Art Review Archives:
Artists of Rogers Park: Diana Berek, Patricia Galinski, Peter Jones, Ken Klopeck. Pat Olsen, Luis Vargas, David Westling
Excaliber, one of Chicago's popular night clubs, hosts numerous art showings, allowing artists' work exposure to a wider and affluent public. The showings are curated by Artists' Representative Marty Lazer and cover several of Excalibur's rooms, as well as three flights of balconies. Each of the exhibition areas carries a theme name, Cabaret, Billiard Room, Club X, Aura, Living Room and of course, Lobby.
"Artists of Rogers Park" represents a juried selection of members from that Chicago arts organization, which itself embraces a large and varied membership. The seven ARP members in the Excalibur showing offer some excellent work.
Pat Olson is represented by eight oil paintings on linen which are hung in the Cabaret Room. Her oils are realist and figurative, very often with a strong narrative approach, but they display precisely the quality of content which artist Ben Shahn had so admired in the paintings of Thomas Eakins. Pat Olson's technique is certainly freer and looser in her brushstrokes than Eakin's, and her palette is lighter, but her paintings reveal a kindred honesty, personal simplicity, and most of all, a very humane and humanist interest in the lives and locales of people she meets. Her paintings are communal, candid and given to ordinary lives and particular instants. This is not surprising for an artist who declares her advocacy for "[Clarence] Darrow, [Eugene] Debs and [Charles] Darwin," and who, in a February 25, 1997 article, Charles Leroux of The Chicago Tribune quoted as declaring: "I'd always loved the celebration of the working person in the public art of the WPA [Works Progress Administration] after the Great Depression." Olson, however, is not so doctrinaire as the "Ashcan" school or the "proletarian" artists of past decades.
An exemplary oil painting is "Working on the Sag-Cal" (72"x48"), inspired by Olson's own visit to the site. Olson has stated that in many cases, she hears of opportunities from those who know her work and actively follows up with a visit. This particular work, well balanced in composition, is representative of the artist's own sympathies and portrays three construction workers who emblemize the specific tasks'involved in the digging. "Loyola Dredgers" (1997: 72"x48"), in a similar vein, documents the artist's visit to that worksite. One of the engaging aspects of Pat Olson's art is that, because of her personal interest and stamina, she often captures, and gives a personal interpretation of activities and locales which few painters today choose as subject matter. "Down the Drain" (1997: 60"x48"), or (in this showing) "Ace in the Hole," as with the two paintings already mentioned, shows a work scene familiar to all urbanites, but one which is often only a casual observation. As in much of Olson's "laborscapes," there is a fine linkage of foreground -- laborers with specific tools and tasks, and background -- often a larger icon which emblemizes the event and unifies the image. In a certain sense, these paintings constitute secular icons. Much like their ecclesiastical analogs, they record the attributes, tools or emblems of their personages; and add a general iconograph for thematic unity. Whereas icons usually display the instruments of martyrdom or distinction -- crowns, nails, doves or books, Pat Olson highlights beams, nails, tapes or hardhats. And rather than mounts, dens and lairs, or monasteries, Olson focuses on cement plants, barges or heavy vehicles. This correspondence probably arises out of the urge to exemplify an advocacy or admiration of subject, rather than any conscious patterning on the part of the artist. It is a compositional approach often associated with muralism.
If Pat Olson's approach is much akin to an Eakins or even Shahn's, the settings and content of her work resonate to the focus advanced by Raphael Soyer. He also saw an art genre that was...
But in Pat Olson's art, "local" need not refer to "immediate." Rather, local is wherever the artist happens to be. This current exhibition at Excalibur presents some of Pat Olson's Italian oils: the result of the past year's visit to Venice, Italy. That trip produced an excellent array of Olson paintings. Several are now in the "Artists of Rogers Park" exhibition at Excalibur. Pat Olson stated at a showing, "Blue-Collar Italy," held at Old Town Triangle Gallery in 1998: "Some artists go to Venice and paint the gondoliers, I painted the beer boat drivers." The Excalibur showing includes Olson's "Delivery -- Venice Style," or, as titled in the showing, "Beer Boat Driver." This is an excellent canvas. It is, as the artist's own interest would dictate, unexpected and spontaneous... and very gratifying. This oil on canvas, 66"x48", presents, among all the historic architecture and canal of Venice, the ever current reality of demand and labor to meet those demands. Nineteen centuries of art, and Venice demands beer; some supply that demand; and Pat Olson records a particular, and universal "slice of life," That the "local" can be "universal" is attested by the Olson oil painting, "Crab Sellers of Venice" (1998: 48"x54"). To the uninitiated, this oil painting might well seem at place at Chicago's Printers Row Book Fair, or at the Allentown Art Festival, Buffalo, N.Y.. But it is Venice, Italy, and Pat Olsen has captured both how much our current age has been homogenized and to what degree people remain people, no matter what the country or year. But for the details of clothing, Olson's painting might well be of a renaissance street fair. And her art is important. In an age which dogmatically insists that all art be "uniformly avaunt-garde," she steadfastly pursues a form of expression which continually draws the viewer into a universal truth: "someone is always working."
In "Venice Cooks" (1998: 66"x50"), someone is indeed working. It might well be a scene of cooks at a Chicago diner. Pat Olson's art is an art to which John Doe relates, and, if the academic and critical circles do not always applaud it, it will, like the writings of Thackery, endure without elites. It endures because it touches upon the most fundamental realities of the human condition: labor, money, survival... and human satisfaction and fulfillment. Pat Olson, much like Chicago's Studs Turkel in writing, documents the human condition through its particular circumstances and locales. This Chicago artist, brings into being, effectively, unpretensiosly and with immediate effect, what so many theoreticians, Social Realists and professional ideologues have for so long only postulated -- an art for real (and, yes, ordinary) people. This is not a bad thing for contemporary art. It is merely exceptional and difficult. But it lasts. After all, it was the American artist, Thomas Eakins, who said: "The working people from their close contact with physical things are apt to be more accute critics of the structural qualities of pictures than the dilettanti themselves, and might justly resent patronage." (Thomas Eakins in The Life and Work of Thomas Eakins, Gordon Hendricks: Viking: 1975).
David Westling's art is hung in the Billiard Room of Excalibur, and he is represented by seventeen oil paintings. Westling is a Chicago artist whose work suggests the fine art of Alex Katz, and yet displays an even stronger graphic quality. Westlings art is direct, bright and forceful. In his artist's statement, Westling views "the sheer profusion of approaches" in contemporary painting and asserts that "since every medium is equally suspect, equally capable of being 'co-opted' by the forces which tend to neutralize any revolutionary potential, the focus devolves onto the particulars of content." He claims to reject the metaphysics inherent in religion and art's links to it, rejecting pursuit of "the Ideal" in favor of exploring "the meaning of experience, experience in life." He maintains this requires: "... rejection... of the pursuit of a recognizable style, of an art education which tends to reinforce the rules..." and "the quest for formal perfection." Westling concludes that while "Beauty exists in the intention of the artist and not in the artwork," nonetheless the artist asserts "somehow the self still manages to inhere in it, and I make no effort to eliminate what traces of it remain."
The oils on exhibition at Excalibur display a range from compositions in which bright monochrome contours build the images, evoking cut-paper collage in effect; and works which more closely approach poster and print conventions. In these latter, lettering and smaller element groupings balance against larger grounds and contours. In such canvases, Westling's whimsy and surrealist components bear a kinship to artists such as Jim Nutt of Chicago's "Hairy Who." This is a genre which finds roots in Magritte and extends to practicing artists such as Kenny Scharf, whose space-age animation-like paintings often reference TV cartoons and, unlike Westling, build into a Baroque entanglement of image. Westling favors a sparse and visually immediate image.
"A Woman Who Loved Herself" (1991:24"x18") is a representative canvas: there is an almost collage-like sense of contour, strong pure color and abbreviative motif. This recourse to stark pigment, brevity of contour and reduced, schematic visual element is strongly reminiscent of Alex Katz's better known pieces. Westling may seek to reject style, and formal art training, but pieces like this, and "Late Night Encounter" (1990: 24"x36"), or "Foreboding" (1984: 16"x20") do harken to the paper-cut collage experiments of Matisse earlier, and the monochrome-contour oils of Alex Katz. Westling's pieces are all oil paintings, but even without formal art education, he is correct about the ambient diffusion of approaches in current art. A recognizable style or approach emerges from the artist himself. The fact denies that the intention of the artist takes precedence over the artwork, be it in technique, content or any "Ideal."
"Sometimes They Would Play (infrared version)" (30"x48") is another of Westling's strong, pieces using monochrome color contour: it is striking, almost dizzying; a play in color complements which leave an afterimage. One need only compare it with the cognate, "Sometimes They Would Play" (24"x36") to realize Westling's penchant for visual exploration.
In "Eros and Thanatos" (1988: 30"x22"), the individual elements of the painting are perhaps more evenly distributed than is typical for Westling (the artist has gained much from the advances of poster art), but they exhibit Westling's sense of intellectual whimsy and free play with thematic foci. "Eros and Thanatos" displays both a kinship with Rene Magritte, the "Hairy Who," and even Alan Aldrige (that Yellow Submarine artist of "Beatles" fame.) In "Eros and Thanatos" -- Erotic Love and Death -- the smaller elements are arranged in exact, bilateral symmetry within the confines of the canvas; only the clouds range ad lib., but even these display an unnaturally even distribution. The separation of background into blue skyground with clouds and monochrome green for lower ground unifies and heightens awareness of the focal symmetries. The smaller elements remain an analogical puzzle, without ready explication, but with an eccentric logicality of their own.
A similar rationale holds for "Mr. Kooksie's Dilemma" (1987: 20"x16"). This, of all Westling's Excalibur pieces, shows the strongest kinship with Chicago's "Hairy Who," and particularly with Jim Nutt's work of the early Seventies. The affinities extend even to the use of conversational quips as titles. The same use of stark, brief ground, evenly distributed subsidiary motifs and hard-edge, almost cartoon toy image exemplifies another trend in Westling's exhibited art. "Mr. Kooksie's Dilemma" seems a psychedelic backdrop for a surrealist nursery. It is a delight.
Paintings such as "Man of the Hour" (1998:24"x36") and "Search For America" (1991: 40"x26") reveal an overt homage to poster art and applied graphics. "Man of the Hour" is explicit in meaning and content: "POST=PRE." Westling himself has maintained that: "rebellion against the perceived sacred cows of a previous generation has been made ineffectual by the sheer profusion of approaches...." "Man of the Hour" notes the current reassessing and reshuffling, if not reaffirmation of everywhich direction in art. It may well work as a poster for modern art theorizing. In this, rather than explore Westling's declaration for "experience in life," it strikes out further into "Art About Art."
In the end, Westling's art is bright, stimulating and provokes an immediate response. It is a response within contemporary art better realized than many pieces in such institutions as the Whitney or Museum of Modern Art, but one may doubt that it fulfills the intents of the artist's verbal declarations. Westling's oil paintings at Excalibur confirm the old dictum: "Trust the Art, Not the Artist."
--G. Jurek Polanski