Cutting-Edge Without the Edge | Art Review | Chicago Reader

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Cutting-Edge Without the Edge

A young artist featured at the MCA this month has style to spare. But whatever happened to substance?


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Chris Uphues

Museum of Contemporary Art

When commercial and fine artists in the West discovered Japanese art, Westerners became interested in clean lines and simple forms evincing "good design." Almost 150 years later, in the 1990s, seekers of a similar middlebrow visual common denominator borrowed Japanese ideas again and added the spicy edge of youth culture and boutique marketing. Japanese artists Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, who are popular almost exclusively in the West, drew explicitly on Japanese comics, making not only trippy Technicolor paintings and sculptures but artist-approved mouse pads, action figures, handbags, and journals. In the United States, artists like Barry McGee and Margaret Kilgallen in San Francisco adopted the aesthetics of graffiti, skateboarding, and surfer culture as well as comics, painting on junk that evokes urban decay. Meticulous, hard-edged illustrations of cute cultural themes can be found in the most recent wave of merchandise/haute eye candy by artists like Megan Whitmarsh, Maya Hayuk, Chris Johanson, and Chicago's own Cody Hudson.

Local artist Chris Uphues, whose work appears this month in the 12 x 12 space at the Museum of Contemporary Art, is clearly an exponent of this recent trend, especially in the two of his four works here using found objects. One of them, Swarm, is a supernova of small plastic lids of various sizes affixed to the wall. On these lids Uphues has pasted facial features cut from comic books and other print images, giving each one a persona of sorts. Many of the lids are dented, punctured, or otherwise mangled, which adds pathos and maybe an element of sadistic glee. Among many other recognizable images are Pinocchio and beloved Japanese cartoon cat Doraemon, reconfigured in new colors, proportions, and patterns. Playful juxtapositions lend the piece a slight surreal uncanniness, but even with the dings and holes, these miniportraits can't be said to have a theme, sinister or otherwise.

Like Swarm, Uphues's Rainbow is a modular piece composed of painstakingly constructed tiny elements. He's drawn animals, people, and their surroundings in colored pencil on bright three-color Behr paint swatches. Often he's directly inspired by the names of the colors--for "sun-dried orange" he drew a shriveled orange--but he also finds visual and symbolic rhythms within and between the swatches. His sense of color is pleasing, his lines are confident and clean, and the overall feeling of the piece is warm. There's also an appealing cleverness to deploying the cheap, mass-produced ephemera of home beautification to create a unique, carefully handcrafted object whose aim still seems to be domestic tranquility. Deliberately or not, the characters and objects in Rainbow look every bit as prefabricated as the swatches themselves, giving the work a light, inoffensive irony. Together the bits create one Donald Judd-like horizontal spectrum traversing, of course, the colors of the rainbow. Showing the requisite entrepreneurial zeal, Uphues has also self-published Rainbow as a book, just as he published a volume on what is perhaps his most ambitious piece, a series of giant cartoon features painted on grain silos in Montana and documented by a photographer. (Both books are available at the MCA gift store.)

Uphues has had a couple of shows at Carl Hammer, a gallery that remains firmly dedicated to work evoking the heyday of imagism, a local school revered by local collectors but long forgotten by everyone else. An MCA press release compares Uphues to revered Chicago artist Karl Wirsum--and it's true that Uphues and the imagists both favor cartoons and found objects. But trying to connect Uphues's tasteful palette and smooth line work with the imagists' vomitous color orgies and clueless mechanical draftsmanship isn't easy. Uphues gets some distance from them, as well as from the San Francisco kids, in the other two works here, both large paintings. Sticking to his line-art vocabulary of geometric shapes, cartoon features, and clip art, he assembles almost monochromatic thickets of obsessively painted forms that stretch on for square inch after hypercompressed square inch. Deathstar is a circle of tiny fractured cultural icons resembling the exquisitely tight line work of hand-painted Himalayan mandalas, an influence Uphues acknowledges. Happy Shower is similar in execution and style but rendered on paper rather than canvas. Its larger form resembles a fireworks blast. Though as usual Uphues's individual lines are flawlessly drawn, there's some welcome awkwardness in the blast shape and some incongruity between it and the star-spangled cone it emerges from: Happy Shower and Swarm have more formal range than the other two works. In their simultaneous density and transparency, Happy Shower and Deathstar also hint at traditional abstraction, suggesting Picasso and Paul Klee, though both these modernists added some violent, esoteric mysticism to their semifigurative wallpaper.

I have to admit I wish Uphues's work was about something--bitterness, love, French theory, fart jokes, whatever. His art is almost aggressively vacant and complacent, and his symmetrical compositions get a bit boring. On the other hand, he doesn't use the edginess of teen aggression or libido as a crutch, the way many similar artists do. His technique and care are commendable, and ultimately his delicate formalism is impressive, soothing to contemplate, and entertaining. It forms an interesting relationship with Dan Flavin's equally blank, vivid, and arresting retrospective of fluorescent-light minimalism, situated nearby at the MCA. Uphues's work is certainly worth showing. I just wish that the big local money--that is, the MCA and the River North galleries--would turn its attention to Chicago art that doesn't bear some incidental relation to imagism, outsider art, or the other local hang-up, Mies van der Rohe. There are great small shows here all the time that take chances and explore ideas, and it's about time Chicago got recognized for new, relevant work instead of remembered for times gone by.

When: Through Sun 10/2

Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago

Price: $10 suggested admission; $6 students, seniors; kids 12 and under free. Free Tue 5-8 PM.

Info: 312-280-2660

More: Chris Uphues leads a tour of his work Tue 9/13, 6:30 PM.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Carl Hammer Gallery Chicago, courtesty of Dr. Michael Uphues.

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