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A Surrealist's Inventory

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Ellen Lanyon

WHEN Through 2/24

WHERE Printworks, 311 W. Superior

INFO 312-997-9407

Ellen Lanyon has been collecting images and objects for four decades--her works on paper partly comprise a catalog of things she owns and loves. "I couldn't collect as a kid--we were a working-class family," she says. But her fortunes improved, and now she has "magazines, books, and images on paper, all for inspiration. I have collections of old tools like inkwells and barometers, a huge postcard collection, and a collection of Italian rotogravures. I'm fascinated by patent models, showing devices that people invented to make a better world for themselves while wiping out the natural one." For one of her series at Printworks she made a drawing of a meat grinder from a 19th-century engraving by Louis Poyet, created eight prints from it, then added to each of them a drawing of an object or objects being consumed by the grinder: musical instruments in Euphonium & Others, an old Kodak camera in Kodak, an alligator in Trophies.

When Lanyon was seven one of her grandfathers, an artist, took her to the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, leaving her at Midget Village--an exhibit built to the scale of its residents--for the day while he worked. "The sense of scale was crazy," she says, "and I think that's been part of my work all my life, looking toward the enlargement or shrinking of objects." The grinder, for example, is huge in relation to the things being thrown into it.

Lanyon started taking classes at the Art Institute when she was 9, and when she was 12--during the Depression, after her grandfather had died--her parents gave her his paints and brushes and she began to do portraits and landscapes. By high school she'd discovered early Sienese painters such as Giovanni di Paolo, whose "distorted, contrived spaces" reminded her of Midget Village. She studied traditional techniques as a School of the Art Institute undergrad, where she won a prize for a painting she did in egg tempera and metal leaf of an el platform at night: "I liked the small brushes and the very slow technique of egg tempera. I would start in one corner and dream away. I used to refer to it as stream-of-consciousness painting--you allow the work to almost develop by itself." After graduation she married a fellow student and they continued their studies in Iowa and Europe, then moved to Chicago in 1951 (she's lived in New York City since 1979). She became friends with younger Chicagoans like Robert Barnes, Irving Petlin, and Richard Hunt and was influenced by their interest in surrealism, realizing that she didn't want to do egg temperas anymore even though these works sold well.

Within a few years Lanyon was painting figures from old photographs, and by the 1960s from sports photos--"the human form reduced to volume, stripes, numbers, and movements," she says. She became interested in Poyet when her son gave her a 19th-century science book, Magical Experiments, or Science in Play, that included Poyet's engravings, which led to an interest in books on magic. A 1976 trip to the everglades deepened her interest in the natural world, and animals have been part of her work ever since. One series of seven works in this show depicts animals inside of or perching on an urn: dog heads emerge from it in Canine, and part of an owl in Snowy Owl, while in Halloween cats have settled there. The urn itself is a recent lithograph from a drawing she made in the 80s at the artists' retreat Yaddo.

Lanyon's obsessive memorializing of images in her collection is balanced by her open, intuitive process of adorning a humble urn or grinder with other images, almost a surrealist's inventory of possible combinations. She rarely plans a theme in advance; for instance, she found herself choosing for the grinder's consumption "a lot of the things that digital technology has replaced, like Kodak cameras and musical instruments. I'm kind of an old-fashioned person who has lived most of her life in the 19th century, and now I'm having to deal with computers and digitize my slides and relearn photography." The grinder series reflects both her unease with technology and her love of older tools.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Snowy Owl.

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