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Robert McCauley's Peaceable Kingdon

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A cautionary figure for painter Robert McCauley is 19th-century British explorer John Franklin, whose search for the Northwest Passage ended when his ships got stuck in the ice--and rather than learn how to survive from the natives, the men starved. "If you go into nature with a sense that you're better than the people already there or the animals or the flora," McCauley says, "you're going to be in for trouble."

McCauley's 14 paintings of animals and people at Perimeter rely at times on various art historical sources, but he says he never wanted to have his own distinctive style, "where someone says, 'Look at the brushwork--I know who did that.' I was more invested in content." He often copies the human figures from earlier portraits while his soft, supple landscapes refer to 19th-century romantic painting. Transparent glazes--a technique first used in the early Renaissance for portraits and religious images--give his colors great delicacy and ennoble the animals and humans alike.

McCauley, 58, grew up in rural Washington. Both his father and his grandfather were loggers on Canada's Vancouver Island until all the most valuable trees were cut down and the work vanished. The thing about his home state, McCauley says, is that "nature is always in your face." Whenever his mother retold a story about encountering three skunks with the infant McCauley in a buggy, "The skunks got bigger and bigger," he says. His father described collecting the jewelry and baskets he found after Indian burial platforms had rotted and fallen from the trees.

In his early teens McCauley fell in love with cars. He became a street racer in high school and lost a scholarship opportunity after writing an article about hot-rodding for the school paper. Originally an oceanography major at Western Washington University, he switched to art when he realized that oceanographers have to work in labs. Later, hearing that it was best to go east for grad school, he went all the way to eastern Washington to attend Washington State University. After getting an MFA in 1972, he came to Illinois to teach at Rockford College, where he still is today.

"I think you spend all your life trying to find the right form for the content you have within you," McCauley says. Exploring Chicago for the first time in 1972, he discovered "a totally different world" from rural Washington. He saw a Hairy Who exhibit and his first housing projects and switched from the Rauschenberg-inspired mixed-media works he'd been doing to large drawings of human figures and of high-rises whose facades suggested faces. Later he incorporated animals.

Most of McCauley's paintings are humorous. In On Photography two bears stand behind a camera as if taking the viewer's picture. The Vegetarian II shows a chef holding a rabbit and a tortoise while a snail crawls across his shoulder. Is he about to cook them, or does the title indicate he's rescuing them from the dinner table? A bear hugging an Indian in Stoic reverses the usual human-animal hierarchy, and Meriwether Lewis and Friends shows animals frolicking on the explorer, including a magpie perched on his head. "Instead of killing specimens in order to examine them," McCauley says, "the specimens remain alive." The backgrounds are inspired by the topography of his childhood. "I have no affinity for the midwest landscape," he says. But he thinks that's been good for his work: "A sense of longing comes out."

The meanings of McCauley's paintings are sometimes ambiguous, but not so much that no meaning comes across. It was a great moment for him, he says, when a timber-company executive was "deeply offended" by a McCauley show at a Seattle gallery. Returning to his childhood haunts each summer has shown the artist how much things keep changing. "The salmon streams I fished in are silted up and have no more salmon," he says. "The Native Americans used to set a trap of chicken wire a half mile out to sea, and I would watch the salmon in the trap in awe. That's gone. Even the huge fishing resorts are gone because the fish are gone. Clear-cutting is still common. A small greenbelt of ten feet on either side of the roads makes you think you're looking at forest, but beyond that it's just devastation."

When: Through 12/31

Where: Perimeter, 210 W. Superior

Info: 312-266-9473

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.

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