I consider it my job to report on art and artists in Southeast Michigan and Northwest Ohio, so I don’t usually cover the art scene in Chicago, though it’s technically in the Rust Belt. Chicago artists get plenty of coverage after all. But I know many artists and art lovers will be going to Chicago this summer from the Detroit area, and I want to alert you to two important shows that are not in the major downtown museums but are easily reached by taking the Red Line to the Fullerton stop. As you get off the train, go downstairs; DePaul Art Museum will be right next door where you will get two amazing art experiences for the price of one (actually, admission is free).
First of all, Barbara Rossi’s amazing show of paintings, entitled Poor Traits, is installed in two upper galleries of the museum, along with her photos in a smaller side gallery. Barbara Rossi belongs to the historically important group the Chicago Imagists, and is one of the most talented of a very talented bunch. These influential artists of the 1960’s and 1970’s put Chicago on the map of contemporary art with their diverse pop-inflected, off-beat figurative art. Other artists from the group that you may recognize are Ed Pasche, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Christina Ramberg, Roger Brown, Karl Wirsum and H.C. Westerman.
Of the Imagists, Rossi is the most elusive still-living member of the group. I have very seldom seen even one of her paintings on display so I’ve had to enjoy them mostly in reproduction. However, the New Museum in New York came to the rescue last fall and put together this terrific exhibit of Rossi’s works from the late 1970’s, which has now come to Chicago. The organizing principle of Poor Traits is of course, portraits (the pun very much intended in the Chicago Imagist manner). Each painting and small drawing consists of a single figure, abstract but recognizable as human. They are icons of a sort, mysterious and quirky. Her palette of colors is most closely related to the grayed down taupes, beiges and grays of Christina Ramberg’s paintings, but with added powdery greens and blues that recall shades of house paint, punctuated with dark red and green outlines. Each figure is painted in flat colors on a panel, then it is overlaid with plexi-glass upon which she meticulously paints tiny pinhead sized dots . The effect is hypnotic, the dots seeming to float over the figure in a kind of 3-d halo effect. Her work is unlike that of any other artist I’ve ever seen and it’s impossible to fully appreciate in reproduction, so this is an opportunity not to be missed.
As an added bonus, the museum is handing out a free large poster with a Rossi painting in 1:1 scale. Mine is pinned up on the wall of my studio right now.
As if that weren’t enough, the museum also has on view Tony Fitzpatrick: The Secret Birds. This show of drawings, collage/paintings and prints by one of Chicago’s most popular contemporary artists is both visually and emotionally appealing. A multi-talented writer, draftsman, painter, collagist, poet, playwright and actor, the artist employs drawing, painting, found pop cultural imagery, and snippets of his own poetry to get to you on all possible levels. He has even helpfully installed a mock studio in a small back gallery to display the materials he uses for collage, his literary sources and copies of books he has written/illustrated.
Fitzpatrick uses the language of outsider art in his work, but I can’t say that I think he is an outsider artist. Rather, he applies the methods and preoccupations of self-taught artists in an informed and knowing way. His choice of collage materials is resolutely low-brow, pulled from vintage matchbooks, cigar bands, retro 40’s pin-ups, crossword puzzles, comic books.The central image in most of the paintings is a bird, which in this context is a stand-in for the soul. Often this soul is that of one of Fitzpatrick’s departed heroes such as the writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez or legendary jazz musician Otis Clay. Death, time and memory are the dominant themes of these cheerful but macabre artworks.
Both Poor Traits and Tony Fitzpatrick:The Secret Birds are on view until August 21, 2016. For more information on the museum’s hours and location go here