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Absence-Minded

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Luciana Abait

at Jean Albano, through October 13

Vincent Dermody

at TBA Exhibition Space, through October 13

Luciana Abait's stripped-down paintings of landscapes or rooms suggest the presence of humans through "diverse objects," usually just one or two in a work, "such as chairs, bathtubs, monuments, traffic signs," she writes in her statement. And each of her 16 recent works at Jean Albano--Abait's first one-person show here--hints at a strange little story. But what they leave out is part of the point: Abait's statement talks about presence and absence.

The four panels in Rescue--one of eight works composed of several identically sized paintings--show a large body of water and floating life buoys. Read left to right, the first three depict one, two, and three life preservers respectively while the last shows only one--but in the distance is a lighthouse on a spit of land. Given the title, the viewer immediately wonders what tale is being told; it's disturbing that the life preservers are empty. But reading a specific story into the pictures would be contrary to Abait's intent: "Many people have said, 'This is horrible, it means somebody has drowned,'" she told me. "But for me it could mean there's something that's going to save you. A lot of the pieces create an ambiguity, and it's up to the spectator to decide what to make of them." The work itself also undercuts a strict narrative reading: the horizon line is in a different position in each panel, suggesting that these are not necessarily consecutive views of the same scene from the same position.

Instead Rescue reflects human absence--the idea of an empty life buoy floating on an apparently infinite sea. Even though the bright reds and whites of the life preservers give them a stronger presence than the paler blues of the sea and sky--whose multiple layers create a gentle mood--their disconnection from a specific story evokes a world without humans. But Abait's abandoned objects shouldn't be seen only as metaphors for the absent human. These delicate, spare paintings seem to be about a world beyond ordinary explanation, interpretation, or emotion--a world devoid of the psychological explanations by which we seek to make abstractions comprehensible.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1971 and an artist most of her life, Abait moved to Miami four years ago and lives there today. Among her key influences are theater of the absurd, various French Postimpressionists, De Chirico, and Francis Bacon ("for the way that he used rooms with distorted perspective"). Half the works here include chairs, and while they're effective in the smaller paintings, Abait's own intentionally distorted perspective doesn't work as well in the relatively few large single-panel paintings. In the largest, The Plot, we look down into a cavernous room with three ladders against its walls, none of which reaches the top; several chairs cast shadows in different directions. While provocative, the painting aspires to a grandeur that its skewed perspective doesn't quite sustain.

Abait's only view of an actual place, Skyline With Lighthouse, takes a very different attitude toward monumentality; some three feet high, it's only nine inches wide. Painted for this exhibition from photographs, it shows the North Michigan Avenue skyline from the lake, framed so that a lighthouse in the foreground is half the height of the Hancock tower. A mist diffuses the colors of the skyline, making the closer, brighter lighthouse more vivid--celebrating an everyday structure at the expense of grander ones. Like all the work here, it's mounted on a frame several inches thick and continues on the canvas covering the sides, suggesting that the view we see continues far beyond its borders. The painting's unusual shape selects a narrow strip of human structures and sets it against vast fields of water and sky.

Abait's finest, most original pieces are composed of many small panels. The largest--Empty Windows, 25 four-by-four-inch paintings arrayed in a square grid--recalls a building's windows or a city map or plan ("each canvas is a block of a city, and the separation between the canvases is like the streets," she says). Each painting shows one or two objects: a house, a bed, a baby carriage, a golf ball with a flag and hole nearby. The horizon line usually shifts from picture to picture, and the shadows point in different directions, increasing the sense of each picture's isolation from the rest. Their small size seems crucial: these paintings don't aim to overwhelm the viewer with the illusion of an actual scene or fill one's field of vision; though delicately painted, the objects lack the illusionistic detail that creates rich associations--these are toy houses, toy cars, toy bathtubs. Yet they remain powerful, not as signs of the physical but as some kind of miniature theater of dreams, a shadow world in which fantasies and emotions are reenacted on a symbolic scale. Rather than trying to magnify her emotions--as the abstract expressionists did and as some art students do in far less interesting ways today--Abait seeks to step back from them, rearranging toys on her own little stage. Significantly, the very last panel in the grid contains no object at all, only grass and sky.

Black Globe, one of Vincent Dermody's four new works at TBA, is a found object that he told me he expected viewers to think he'd painted black. At any rate, it obliterates the landscape where Abait's sliver of the Chicago skyline only undercuts it; still, it seems there's a similar sensibility at work. A Chicagoan who helped found Law Office, an art collective, Dermody (formerly Darmody) seems simultaneously self-involved and self-effacing. The largest piece here is an array of 32 pencil drawings, each precisely rendering the logo of an organization, from such familiar names as Gap and Blockbuster to "Parkway Towers Apartments." When I first viewed the drawings, crudely taped to the wall, I was struck by a modesty that recalled Abait. Then I saw the title: 33 Jobs I Was Fired From (Dermody explains there are 32 drawings because he intended the piece to be "a monument to my uselessness"). Several logos appear more than once--Dermody was fired from three different jobs at the School of the Art Institute. While contemporary artists too often simply replicate the flat crassness of commercial signs, Dermody translates logos like A&P's into quietly elegant blacks and grays.

Still, the title indicates a layer of self-centeredness, and perhaps self-pity, that often limits the work of recent art-school graduates. Another piece in the show also suggests narcissism: a large pencil drawing, The Secret Language of Birthdays, shows three people born on May 19: Ho Chi Minh, Malcolm X, and the artist himself--in the center, natch. One wishes for a counterpoint to 33 Jobs I Was Fired From, perhaps consisting of interviews with Dermody's ex-employers.

But ultimately the drawings in 33 Jobs survive the title's implications of self-pity or revenge. The care with which each logo is rendered indicates an observer who effaces his own artistic style before the work of anonymous designers. Dermody's copies also suggest an outsider wandering in a world not of his making, who has limited powers if any to remake it--surely the position of McDonald's employees everywhere.

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