The exhibit Obsession at Bridgeport Art Gallery (opening reception January 16, 2015) will present work by ten artists who share a practice of creating compulsive and detailed surfaces in their work. Although some works are abstract and others representational, all are united in a fascination with repetition of marks and materials as a kind of meditative process. In the words of guest curator Susan Sensemann: “The imagery is a reflection of the impact of the artists’ commitments to making works that require strict devotion to the layering of complicated component parts.” In addition to Sensemann, artists include: Barbara Blades, Jerry Bleem, Carolynn Desch, Bonnie Klehr, Corey Postiglione, Tricia Rumbolz, Fern Shaffer, Kathie Shaw and Leslie Wolfe.
The idea of obsessive attention to repeated marks and materials brings to mind the larger issue of why people create artistic objects in the first place. It is a prominent characteristic in art and craft traditions found around the world, and I think most artists at least start out with this very basic love of manipulating materials. There is a meditative often mesmerizing aspect to creating something by hand in a time-consuming and repetitive way. Delight in hand-work is a prominent aspect of children’s art, and it has been shown to have therapeutic value when working with people with disabilities or the elderly. Humans just seem to love creating with their hands. This exhibition will beautifully demonstrate how a fundamental and ancient practice of hand-work can be translated into fascinating and inventive expressions of contemporary art.
Obsession in many respects represents an opposite approach to that of the exhibition Road Map by Dennis Kowalski, currently on display at BAC (until December 31). In addition to several 3-D works and installations, Kowalski presents a large collection of collages comprised of photographic imagery combined with drawing, arranged to form larger shapes on paper. There is an additional group of 20 small photos taken in Chicago, New York, Melbourne and Ottawa. All of the works are identified in relation to a specific location.
Kowalski’s retrospective demonstrates a conceptual approach in which the artist appears to be more interested in his own ideas than in the materials he is manipulating. His three-dimensional pieces and installations explore a wider theme – the contrast of cultures that we have been made increasingly aware of as a result of American military involvement in the Middle East. The largest installation in the show (“Cradle of Civilization”) is a group of small plaster structures surrounded by shards of broken tiles representing a desert landscape. Embedded in each rough structure is a bright steel ball-bearing, seemingly evoking the incursion of Western technological devices such as antennae into a very different culture in the desert.
The Chicago Tribune’s former art critic Alan Artner described Kowalski as “one of the few real mavericks” in Chicago art. Kowalski influenced many younger artists during his 30-year tenure as professor of sculpture at UIC, yet his work is at times difficult and requires some effort on the part of the viewer to appreciate. He says of his recent exploration of the impact that humans have had on their environment: “It is more difficult to maintain a civilization than it is to create one. We appear to lose interest.”
These two exhibits can be seen to represent a pair of extremes in art practice – one approach emphasizes skillful manipulation of materials, while the other emphasizes art as idea. The latter notion has been promoted at institutions of higher education, which for decades have been primary patrons of fine artists, by offering them teaching positions. The question for me is – what does it mean for an art professor to “teach” students abstract and conceptual ideas, especially ideas that fall within the purview of academically rigorous fields of study and research such as sociology, philosophy and political science? Both exhibitions raise interesting questions about the increasingly broad definition of art in our day.