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Blank Expressions



Scott Short:

Full Color Reproduction

at Standard, through October 26

William Scarlato:

Beyond the Mundane

at Wood Street, through October 26

Among those who deny the artist's traditional role as creator of meaning, few are as thorough and severe as Scott Short. His seven works at Standard are greatly enlarged painted copies of the output of a photocopy machine--but there are no recognizable images because he made black-and-white copies of plain colored construction paper, reproduced many times to get the look he wanted, though he had little control over the specific patterns. He then made a slide of the final photocopy and projected it on canvas, tracing it with his brush as accurately as possible; the result is a black mottled pattern that seems to extend forever. Though Short spent a good 200 hours on the largest piece here, there are no tiny expressive flourishes, no hints of wispy Agnes Martin-like colors, not even the delicacy former Chicagoan Walter Andersons introduces to his paintings, made from photocopied famous artworks. Short echoes Gerhard Richter and others when he describes himself in his statement as "caught between the romanticism that allows me to still believe in painting, and the feeling of uselessness that accompanies it."

Partly because Short has devised such an extreme method, the results are both fascinating and intentionally frustrating. Untitled (Black) offers an even pattern of what look like elongated cell shapes, yet it's certainly not organic in feel. Untitled (Red) is much denser at the upper left than in the rest of the painting, but that variation seems to have no emotional or other implications. In both paintings the eye seeks out familiar forms and, failing to find them, winds up wandering amid staticlike patterns, patterns that push one to the brink of annoyance. But it's annoyance with a purpose: Short's resolute pursuit of seemingly endless meaningless patterns, trapping us in the random details and defects of the photocopying mechanism, leaves the viewer adrift and in a curious way more open than before.

Short, a Chicagoan born in Marion, Ohio, in 1964, says he was "ascetic" and "monkish" even as a kid--and "awkward, clumsy, nervous." By the time he moved to Chicago, in 1990, after receiving a BFA and an MFA from Ohio State, he'd already embarked on the path that would lead to his present work. He was collaging photocopies of found images, then painting the result; gradually the collages grew sparer, shifting the emphasis from recognizable images to the artifacts imposed by photocopying.

In his statement Short says, "I engineer a situation to fail. I ask a machine...with no opinions, no sensitivity, no intentionality, no capacity for poetry" to render colors in black and white. Yet the exhibit is not without humor, starting with the ironic title. Two paintings hung side by side, Untitled (Green) and Untitled (Brown), are almost identical, suggesting that the original color has no effect on Short's results. And the largest piece in the show, Untitled (Blue), is actually two canvases, the left panel larger than the right. Diptychs traditionally show different images-- the duke's wife next to the duke--but here we just get more of the same interminable pattern.

Treated as conceptual art, Short's paintings certainly do express the "gaps in understanding" underlying his machine's mistranslations. But viewed as expressive works they produce a different effect. The jagged, almost mind-numbing but not strictly predictable repetitions stimulate a nervousness alien to the emotions of romantic art but that seems nonetheless psychologically revealing.

William Scarlato's 15 bright paintings at Wood Street resemble children's book illustrations; in my first few seconds there, I half wondered what they were doing in an art gallery. A few are landscapes, but most are still lifes of objects arranged on a table or desk. Because they're representational, and because these vases and little toys suggest a variety of meanings, they seem a world apart from Short's paintings. But in the end Scarlato's playful connections produce a similar leveling effect: not only is no object given priority but each seems ready to morph into the others.

Scarlato often creates these links through his selection and arrangement of objects. In Still Life With Ian's Drawing, a rendition of the Navy Pier Ferris wheel by Scarlato's young son is pinned to the wall above an object-filled table. Just below the drawing on the wall is an elaborately cut piece of construction paper, left over from some other project, that Scarlato has painted with small colored shapes for use in this work. Scarlato's construction-paper design is hardly more sophisticated than his son's drawing, yet the objects on the table--a basketball, a thermos, some vases, among other things--in some ways echo Scarlato's tiny colored shapes.

This connectedness is even more explicit in Still Life: Incarnation. Here Scarlato created a black-and-white drawing (an imitation of the style he used in grad school) to echo the forms of some of the objects on the table below, which include a stuffed duck, some Elmer's glue, and a twisted bit of an automobile fender that offers a distorted reflection of the items in front of it. Scarlato carefully offers three different versions--the abstracted drawing, the fender reflection, and the painting itself--of the same mundane objects; no representation is more compelling, or more "real," than any other.

A native of New Orleans, where he was born in 1951, Scarlato received an MFA from Yale in 1979 and moved to Chicago ten years later; he's been teaching at Benedictine University in Lisle since 1990. And while he cites a variety of influences, from Magritte to Stuart Davis to pop artist Tom Wesselman, a principal source for his still lifes has been his classroom experience, especially teaching foundation classes, where the instructor's job is to make students aware of the basics of volume and light. But there's nothing dry or academic about the results, which have an almost alchemical sense of transformation.

Easter 1997: Reverence for Life looks across a wide desk out a window at an ordinary yard (the view Scarlato had from his studio while on sabbatical in Cincinnati). To the left is a computer, to the right a desk organizer holding some bills, and in the center a book open to Dürer drawings, flanked by a small clock on the left and a snapshot of an exuberant Ian on the right. In some mysterious way--perhaps because the computer, clock, book, snapshot, desk organizer, mail, and large window are all rectangular shapes enclosing images--the painting's elements seem equivalent to one another, arbitrary and ultimately transient things that have no particular psychological or ontological meaning. Instead they're playful constructs akin to the arbitrary cutouts in a piece of construction paper--and the patterns produced by a photocopy machine.

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