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Favorites from Re: Chicago

Last Saturday I was at the opening reception for the DePaul Art Museum, in their new three story, 15,000 square foot building just steps from the Fullerton L stop. The reopening launched in grand style with the exhibition Re: Chicago, a show that attempts to tackle the “Second City” label by asking members of Chicago’s art world – critics, scholars, and collectors alike – to name the Chicago artists (famous or otherwise) that they feel deserve recognition. Despite being a Chicago-area resident my whole life, I know shamefully little about Chicago artists so this exhibit was particularly enlightening to me. There were several names I recognized, such as Karl Wirsum, Christina Ramburg, Nick Cave, Kerry James Marshall, and Dawoud Bey, but there were several more that I didn’t. Re: Chicago has a lot to see, so what follows are just a few of my favorites.

Ivan Albright, Self Potrait, 1934. Photo credit Nicole Nelson; Image credit DePaul Art Museum.

Ivan Albright’s work, which leans towards the grotesque, is not the sort of art that normally thrills me. Yet, I am strangely drawn to his dark, meticulously detailed canvases. Apparently I’m not the only one, because as I was lost in thought staring at his Self Portrait from 1934, an older gentleman approached me and asked if I was familiar with the artist, and I said yes. He replied, “I just love his work, so dark and mysterious, especially that door painting.” The painting he was referring to is none other than That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door) from the Art Institute of Chicago, and it’s one of my favorites, for all the reasons the gentleman mentioned. Art doesn’t have to be bright and colorful to be beautiful.

Angel Otero, Volar. Photo credit Nicole Nelson; Image credit DePaul Art Museum.

An expected but not unwelcome addition to the show is the work of Angel Otero. Though the Puerto Rican artist soon left for New York after graduating from the School of the Art Institute (BFA 2007, MFA 2009), Chicago has been keen to lay its claims on the contemporary art scene’s golden child. It’s a claim with some weight, as Otero is represented by respected gallerist Kavi Gupta here in Chicago. Though this particular piece, Volar is not my favorite of his body of work, it still illustrates Otero’s ability to imbue paint with a physicality that makes it almost leap from the surface of the canvas. His practice of layering oil skins continues to produce compelling results. Otero’s second solo show at Kavi Gupta, The Dangerous Ability to Fascinate Other People will be on display until November 12. It’s a show I have yet to see, but it’s definitely on my “to-do” list.

Manierre Dawson, Study for Differential Complex. Photo credit Nicole Nelson; Image credit DePaul Art Museum.

One artist I had never heard of before is Manierre Dawson, whose Kandinsky-like forms immediately drew me in. I had to google him when I got home, and the more I looked at his art, the more impressed I became. Dawson trained to be a civil engineer, and worked for the Chicago architecture firm Holabird & Roche while pursuing his art on the side. I’m always fascinated by people who practice art though they’ve trained for another vocation – I feel like it can imbue their art with something tangential and exciting that someone who trains to be an artist in the traditional manner might not have access to. You can see the way Dawson’s engineering background shaped the direction of his abstractions – I love the romanticism of picturing this frustrated engineer picking up a brush and pursuing his true passion.

Gertrude Abercrombie, Split Personality. Photo credit Nicole Nelson; Image credit DePaul Art Museum.
My absolute favorite work from the show comes from little-known surrealist painter Gertrude Abercrombie, an artist who I’ve admired since I first saw her in work in the MCA’s Constellations show two years ago. I don’t what exactly it is that draws me to her. Perhaps it’s the mystique of a female artist nearly lost from the pages of art history, or maybe it’s her surrealist imagery complete with sharp-featured figures done in a moody color palette. Her work resonates with me emotionally because with some paintings, especially Split Personality, I feel like I know exactly what she’s trying to express. Who hasn’t felt pulled in two directions at once?

Re: Chicago will be on display until March 4th, 2012.

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