pieces, except Nichols’ four felt hangings are small and colored pastel blue and yellow. They protrude inches from the wall, and have tiny eyes made with color-coded labels. On the backside of the felts, barely visible but nevertheless designed to catch the viewer’s eye, are drawings of topographical maps symbolizing male and female genitals.
Shadow and Ideology
In The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes claimed that it was up to the reader to give the artwork its substance, to fill in the gaps with patience. For "This Shadow Is a Bit of Ideology" at UIC Gallery 400, Dec. 9-Jan 24, 2009, curators Kelly Chen and Anthony Elms brought together seven artists whose works "harness anxieties -- political, economic, personal -- as productive generators for form." The show specifically grew out of the long reign of George W. Bush and the Republican Party.
One work that illustrates the concept to perfection is Matt Hanner’s Turn Around, a drawing made on one of the space’s large, round columns. Done in light graphite almost invisible to the eye, the phantom image -- the silhouette of a soldier -- reveals itself only if you pay attention. With this pale but daunting drawing, the artist captures in a moment the fuzzy logic of the Bush Doctrine, and also signals with its title a new opportunity to make amends.
Hanner is known for The Build Up, an ongoing mail-art project involving postcards, photographs and Xerox drawings, a mass of material that ranges from sports imagery to found photo negatives. The Build Up is anonymous propaganda, so it’s no surprise to find another invisible piece outside the exhibition hall, a neon sign on the top of the main entrance to the building that reads, "The stars are out." Obviously, this one is not about Hollywood.
Another notable work in the show is L.A. artist Shana Lukter’s series of tall mirrors etched with a series of classical columns. Lukter takes on the history of western civilization and commands her viewers to participate, once their reflection becomes part of the piece. That is when they have to accept responsibility for their institutions. Here the shadow is a bit of collective guilt, and bit of doubt and a bit of judgment.
PEDRO VÉLEZ is an artist and critic living in Chicago