Plants and vases warm gal­leries

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - A+E - Lori Wax­man Lori Wax­man is a free­lance critic. [email protected]­bune.com / Twit­ter @chitribent

No telling if the fresh snow blan­ket­ing the city as I fin­ish this re­view will still be around by the time it’s pub­lished. Re­gard­less, the plants un­der­neath won’t be back for half a year or more. And yet, the gal­leries of West Town are in full bloom.

That’s true metaphor­i­cally of the bur­geon­ing gallery dis­trict, which still feels newish and seems to wel­come a freshly de­camped ten­ant or two each season, most re­cently Monique Me­loche on North Paulina and a few months prior, vet­eran dealer Rhona Hoff­man on Chicago Av­enue.

But it’s also lit­er­ally true. Nearly ev­ery show I saw in West Town a few weeks ago was lush with burst­ing pale pink pe­onies, deep indigo hy­acinths and spi­dery plant shoots. I don’t for a minute be­lieve that any of the in­volved artists or their gal­lerists had some sort of last-gasp-of-sum­mer no­tion in mind — each and ev­ery one of them is far too so­phis­ti­cated to re­sort to a theme wor­thy of Hall­mark — though it’s worth point­ing out that this nev­er­the­less oc­curs. The re­lief of walk­ing from the cold gray out­doors into a warm white space cov­ered in col­or­ful bursts of nat­u­ral life is hard to deny.

First stop: the vases, be­cause what’s the point of hav­ing cut flow­ers if you’ve nowhere to put them? At PLHK, a diminu­tive gallery that con­sis­tently shows art­works of an out­sized verve, the Dan­ish artist Marie Her­wald Her­mann of­fers a se­ries of three­d­i­men­sional still lifes. Nearly ev­ery­thing in “Bit by Bit Above the Edge of Things” is ce­ramic: the glazed stoneware shelves, the per­fectly com­pact porce­lain ves­sels ar­ranged on them just so, the lumpy ropes of clay nailed to the wall in this or that ges­ture. Col­ors come in im­pos­si­bly sub­tle shades of tongue and cloud, sun­flower and teal. Some are glossy and some are not, some are tex­tured and some are smooth: not­ing the dif­fer­ences feels pleas­antly ped­a­gogic.

What might go in Her­mann’s ves­sels, not­with­stand­ing the fact that de­spite be­ing empty they lack for noth­ing? Per­haps Iris Bern­blum’s black wa­ter­col­ors of palm and suc­cu­lent and other shoots, cur­rently on dis­play in “No To­mor­row,” a two-per­son show with Nelly Agassi at As­pect/Ra­tio. Bern­blum’s sparse yet pal­pa­ble stud­ies — of plants but also a cat lick­ing his tes­ti­cles, dogs sniff­ing each other, and a pair of birds ti­tled “Two Cocks” — make up for what they lack in color with what they gain in tonal washes. And sopho­moric hu­mor, too of­ten as­sumed the purview of men only. But mostly th­ese paint­ings and an ac­com­pa­ny­ing night­time-in-the-for­est-with­flash­lights video are bit­ter­sweet, with plants named for friends who’ve left, in­clud­ing the artist Sabina Ott, who died this past sum­mer, and with a sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity for the wild things we try to tame. Best to pot them in loamy soil, wa­ter of­ten and hope for good luck.

No mat­ter how well cared for, though, flow­ers will even­tu­ally wilt, shed their petals and die. It’s a qual­ity that has long earned them a cen­tral place in the still life, a genre es­tab­lished by the French Academy in the 17th cen­tury and ranked far less im­por­tant than his­tory paint­ing and por­trai­ture be­cause it didn’t de­pict hu­mans. And yet it’s all about us: we’re the ones who care that ma­te­rial plea­sures are fleet­ing, that life it­self is brief. Still life is the genre of death.

Ebony G. Pat­ter­son, in “…for those who bear/ bare wit­ness…” at Monique Me­loche, pushes that theme to its brink in a show that might be de­scribed as van­i­tas bling. The Ja­maican artist leaves no sur­face un­dec­o­rated: walls are pa­pered in a re­peat­ing pat­tern of wilted bou­quets, pur­ple but­ter­flies clus­ter be­fore the end of their brief life­spans, ten enor­mous cut-out ta­pes­tries pile se­quin ap­pliqués, mardi gras beads, printed fab­rics, glit­ter, be­jew­eled but­tons and broches, satin tas­sels and more atop al­ready densely wo­ven flo­ral pat­terns. Can death be warded off with enough shine? Cer­tainly plenty have tried. But it didn’t work then and it won’t work now: not to be missed amid the riot of or­na­men­ta­tion are limb­less and head­less colo­nial fig­ures, a smat­ter­ing of bod­i­less arms, and an ac­tual fu­neral wreath.

Too cruel, and too lack­ing in the cycli­cal na­ture of flora, to end with death: re­verse course, in­stead, to Jes­sica La­batte’s “Almanac for Shade Gar­den­ers” at Western Ex­hi­bi­tions. La­batte has been mar­shalling her 4 x 5 film cam­era to make ra­di­ant ex­per­i­men­tal pho­to­graphs for the past decade, but here she tries out some­thing else en­tirely, both im­mensely sat­is­fy­ing to con­tem­plate and cu­ri­ously brave to have done: rav­ish­ing flo­ral still lifes com­posed with cut­tings from the gar­den that sur­rounds her home stu­dio.

Hung sa­lon-style and rang­ing from petite to gi­gan­tic — a shriv­eled pair of yel­low-or­ange daf­fodils are printed life­size, a trio of pur­ple irises has a bloom as large as my head and buds big as my hand — walk­ing through the gallery feels not un­like wan­der­ing through a hot­house, al­beit one in which all plants flour­ish si­mul­ta­ne­ously. La­batte isn’t mak­ing na­ture pho­tos, how­ever, she’s com­pos­ing pre­cise and loaded com­po­si­tions, ripe with for­mal, erotic and sym­bolic play. Strips of neon duct tape ge­o­metri­cize the hot col­ors of a rosy hy­acinth and a branch of for­sythia. A glass globe re­flects the white pho­tog­ra­phy um­brella that is part of the artist’s stu­dio setup. A light pink pin sticks a straw­berry.

Not­ing the crunched-up pipe cleaner and wooden toy toast in “99 Cent” — named for the price sticker still stuck on the cheap vase from which spring those se­duc­tive irises — I won­dered if she had a child. Iden­ti­fy­ing the branch of black rasp­ber­ries, some still un­ripe and red, I thought per­haps she lived out­side the city. In­deed, in 2015 La­batte and her hus­band Eric May moved from the loft above Roots & Cul­ture, the No­ble Square non-profit gallery he founded, to the vil­lage of Win­field. Their son is now two and a half. The traces of th­ese life-chang­ing and life-struc­tur­ing re­la­tion­ships fig­ure in here and there, as do the bits and pieces of the rest of daily life: ear buds, a painted rock, a torn quilt, a rot­ted bird­house, a stained pa­per towel. Im­pres­sively, no sin­gle ele­ment re­peats — not a flower or a vase or a tchotchke — only the scratched stu­dio ta­ble on which th­ese items are some­times ar­ranged. We go on and we re­main.

“Marie Her­wald Her­mann: Bit by Bit Above the Edge of Things” runs through De­cem­ber 22 at PLHK, 1709 W. Chicago Ave., no phone, paris­lon­don­hongkong.com; “Iris Bern­blum & Nelly Agassi: No To­mor­row” runs through De­cem­ber 8 at As­pect/Ra­tio, 864 N. Ash­land Ave., 773-206-7354, as­pec­tra­tio­pro­ject.com; “Ebony G. Pat­ter­son: …for those who bear/bare wit­ness…” runs through De­cem­ber 22 at Monique Me­loche, 451 N. Paulina St., 312-243-2129, moniqueme­loche.com; “Jes­sica La­batte: Shade Gar­den” runs through De­cem­ber 22 at Western Ex­hi­bi­tions, 1709 W. Chicago Ave., 312-480-8390, west­ernex­hi­bi­tions.com.

IRIS BERN­BLUM

“Sabina 2,” by Iris Bern­blum

JES­SICA LA­BATTE

“99 Cent,” by Jes­sica La­batte

ARON GENT

“Bit By Bit,” by Marie Her­wald

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