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Decaying Myths

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TONY FITZPATRICK AND OBAJI NYAMBI

at Lorenzo Rodriguez Gallery

Midway between the crumbling Kennedy Expressway and the rough edges of Bucktown, the spare storefront of Lorenzo Rodriguez's home and gallery glows with carefully placed interior lights. Known about town for his large-scale art-strewn warehouse parties catering to Chicago's black-leather-jacket bohemia, Rodriguez settled his art interest into more stable digs at 1178 N. Milwaukee last October. The gallery is divided into two small rooms, whose mat gray masonite floors make footsteps echo and lend a pleasant air of impermanence to the simple, sunlit space. A velvet curtain conceals the proprietor's small living quarters, while a fiberglass shower in the customer bathroom hints at the space's multiple uses. Formerly a commodities trader at the Mercantile Exchange, the quick-speaking 28-year-old dealer says he's currently devoting "full time to the gallery." He and his partner, John David, have so far hung six shows of young Chicago artists and out-of-towners. A strong pairing of print work by Chicagoans Tony Fitzpatrick and Obaji Nyambi, on view through May 9, looks promising for this off-downtown entrepreneurial gamble.

The front-room show features 23 of Fitzpatrick's recent etchings. His exhibition last fall of larger, more elaborate drawings at Carl Hammer Gallery nearly sold out; these are smaller and more affordable prints, priced between $300 and $800 unframed. The artist fills these little fields with all sorts of figural data--a buxom cartoon gal grinningly shows her stuff on an aptly shaped print called Keyhole Kutie; a larger-than-life insect with human hands and buggy eyes challenges the viewer in The Coming of Locusts; in Shoeless Joe a dejected, teary-eyed scarecrow shows his local loyalties with a prominent White Sox hat (Fitzpatrick wears a Sox cap, too).

The format of virtually all the prints is the same. A central image--girlie girl, tattooed hand, surreal insect, red devil--is surrounded by a host of wispy, fine-lined depictions of apparently incongruous stuff. Buzzing radio towers and scuttling stick men surround the aforementioned grasshopper; a muscular, smoke-breathing bipedal bull stands against a field of bomb-dropping war planes, dancing clock faces, and barbed-wire crowns of thorns. In Crow House, a large black bird is enshrined within a house-shaped ground, crowned with a levitating magician's hat and swathed in a whirl of stuff that includes a smiley girl, a slithery snake, and a tiny mission church. Stacked flat against the picture plane, the barrage of little images invites close scrutiny, luring viewers into a careful but generally fruitless perusal for some hint of narrative that might hold the images together, for some riddle whose solution might make the etchings "make sense."

They don't. Except, perhaps, in Fitzpatrick's widely roving mind. These are fantasy pictures, and they're delightful to look at in the same way that it's fun to shake up the Styrofoam snow in those water globes people bring home from more exotic locales. And in these miniature formats, whether 4 inches by 4 inches or 12 inches by 12 (the largest), Fitzpatrick's odd pictorial blizzards seem like souvenirs, too. This is a good scale for this artist's hand. Rendered more sparsely than his larger, busier color drawings and executed in black with sand-colored aquatint grounds, embellished only here and there with bits of red ink, these exhibit the carefulness of Fitzpatrick's drawing style.

There's a bittersweet quality to all of his dreamy depictions that links him stylistically to earlier Chicago artists. Fitzpatrick's busty, cartoonlike women and simple architectural forms are reminders of painter Roger Brown; the stubbornly flat picture planes and kooky linear renderings mimic Karl Wirsum; the belligerent barroom humor of boobs and bombers and monster insects and weird tattoos recalls Ed Paschke's work from the early 1970s. Though Fitzpatrick has received no formal training in art or art history, his debt--or perhaps his homage--to Chicago's Imagist past is quite apparent.

But then Fitzpatrick (a former prizefighter, WLUP radio man, and motorcycle-riding native son) has long been eager to absorb and exude this city's swaggering myths. His rough-and-tumble persona percolates through his art in the form of a vague nostalgia: Fitzpatrick's dreamlike pictures reflect Chicago's romantic imagination of its older self. His men are muscular and broad-shouldered. His subject matter is a little bit crass. These are, after all, depictions of pinup girls and warplanes, baseball fans and boxing devils--low-down, beer-drinking pictures, tellers of tawdry jokes. Sweet and tough, they mine the legend of a quickly receding workingmen's past.

Obaji Nyambi rifles through decaying mythologies, too. Like Fitzpatrick, Nyambi employs a straightforward representational style and uses figures metaphorically, but his technique and his tale are quite different. Walking from the front room to Nyambi's exhibit behind, one is initially struck by the high color of Nyambi's recent pastel and xerography pieces. Initially the pictures look simple enough. Using an electric palette that recalls Mexican mural painting (or more accurately, the neon-hue versions of such pictures that decorate the walls of gringo-filled margarita joints), Nyambi thickly applies pastels in naturalistic depictions of female nudes. Like Playboy bunnies, the women look out at the viewer with airy smiles and mock-provocative glances. They stand or recline in syrupy bright green-and-pink landscapes, and might well be taken as misogynistic centerfolds were it not for their lovers: stoic brown statue men who look quite uncomfortable with their magazine mates.

Unlike his women, Nyambi's males are not depicted at all naturalistically. Consider Le Drume a Contre Coeur: the man looks much like the gift-shop fertility symbols and idol objects that Westerners love to collect for their coffee tables. Using cutouts of Xerox images on rice paper, Nyambi surrounds his women with pages from actual newspaper stories. Cloaked in crinkly reports of plummeting Dow Jones Industrials or the gulf war or some random Bill Clinton sighting, Nyambi's demure women come to stand for the West, seducing other domains with literacy and whiteness and complicated merchant economies, playfully in love with the exotic images of more "primitive" cultures they've devised.

In fact, Nyambi often derives his female forms from the pages of American magazines or nudie decks of cards. His male icons come from childhood memories of his native Nigeria and from books about the history and artifacts of Africa. Nyambi organizes this cumbersome trinity of sources--Playboy, Africa, and newspaper text--by paying meticulous attention to the borders of his compositions. No line or color or image ever strays from its ruler-straight boundaries, and each picture is cleanly framed and fully contained under glass. As is so often true of the real-life conflicts between black and white, colonized and colonizer, Nyambi's oppositions are cleaned up by the framing and romanticized by the palette. All the bitterness goes down just fine.

Grouped on one wall, three smaller monochrome lithographs salve the impression created by the more hostile, saccharine-sweet pastels. In these three still, balanced pictures, human figures casually recline on the floor or in the window seats of spare rooms. Bits of newsprint appear as rumpled blankets or scraps of formless clothes. In one image two women, perhaps lovers, stumble from sleep long after morning light. In another, a woman sits in bed alone, apparently unsure what to do when she finishes her day's first cigarette. The windows offer a glimpse of the world from which these figures have escaped, just a stair flight and wall width away from some noisy, busy, changing city, much like the world just outside this gallery's door.

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