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Buried Light


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at the Chicago Cultural Center, through January 9

Picture a muddy midwestern field on a gloomy day in late February. Eliminate any barns, corncribs, or power lines you might imagine; in fact, delete any sign of human presence other than a narrow, muddy path. Then eliminate living creatures altogether--strike rabbits from the field, crows from the sky. Veil everything in sight--sky, turf, shrubs, streams--in a thick haze. Now you're approaching the kind of desolation Terri Zupanc portrays in her most recent landscape paintings. With their boundless space and soft, dim light, Zupanc's scenes of expansive skies above low fields are serene only at first glance. On closer inspection they're more eerie than calming, like the uneasy stillness that settles in just before a storm.

Zupanc's paintings show she knows the plain, unvarying terrain of the rural midwest inside out (not surprising for an artist originally from Wisconsin who's lived in Chicago since 1977). In this new work she explores it in its muddiest, drabbest, most joyless guise. Most of these untitled paintings (all but one are from 1993) function more as generalized evocations than as particular views of particular places, and each contains odd, unexplainable elements that push the image into the realm of the unreal.

One work in the show features a large square of sky over a low swath of land. It looks at first like a rather straightforward rendering of an undisturbed boggy plain. The earth is a dull brownish green, the sky a dingy gray--nothing unusual for an overcast midwinter day. But a few elements tip the balance toward the strange: one is a narrow, boomerang-shaped body of yellow gray water. Neither reflecting the sky nor traveling back in space to a distant source or into the foreground, it's a lonely image that speaks of disconnection and isolation.

The extremely high point of view Zupanc employs isn't in itself strange, but the position it puts the viewer in--far removed and high above the land--is contradicted by the crisp, detailed rendering of the water's shallow banks: it's disorienting to feel both near and far at the same time. Everything else in this vast landscape, whether far or near, is blurred; even the overcast sky is bereft of distinct, individual clouds. Look at this painting awhile and you long to get your feet back on the ground, to touch something solid and familiar.

Not all of Zupanc's paintings are entirely desolate. In one, dry leaves and stalks of winter weeds begin to materialize around a brown, watery expanse, and a hazy, bulbous tree breaks into the sky. The sky modulates from a dingy yellow brown at the horizon to a light blue gray--the blue's not really bright but it sounds a faintly optimistic note. Two low clouds tinged yellow and pink (though buried beneath a gray haze) have a similar effect in another rural landscape, whose brown field looks so soggy you feel certain that if you stepped into it you'd sink and disappear forever.

There's a buried light pulsing through all of Zupanc's dim skies, which on close inspection reveal great complexity of color. Layers of small, fluid, and slightly contrasting strokes of gray, brown, yellow, and blue create a palpable restlessness. But the illusion of wholeness, of a continuous, expansive space, is just that--an illusion, which Zupanc emphasizes by not quite continuing the layers all the way to the edge. Perhaps that's an homage to Mark Rothko, who employed a similar method in his signature color-field paintings, in which large soft-edged rectangles functioned as both space and object. But in Zupanc's much smaller, far less abstract paintings, arresting the sky--but not the land--at the edges sharpens the sense of constriction: as our eyes journey outward they're abruptly redirected inward.

Such contradictions and uncertainties permeate each painting. Paths--leading God knows where--suddenly break off; turf and shrubs are so blurred as to throw their very materiality into doubt--possibly they're no more substantial than smoke. This uncertainty worked better in Zupanc's earlier, more abstract paintings, one of which (from 1992) is included in the show. Its large, long rectangle is divided into two zones, pitch black above, yellow white below. The scene is both ominous and mysterious, emphatically conveying a state of acute inner unrest: the white area at first seems like a reassuring clearing of light in the midst of penetrating darkness, but with its soft edges and subtle changes of tone it eventually seems more like shifting vapor than solid ground.

Zupanc appears to be at a crossroad, moving more toward realism yet wanting to retain a degree of abstraction. Because she hasn't decided which direction to take her paintings hedge their bets, giving with one hand but taking away with the other. And while they're beautifully painted--she's certainly doing more with color--they're also repetitious. It can be argued--as Rothko did--that something worth doing once is worth repeating, but it's also instructive to consider that, having painted himself into a corner, Rothko ended his life in despair. Two of Zupanc's paintings in this show have almost exactly the same composition--only the color of the sky and land varies. Hanging side by side, they produce an effect of numbing monotony even for a viewer who relishes the quiet and the subtle.

Given their extreme unnaturalness and the way they pull you into broad, open spaces only to push you away again, these are tough paintings to like. In the face of so much oppressive dreariness, who can be blamed for wanting just a smidgen of joy?

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