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Consider the Alternatives

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Laura Mosquera

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through October 28

Jo-Ann M. Thompson

at Miles Aduwaa, through November 17

Katherine Drake Chial: Phenomena

at Artemisia, through October 27

Michele Stutts

at ARC, through October 27

Local artists have long groused about a lack of attention from museums. Presumably in response, the Museum of Contemporary Art has just begun a yearlong series of monthly exhibits by "emerging" Chicago artists, "12 x 12: New Artists/New Work." But while a number of those on the list are auspicious choices, the opening exhibition--Laura Mosquera's three drawings, one painting, and a 10-by-24-foot mural--is a disappointment. It's not that her work isn't of interest, but its overall mediocrity raises a number of questions about aesthetic standards and curatorial choices.

Why, for instance, is the series focused on emerging artists (Mosquera earned her MFA from the School of the Art Institute two years ago) when a number of accomplished Chicagoans are not represented by a gallery or haven't had a local show in years? Is that focus yet another example of the art world seeking what's hot rather than what's good? Perhaps it's time for museum curators to stop chasing flavors of the month, recognize that there isn't much truly "new" out there, and focus on the viewing experience. I ran across shows by three Chicago artists this month more rewarding to look at than Mosquera's.

Mosquera's work conveys disassociation and ennui. The mural, Interesting Things Will Begin to Develop, which nicely fills the back wall, is distanced, almost blase. Its seven figures stand about as if at a cocktail party, and an abstract background of bands suggests corporate interior decorating--or product packaging. The painting, Can You Feel It, sets five figures against an indistinct pink background punctuated by floating green circles and tiger-striped bands; one woman wears wildly patterned pants. A wall label informs us that the figures are "easily identifiable" by "their clothing, postures, or ethnic backgrounds, yet their lack of distinguishing features lends them a disturbing anonymity," suggesting that they are "trapped in a world of estrangement and isolation."

None of this is as interesting as it ought to be for an artist spotlighted by a big-city contemporary art museum. The figures' "lack of distinguishing features" might well be attributable to an inability to convey the expressive power of even 50s magazine illustration (which this resembles). Robert Longo's signature figures--black-and-white businessmen set in empty space--make isolation more resonant. The use of solid colors as a decorative motif arguably comments on contemporary interiors--but Swiss artist John Armleder did the same, and far more provocatively, more than a decade ago by placing pieces of furniture under his solid-color paintings. I liked Mosquera's cool, detached tone and pleasing color schemes, but there's too much attitude instead of compositional complexity--a frequent problem in the work of recent art school graduates, as is the lack of craft and attention to detail.

Born in New Orleans in 1946 and a Chicagoan since age four, Jo-Ann M. Thompson attended college for only a year and has had limited art training. Her first one-person show--17 paintings and drawings at Miles Aduwaa, a newly opened gallery specializing in African-American women artists--is divided between figurative and abstract work. Thompson cheerfully told me that she gives her figures solid black heads because she can't easily depict faces. Rather than take half measures, she turns her limitation into a virtue by creating stylized shapes that gain iconic power from their generality.

Thompson, who prefers to paint abstractly, started doing figures only when she thought that approach might get her into an art competition (it did). Even her figurative paintings, however, are distinguished by abstract patterns a lot more vital than Mosquera's designs. Integral, showing a couple with a child, is dominated by patterns in the clothing that combine repetition and asymmetry, including bands of color that introduce variation just at the point one might expect repetition.

Thompson's abstract paintings are similar. Working improvisationally--"I haven't the slightest idea what it's going to be when I start," she told me--she creates patterns surprising in their energy and (perhaps unplanned) details. Precision sets a complex arrangement of colors against a white background but (like several other works) also incorporates bits of white within the design. At the bottom, one little white "inlet" of the background pokes almost to the center, and thin bands of white border some areas of color. These shifts in white's function, which seem to defy Thompson's own system, recall both early-20th-century geometric abstraction and the energy and varying patterns of African and pre-Columbian textiles.

Katherine Drake Chial acknowledges such influences as Gerhard Richter and Vija Celmins and cites Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant in her statement, but her 11 paintings at Artemisia are not just thought provoking--they're also ravishing to look at. Born in Dayton in 1964, she moved to Chicago about seven years ago; shortly before that, she'd stopped making sculptures to focus on painting, which for her "is the most difficult, the most challenging medium--and it takes a lifetime to get good at it."

The Masculine Has Become Absurd is animated by a striking contrast: a straight-edged white vertical band down the center (a reference to Barnett Newman's zips) is set against a backdrop of soft, supple patterns of dripped paint and pale stains. In her statement Chial talks about the long established view of the sublime as "vast, powerful, obscure and dark" and what she calls a more recent idea, that "the beautiful is distinguished from the sublime by being associated with lightness, grace, color, diminutiveness and delicacy: attributes we nearly always associate with the feminine." Finding this distinction too simple, Chial sets up contrasts between aggressive "sublime" forms such as the zips and "beautiful" patterns--only to undercut any bifurcation by visually connecting them.

Ice/Mirror is notable for its diverse modes. Two zips appear at the right edge, but what might have resembled a black zip near the center has a jagged outline that helps link it with the subtle blue background. Vague blobs on the left suggest an out-of-focus photograph while a smear at the right looks like liquid spilled on glass and the smoothly varying blue recalls the sky--all contrasts that engage the viewer in active contemplation of the painting.

If Thompson's and Chial's shows are more aesthetically engaging than Mosquera's, Michele Stutts's 27 mixed-media pieces at ARC are less immediately beautiful--she often uses discarded materials, producing a tattered, rough-edged look. But they have an emotional authenticity all the more appealing for her lack of self-pity. Born in Liverpool in 1959 and a Chicagoan since 1970, Stutts says her parents were "emotionally abusive" and that she survived a 16-year "dysfunctional relationship." Her fragmented figures suggest distress, but more than in her ARC exhibit two years ago, Stutts shows an acceptance of disruption and paradox. In the acrylic-and-ink drawing Self Portrait With Cigarette, her nude figure is surrounded by swirling lines that seem to both impinge on and magnify her body--they suggest both a trap and radiant energy.

Attachment suggests the female form in a way that's humorous as much as troubled. A panel covered with old, rough cloth has lace attached to the lower midsection; gathered in a little bag, it evokes pubic hair. An old box connected to the panel by ribbons contains two lace balls--perhaps a joke on phallic absence, perhaps a reference to female fertility. The piece pleasingly combines harsh cloth, delicate lace, and almost threatening tacks (more than are necessary to attach the cloth to the panel). But what's strongest about Attachment is the way its slightly comic mix of painterly and sculptural elements invokes life's imperfect sprawl: a good answer to the cool detachment of well-designed interiors.

Similar formal leaps tend to inform Stutts's best pieces: the abstract Traverse, for instance, uses three panels, from one of which shredded paper juts. Stylistic shifts from one piece to another also keep the viewer engaged and mirror the way each work establishes various relationships between its parts. It's not a show's superficial look that gives it meaning--it's the thoughtful questioning that results from such juxtapositions, conveying life's contradictions.

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