On Chicago Abstraction: A Series

Jim Nutt, Miss T. Garmint (she pants a lot), 1967, Acrylic on Plexiglas; enamel on wood frame, 72 x 48 inches. Private Collection, Chicago. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

For a long time, Chicago art has been strongly identified with an eccentric and often grotesquely or humorously distorted variety of figure painting. And it’s accurate that the city’s most widely celebrated — or loudly praised — historical art is a form of funky figuration typified by the work of the Imagist generation and rooted in Post-WWII readings of Art Brut and Surrealism by artists of the Monster Roster. Much of this work is estimable — witness recent local exhibitions of Jim Nutt and Ray Yoshida, both shows eyeball-poppers in their own ways — but it’s not the whole story of painting in Chicago.  —John Neff, Chicago contributor

Robert Nickle, Untitled, 1979 | Collage, 15 x 16.25 inches. Courtesy Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago.

Chicago also has a long native tradition of formal abstraction that, like Imagism, finds inspiration in the turn of a sharp eye toward overlooked corners of everyday life. Less interested in the raucousness of “low” art than their figurative peers, however, these quietist formalists instead abstract from mundane artifacts that, while not intended as aesthetic objects, nevertheless evince a strange beauty. The precisely crafted wastepaper constructions of Robert Nickle come to mind, as do early tarpaulin works by Chicago-trained Holt Quentel and, exemplary of this tradition, Julia Fish’s ongoing translation of the city’s stray places into abstract paintings of intense and dignified beauty.

Michelle Grabner, Untitled, 2010 | Silver and gesso on panel, 14 3/8 x 14 3/8 inches. CourtesyShane Campbell Gallery, Chicago.

In some ways continuing in this historical vein, for the past 15 years painter Michelle Grabner has based many of her all-over abstractions on designs derived from vernacular fabrics. In fact, in her earliest paintings, Grabner used second-hand knit blankets as stencils, and has consistently found not only compositional but also procedural inspiration in common objects.

Grabner's most recent exhibition, Like a Rare Morel, currently on view at Chicago's Shane Campbell Gallery, brings this practice to a point of exquisite refinement. A series of intimately scaled graphite and metalpoint drawings on black-ground birch panels, each work marries a classic Modernist grid to a schematic suggestion of woven fabric's warp-and-weft. This pairing — often with the addition of the third term "canvas" — is an old trick of "self-reflexive" painting. But it's a device that Grabner adopts less out of a concern to interrogate the material support of painting (the pieces are on wood, not canvas, after all) than an interest in the kinds of play such formal and referential overlappings make possible; games of repetition, variation, and invention.

Michelle Grabner, Untitled, 2010 | Gold and gesso on panel, 14.5 x 15.5 inches. Courtesy Shane Campbell Gallery, Chicago.

Within their severely limited means, Grabner's paintings manage to suggest — with the altering weight of a line or shifting density of a grid's spacing — everything from Ad Reinhart to tablecloths. It's in this finely calibrated play with abstraction and reference that Grabner interpolates a third strain of Chicago art: the contextualist Postmodernism of 1980s Neo-Conceptualists like Mitchell Kane, Tony Tasset, and Gaylen Gerber. In addition to painting, Grabner is a prolific writer, gallerist, and teacher. These activities are part of an expansive, integrated project that folds critical interpretation, promotional enterprises, and institutional obligations into the production of process-based abstract paintings. Paintings that, despite their place in an interdisciplinary program, maintain a richness and suggestiveness as individual works. Finally, it's in this balance — a balance that is also a synthesis of local histories — that Grabner achieves her current status as a role model for younger artists from Chicago who are also interested in abstraction.

John Neff produces works of art, organizes exhibitions, practices critical writing, and teaches in the painting department of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC).

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