A Life In Letters | Art Review | Chicago Reader

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A Life In Letters


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Ann Worthing was cleaning out her Bucktown basement last year when she found letters she'd received as a grad student here from 1980 through '82. "They were watermarked and moldy," she says. "But I thought, 'I can't throw these out.'" They were from friends, including some exes, plus her mom, who died in 1999. "My response freaked me out because it was so intense," Worthing says. "Just the look of the handwriting, not even the content, conjured up different times, places, and people, a constellation of memories. Time folded back on itself--I was still in my studio but also with people 25 years ago." She began to think about making art using the letters; though she'd always painted representationally, she decided that "any image would be too direct, and too reductive, for how profound these letters felt." After placing them on panels of birch wood, she covered them with paint and wax. The 43 resulting pieces at Packer Schopf are mysteriously luminous; peering through layers of designs at the mostly obscured letters, you feel you're looking through veils of memory toward a distant, light-filled presence.

Worthing was born and raised in Wharton, Texas, a small town near the gulf coast. "In winter everything turned brown, and it was really monotonous. The land is very flat, and I learned to pay attention to subtle changes. I remember noticing different shades in the brown grass, and the way the grass took on colors from anything that might be around." Her dad, an amateur photographer, gave her an old Leica and taught her to estimate exposures by eye. She also copied from photographs to improve her rendering, and at college she started using found photos in collages. Worthing says that grad school at the University of Chicago, where she received an MFA in 1982, was "one of the hardest things I've ever done." A critique panelist advised her to lose her southern accent if she wanted people to take her seriously. Still, she says, she wouldn't trade the art school experience for anything. "Learning to think logically and systematically about art was very difficult for me. I had this mushy, romantic notion of the artist as a heroic figure, and I had to learn to say what it is that I want to do."

As a grad student, Worthing would copy the gestures of people in newspaper and magazine photos, "trying to place myself in their world." In the late 80s she discovered the still lifes of Giorgio Morandi, who brought a "quality of engagement," she says, to "very simple scenes. No painting looked like any other--there was always something different about the color and shape relationships. And, oh God, his light! His ordinary objects were utterly transformed." Asian painting gave her new ways of thinking about composition, about defining a space with just one or two objects. She began painting "whitish" still lifes of everyday things. Then, about two years ago, "I went through my Bonnard phase," she says. "His work is so luminous. He took the simplest mundane things and through color and composition taught you to see again."

Worthing didn't want the letters to be taken voyeuristically or expose her personal life--though most are about routine matters, such as rearranging furniture. Adding a variety of gently sensual abstract designs, she's created pieces that work both from a distance and up close. The first one she made, Dear/Sunday, uses a letter from her mother. The border she created around it is tan, to "rhyme with the color of the birch and also the yellowed paper," while a pale blue rectangle in the middle obscures many of the words--it's almost as if Worthing were talking back to her mom. But mostly she responds to the visual qualities of the letters and panels. For Intellectual History I she cut a sliver from a letter whose curves echo those of the wood grain. For many other pieces, such as Marooned, colored bands either block out the handwriting or the blank spaces between the lines. October superimposes a decorative pattern in vellum, traced from bridge chairs she inherited from her mother, on a letter from her mother. The pattern feels entangling, which reflects "mother-daughter stuff," Worthing says, "though I don't want to reduce it to just that."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): October and Dear/Sunday.

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