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Art People: Hank Feeley gets down to business

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Businessmen gather around a conference table, the Chicago skyline in the background, but the scene looks a bit grotesque. The mottled colors of Hank Feeley's paintings are at once sensuous and garish, seductive and almost ugly, and the businessmen seem ready to climb the walls.

It's a world Feeley knows firsthand: for 28 years he worked at Leo Burnett Company, the international ad agency headquartered in Chicago, where he rose to the rank of vice chairman before taking early retirement in 1993. But his paintings can be misunderstood. "Somebody said to me, 'Are these an indictment of the ad business or business in general?' Absolutely not! They're not even about business specifically but about human nature. Meetings put people together in one room under varying degrees of stress, and emotionally it becomes a way of making people deal with each other. Sometimes they act illogically. Some meetings take on a life of their own, and the people partake of some sort of mass hysteria. The things that happen are absurd and tangential and hardly even real. People get involved in defending their egos rather than relating to the subject of the meeting."

Feeley was born in 1940 in Boston, and his family moved here in 1952. He planned to become a lawyer and join his father's firm. After college he joined the navy. By the time he got out in 1965 his father had died. "I wasn't sure what to do, so I came home. I got engaged, and we blew my severance pay in about a week, so I had to get a job." Thinking he could make some use of his talent for drawing, he looked for work in advertising, but he had no training as a commercial artist. When Leo Burnett offered him a job in the research department, "I sort of bit my tongue and said yes. In fact I didn't know much about it."

Feeley compiled consumer demographics for $300 a month, and soon he was an assistant account executive, working on marketing plans for Nestle coffee. His career took off, yet he wondered if he had shortchanged his artistic ambitions. For years he painted landscapes, and he was "a famous doodler in meetings. But I just did it as a hobby. There wasn't a lot of time--raising four kids and working in the ad business is pretty intense. Advertising is creative, and that took the edge off a little. But I finally said, 'Before I go to my grave, I want to scratch this itch and do it.'"

After he retired, Feeley enrolled at the School of the Art Institute as a student at large, thinking of continuing his landscape painting. "But they've got a different idea about art. They changed my idea from just painting pretty pictures to using art as an expression of ideas and emotions, as an expression of your self. I did learn techniques, but I also learned about art in this different way, and that was a big change for me. I decided to make myself a blank sheet of paper and start all over, to learn from the bottom up."

The best way to do that, Feeley realized, was to start as a freshman in the degree program. "You can't be a 53-year-old amongst all these young people and not feel a little odd," he admits. "They thought it was a little odd too. But after the students and the teachers saw that I was serious, I became one of them, to the point where they or I didn't think of the age difference or the cultural difference anymore. I was there to just take it all in and grow."

Soon Feeley was painting abstractions. He began to study informally with Indiana painter Robert Barnes, who helped him find a new method of painting. When Barnes begins a picture, he "throws something up there like a Rorschach test and tries to discover what it might be. At first I thought he must have some plan or something, but he doesn't."

Meanwhile Feeley was learning from his classmates. One woman observed that his canvases would go through many stages before becoming recognizable and that some of the earlier phases were quite beautiful--why didn't he stop there? Because, Feeley realized, he's most interested in human interaction. As an administrator he had to coordinate the activities of many different people and groups, but not even the lone "creative" types in advertising can excel without being involved with others. "You can't be insensitive to humankind and be a good advertising person," says Feeley. On a trip to Italy he was especially impressed by the 14th-century painter Giotto, "the first person to my knowledge to present real people, that is, personalities and individuals."

Feeley graduated from SAIC in 1995 and painted at his home in Winnetka for a year, doing a series of canvases influenced by jazz. Then, almost by accident, he painted a business meeting. "In a way, meetings are a microcosm of life. Painting them is a way of expressing things that I knew about life. I've been in many, many meetings, and you see deceit and altruism, bravery and absurdity, the birth and growth and death of an idea and of egos." Feeley estimates that he's attended 40,000 meetings in his lifetime, not just in advertising but for school boards, charitable boards, and town government. "The paintings are sort of poking fun at inflated egos, and anyone who's ever been at a meeting of any kind, they get it."

Now the Technocrat Charlatans Have a Raft of Problems is based on Gericault's famous The Raft of the Medusa, which shows the survivors of a shipwreck. "It's sort of the same thing," says Feeley. "It's a bad meeting, so to speak. We don't know what happened, but this is the aftermath." In Feeley's canvas, a chaotic group huddles on a table, some of the figures reaching toward an airplane outside the meeting room's picture window.

In The First Duty of an American Is to Go to a Meeting a long line of executives march at dawn to their first meeting of the day; Feeley says he took the title from de Tocqueville's sentiment that "the greatness of America was in part because people went to meetings and shared their ideas, whereas in France it was top-down. I've used it sort of tongue-in-cheek here."

Despite the prominence of his human figures, Feeley says he thinks less about the subject matter than about "working with the materials and getting it right. It's a kind of visceral thing about using pure, 'boom-boom' impact kind of colors, and the texture and look of the paint." While emphatic about not comparing himself to Gericault, he hopes to be taken seriously. "I like the relationships I make in paint. Part of my objective is to make paintings that are pleasing to the eye but stimulating to ponder as well. That Gericault painting is talking about a great tragedy, including cannibalism and much deeper things about the problems with the monarchy and the shipowners. Yet to look at it is just a joy."

Twelve of Feeley's paintings are on view through August 21 at Lyons Wier Gallery, 300 W. Superior; call 312-654-0600. --Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tom Van Eynde.

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