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Mandalas and Meaning

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Andrzej Strumillo's abstract painting Mandala X is a bit like a dying star shooting flames--a reminder of the high modernist period, when artists believed that abstraction had the power to provide universal symbols. One of 33 recent paintings at the Society for Arts, showing with works on paper, it has a dark circle at the center surrounded by browns with a hint of red behind them. Flames seem to shoot out from all around the circle--not literal representations of fire but crusty, barklike streams that mix tan, yellow, and red.

Strumillo--a Polish artist born in 1928 who has traveled extensively in Asia and lives in rural Poland--has kept a bit of the old modernist faith. While many Western abstractionists have turned to humor, irony, and art-historical or cultural references, Strumillo in his "Mandala" series continues to ask big questions about meaning and its absence. After losing his father and "a lot of illusions" in World War II, Strumillo studied with the well-known Polish modernist Wladyslaw Strzeminski. Early on he rebelled against Strzeminski's notion that art should be about itself by drawing his own knee, but he also writes that Strzeminski "opened my eyes for the first time" and that later in life he feels closer to his mentor's "white silence."

Unlike traditional mandalas, Strumillo's don't offer maps of the cosmos but rather reflect on the relationship of light to darkness, airiness to weight, order to chaos. Mandala XV reverses the composition of Mandala X: it has a bright white center that fades to tan, then a thick black circle surrounding the center; a black rectangle at the bottom resembles a pedestal, giving the black circle a feeling of metallic weight. Like all of Strumillo's mandalas, this one hints at a life metaphor: his vision of light encircled, even imprisoned by matter suggests that enlightenment can be reached only by breaking through material barriers.

Perhaps the most complex and mysterious in the series is Mandala VI, a dark painting depicting a square within a square at the center, and blue circles varying from light blue to blue almost obscured by brown in the area between the two squares. Four boxes, each enclosing a different design, sit at the top, bottom, and sides of the painting. Strumillo may ask the big questions, but he doesn't necessarily accept the old answers. Rejecting the modernist notion that a "perfect" form might provide the model for a better world, he mirrors the vagaries of life with his mix of glowing blue disks and varied squares.

Andrzej Strumillo

Society for Arts

1112 N. Milwaukee

through November 28

773-486-9612

Jason Rohlf's 23 paintings at Judy Saslow recall earlier universalist abstraction but also differentiate themselves from that tradition. Like Barnett Newman's zip paintings, Rohlf's Pace displays vertical bands of color, some broad and some very narrow. Where Newman's verticals evoke the infinite, however, Rohlf puts his in a bulbous shape like a comic-strip speech balloon, suggesting a particular humorous utterance.

Born in Milwaukee in 1970, Rohlf grew up in rural Wisconsin but now lives in New York City. Sailing on Lake Michigan was central to his childhood, and he says that many of his paintings, including Pace, incorporate shapes "that look like billowing spinnaker sails." He adds that he loves horizons and "the way you see bands of clouds in the evening sky."

Like many of Rohlf's other paintings, Match is built up in layers, resulting in a delicately textured, alluring surface. Vertical stripes fill a huge bulbous form, and some continue in a small circle above it. But the colors of two of the stripes change, interjecting the particular into the universal. The supple, mysterious surface adds another level of complexity: Rohlf collaged strips of paper on the canvas, then painted over them many times to produce relief effects. He says the palimpsest is one of his inspirations, perhaps because layers of history are visible in the gentrifying former industrial section of Brooklyn where he now lives--for example, the old lettering on a store sign that used to say "chemists" is still visible today under "Thai food."

In Assist Rohlf's color bands appear within the shapes of birds on a branch. Blue dots around the birds--created with ballpoint-pen ink on the canvas that "migrated up" through the layers of paint--represent what Rohlf calls "thought bubbles, mental bread crumbs." Incised in the gesso under the surrounding sky are targetlike concentric circles, which begin just to the right of one of the birds as if focused on its song. The universal quality of these circles is countered not only by the relief effects Rohlf adds but by his references to the physical phenomena of tree rings and sound waves.

Jason Rohlf

Judy A. Saslow

300 W. Superior

through November 13

312-943-0530

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Fred Camper.

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