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Devils and Beasts
The Art Center Highland Park
Imps, sprites and deformations, beastliness and cathartic creatures -- these are the fare of Devils and Beasts, an exhibition of paintings, drawings and sculptural assemblages that treads the more shadowy side of human (and demonic) natures in a sprightly, delightful way. Featuring fifty-seven works by twenty-six artists who live or exhibit in Chicago, this is a pleasurable pandemonium of sensation and content. It is a delightful excursion into the darker side of things, and a chance for artists to parade some of their weirder works. During this time when the veil to the otherworld is traditionally thinnest, when creatures from the other side can most easily walk among us, this is surely appropriate.
And as well most appropriate is the level of human content. The temperament of this exhibition is far from the synthesized spookiness of witches and ghouls, the season's inventions of commercialized caricature. In fact, one of the most interesting aspect of this exhibition is the way in which it sidesteps seasonal cliches of witches, zombies and Frankenstein monsters. Devils and Beasts finds it footing in a tradition more closely related to European traditions, one more broadly based on folklore and superstitions, on ancient tales meant to warn and instruct. Like the demons of Isaac Bashevis Singer's short stories, of The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov or C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, the works in Devils and Beasts are most potent in their satirical reflections of all that is perverse and petty in man. The demons here appear in various guises and expressive of a variety of qualities, from the standoffish to the lewd. At times they have horns, spade-tipped tails. And at times the devilishness is an inner quality, an expression of deformation or some brute characteristic of the individual under consideration.
Of the former, those with the horns, they come in many forms; a selection of two serves to illustrate some of the contrasting approaches. The paintings of Pamela Callahan have an ethereal, minimalist quality, strange isolated figures whose direct gazes quiz or confront the spectator. Overcoat (oil on wood), one of three works by Callahan in this exhibition, presents a pale androgynous demon, standing stiff and aloof in its bulky dark coat. The two little pricks of horn on its bald head add enticing content and sense of narrative to this individual, who seems entirely self-contained within the protective wall of the coat. It gives nothing except the suspicious regard of its gaze, as if a devil might be entirely standoffish or reserved. There's nothing reserved, on the other hand, about Eleanor Spiess-Ferris's Chasing Spring (gouache), where the artist's predilection for lavish, enigmatic visions presents an image of coyness and lewd fertility. A tattoed Primavera, large pear-hipped female in a desolate landscape of brown skies, marsh and black trees, tips her head at the approach of a trio of devils. They crowd in an unseemly troupe on the right, tongues lolling, members at the ready to ravish the feminine presence. And yet Primavera -- Spring -- does not seem apprehensive at all, a relaxed and almost anticipatory quality giving the scene the import of a ritual as well as a commentary on the appeals of lustfulness. Two works by Spiess-Ferris are featured, the other also a devilish scene.
But much devilishness is merely the baser aspects of human nature coming to the fore, spurring every behavior from petty to violent. Rollicking earthiness is used to different effect in Ultimate Cock Fighting (woodcut) by Tom Huck. Huck is known for his large-format woodcuts and satirical subject matter. Ultimate Cock Fighting is an impressive 31 x 51 inches, an unheard-of size for a woodcut, and every inch packed with action, texture and taut control of the image. The print satirizes the modern love affair with melee, mischief and 'extreme' sports, not to mention busty babes, as the participants, a pair of good ol' boys stripped naked to the waist and mounted on ostriches, engage in a no-holds-barred (and apparently no-weapons-barred) joust. The artist works in sheets of birch plywood; his inking and crispness of print, particularly the deep passages in black, are impeccable. Nearby, Hedge Apple Warfare (linocut), also by Huck, offers a similar love of rumpus, the boys' apple-orchard 'war' erupting into a full-scale conflict complete with Prussian spiked helmets, swords, spears, guns, and flamethrowers at full bore.
On the other end of the human spectrum are those individuals who, spookily, just can't let go of a grudge. As artist John Walté notes in his statement, such charcaters were the impetus for the artist's series Angry Little Men, select images of which are included here. Walté's medium is computer-generated imagery, and with the freedom to completely create worlds and characters from scratch, the artist has here explored a pair of personalities one would rather not encounter -- not for any supernatural reason, but for the even more disturbing factor of common human disgruntlement. Angry Little Man 4 - Helpful depicts someone who might very well be the worst neighbor ever. Slick gray-green skin and a flabby roll of paunch give him the look of an unattractive ogre gone to seed, and with one hand lifted to the branch of a tree at his side, the other clutching a crowbar, the sneer on his lip can only mean trouble. Angry Little Man 2 - Secret Thoughts is a tight portrait focus on an adolescent punk, lit match in one hand, against a background that is clearly the interior some nice, dry, bare -- and eminently flammable -- wooden construction. Knowing these are computer-assemblage, part of the delight is studying the various characteristics Walté has called on to create the subtleties of psychological portraiture. The eyes, the expressions, stance all show a close observation of the innumerable individual qualities which in summation give the idea of a character ruminating on misadventure.
What constitutes deformation -- what engages the eye as handsome or appealing? Michael Barnes's two lithographs (it is a pleasure to see several good printmakers represented in this exhibition) are entitled Profile I and Profile V. In Profile I, despite the title and the actual presence of the human or humanoid head as seen from the side, the emphases is not so much the profile itself as the knobbed excrescences jutting in all directions from the creature's cranium. Profile V is another fantastical portrait. The creature appears to be richly dressed; its face is masked, a covering of stretched fiber or hide which conceals what appears to be a pointed proboscis, and from which juts a pair of snorkel-like tubes. But why? Is it an alien ugliness, as suggested by the knobbed naked head? Or ceremony, as implied by the richly-pattered damask the creature wears as a garment? Along with portraying two curious characters these weird visions provoke thoughts on the nature of beauty and ugliness, adornment and vanity.
The 'beasts' of Devils and Beasts are most often half-human, half-kindled into animal. Both folktales and fairy tales reference such halfway transformations, which may be alternately commentary, penance, or release. Karena A. Karras's work in oil tends toward expressions of mystical, symbolic content. In The Bath (oil on board) Karras depicts a swan-woman, rampant in a tall chimney-like vessel which is actually an alchemical bath. Her long, curving neck and pale torso reflect an aching desire for beauty; but which way, into which creature, woman or bird, is the transformation occurring? A white dog and a full moon add to the impression of mystery and metamorphosis. The dour bird-faced woman of a nearby painting, Ezgadi (oil on board), also by Karras, suggests the unhappy result of such transformation.
The furry, bony, tentacled and exotic chimerae of Emile Ferris's Urbanites, the glaring eyes and sharp white teeth of Diane Thodos's Medusa (monoprint etching), and the whimsical weirdness of Heather Accurso's Catholic Schoolgirl Mummy and Friend (graphite and watercolor on paper) all provide further examples of the diverse visions to be seen here. Ferris's Urbanites forms a satirical bestiary of urban characters, or possibly little demons in themselves. Medusa by Thodos is an image of violence and malevolent force, the penetrating eyes and row of fangs forming focal points that define the shrieking face amid an aggressive tangle of pink, brown, green and gray tentacles on a dark ground. The strange faceless pair in Accurso's Catholic Schoolgirl Mummy and Friend (graphite and watercolor on paper) meld qualities of both the cute and the grotesque, the little girl in her school-skirt and her companion who seems to be part bunny rabbit and part rat finding a middle ground that teeters between adorable and loathsome.
If demons, supposed 'personal' forces of human foible, swirl and surround mankind, so as well do impersonal forces. The forces of industry, and the wild forces of nature, combine in Sinking Ship by Bill Frederick, in which the groaning tanker heaves onto its side in the squall. Frederick works in ink on paper, the effect moody, the palette restricted entirely to tonal grays in works that at first glance seem prints or lithographs. That they are done in ink wash reveals a precise and accomplished handling of the medium, in Sinking Ship a triad of three distinct areas: the amorphous texture of sky and clouds, the regularity of the heaving waves, and the crisp delineation of the hard outlines of the ship, diffused at right to create the effect of indistinctness in mist and spray. This is a Great Lakes nightmare, with shades of the Edmund Fitzgerald. A second piece by Frederick, Dog, Man and Departing Boat (ink on paper), contrasts the oblivious figure sitting on the pier with the black dog, whose stare seems to pierce the viewer with unnerving intent. Long lighter 'zips' of lifted ink give the piece the impression of scratches, as on an old filmstrip. Impersonal forces are also evident in Curtis Bartone's Bloom (etching). A still life of potted flowers with egg and scorpion commands the foreground; to the rear in the far distance, the chimneys and bleak contours of a factory surmount an empty field, suggesting the ominous omnipresence of industrialization in the face of the natural world.
Rounding off the exhibition, which incorporates a sprightly variety of media without ever being discursive, are ten free-standing sculptural works by four artists. The roster includes Elizabeth Granton, Indira Johnson, Michael Montenegro and George Suyeoka. Michael Montenegro's Leaning Dancing Woman (mixed media) and Man With Self Portrait (mixed media) present a female and male figure respectively, each crafted from a variety of objects including wood, wire, bits of metal, lumps of earth or clay. These cobbled-together figures, reminiscent of Dadaist contructions, carry connotations of puppets swaying or suspended by unknown forces -- particularly apt at this, the most uncertain time of the year. The artist's work with puppetry carries over well into making these still-standing pieces, in which the gestural quality of the figures combines with their found-object agglomeration to create a certain pathos.
Forget the dark fall season's overworked artifices of ghouls, ghosts and zombies. Devils and Beasts presents a much richer and more entertaining tapestry of the strange, weird and unexpected. It is an exhibition which in the strength and literary content of its offerings shows lively interests, artists engaging in both strong technique, and intriguing themes. It is as well an excellent introduction to a variety of artists worth watching, who live and/or exhibit in Chicago. With fifty-seven works by twenty-six artists, many delights await. Devils and Beasts will only be showing through November 3, 2007. A special trip this weekend is highly encouraged.
Devils and Beasts is curated by Bert Menco. The artists featured are Heather Accurso, Michael Barnes, Curtis Bartone, Gabriella Boros, Alejandro Vazquez Brull, Pamela Callahan, Paula Campbell, Scott Campbell, Emile Ferris, Bill Frederick, Allison Hill, Tom Huck, Karena A. Karras, Lorna Marsh, Sheryl Orlove, Michael Pajon, Jeanine Coupe Ryding, Diana Solis, Eleanor Spiess-Ferris, Diane Thodos and John Walté. Located in downtown Highland Park, The Art Center Highland Park is easily reached, within a short walking distance of Metra and also with ample available parking.
--Katherine R. Lieber
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