The seven emerging and mid-career artists featured in The Hughes Gallery’s “Now Chicago!” exhibition – Isak Applin, Carl Baratta, Gabrielle Garland, David Leggett, Carmen Price, Rebecca Shore, and Geoffrey Todd Smith – were selected by Gallery Director Evan Hughes and his father, Ray, who in recent years have made numerous trips to Chicago where they discovered an exciting group of artists, all of whom are alumni of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), having graduated between the early 1980s and the mid-2000s.
“Now Chicago!” follows on from The Hughes Gallery’s highly successful solo exhibition of the late Chicago Imagist Roger Brown whose work remains a source of influence for young and emerging Chicago artists, including the artists in “Now Chicago!.” Brown himself graduated from the SAIC – an internationally esteemed school of art and design that has been recognized as one of the top three graduate arts programs in America. Other notable alumni of the institution include the likes of Jeanne Dunning, Wendy Jacob, Joan Mitchell, Jim Lutes, Leon Golub, Richard Hunt, Claes Oldenburg, Ed Paschke, and Donald Sultan, to name a few.
It is not immediately apparent what links the seven artists or why they appealed to Evan Hughes, but from within the seemingly disparate group of artists emerges a cleverly curated and intuitively contextualized collection of works that validates Hughes’ discerning and experienced eye. According to Hughes, the artists in “Chicago Now!” are linked by an exploration of material and form which becomes increasingly evident as the exhibition unfolds. But perhaps even more exciting is the dynamism that pervades the exhibition, situating the vastly different visual languages of the group within a distinguishable frame of reference that is established through a range of different stylistic and compositional techniques and processes relating to style, surface, structure, context, and iconography.
Further perpetuating the dynamic presence of the “Now Chicago!” group is the boldness and confidence that each artist exhibits in their own visual language, establishing the viewer as an integral element of the work instead of providing a definitive resolution within the work itself. Engaging so closely with the viewer further exposes their practice to the scrutiny of the critical eye, which is itself a sign of maturity and authority.
One of the most interesting artists in “Now Chicago!” is Carl Baratta who graduated from the SAIC in 2005. Barratta describes his whimsical paintings as the product of an approach that perceives “each image as a cog to a larger clockwork in the studio,” highlighting the seriality of his practice. Drawing inspiration from an eclectic range of different influences including mythology, ancient poetry, and popular culture, Baratta creates fantastical, colourful, expressionistic landscape scenes full of vitality, mystery, and drama. A closer look often reveals human figures and animals in scenarios as strange and enthralling as the landscapes they inhabit.
David Leggett graduated from the SCAI with a Masters of Fine Arts degree in 2007 and has since developed a distinct outsider-style visual language across multiple mediums including painting, drawing, printmaking, collage, and installation. “I like to tell stories about things that happen, but they don’t always have a resolve,” says Leggett, who engages with the viewer on multiple levels, initially establishing a connection with his humorous and attractive cartoon-like imagery, pop-culture references, and fascinating use of craft materials. He then confronts the viewer with issues surrounding cultural and personal relationships as well as sexuality, history, and race, but stops short of establishing a definitive ideological position.
The structured visual language of both Geoffrey Todd Smith and Rebecca Shore might appear anomalous amongst the work of the other artists in the exhibition, but the conceptual framework of both artists’ practice is congruent with the rest of the group. Since graduating from the SAIC in 1981, Shore, who is one of the most experienced of the seven artists in “Now Chicago!,” has developed a reputation for her silhouettes and abstract patterns which are the product of a deceptively complex, highly refined process. Taking inspiration from numerous sources, Shore constructs carefully arranged grids of silhouetted shapes that are drawn from a large collection of resource material. By removing the visual information from each object the shapes become ambiguous, challenging the viewer to identify each shape and perhaps even establish a link between them. Just like Shore’s silhouettes, Smith’s exceptionally refined geometric patterns are far from static images, with each pattern emitting its own unique vibe and atmosphere, while at the same time evoking a sense of anticipation that arises from the notions of sequence and chronology that his iconography evokes.
The dynamic and bold character of the exhibition continues with the work of Isak Applin, Gabrielle Garlands, and Carmen Price, all of whom assert their stance and with authority and maturity. Garland fabricates perspectively distorted, constructed interior scenes which explore the concepts of home, place, and memory; Price invites contemplation and speculation with his intriguing and engaging, naively-rendered collections of disparate shapes and objects; and Applin creates wonderfully voyeuristic, theatrical and expressive interior and landscape scenes that place the viewer in different and sometimes awkward positions of perspective.
In a fast-paced, hyper-consumerist world that craves instant gratification and satisfaction, it is refreshing to be able to experience and engage with an exhibition of such depth and complexity. This is not to say that the works in the exhibition are not visually appealing, because they are. However, there is a strong sense that the different components of each artist’s work – composition, concept, iconography, surface, style, etc. – are inextricably linked, requiring the viewer to engage with each artist and their practice on a much deeper level. Moving from one work to the next it also becomes apparent that each artist achieves the same dynamism, energy, and vitality through vastly different methods and techniques, which is one of the most interesting and revealing aspects of the exhibition. As well as celebrating the diversity of contemporary artistic practice, “Now Chicago!” reveals the City of Chicago to be a thriving centre of artistic excellence that perpetuates the spirit of the Chicago Imagists, their passion for visual imagery, aesthetic individualism, as well as their interest in surrealism, pop culture, and outsider art. The mediums of painting and drawing are alive and well.
“Now Chicago!” is at The Hughes Gallery in Sydney until June 10. More info here.