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Embracing Doubt

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Lorraine Peltz

at Gallery A, through July 12

Gabriela Morawetz

at Maya Polsky Gallery, through July 8

Karen Lebergott

at Jan Cicero, through July 12

By Fred Camper

Filmmaker Stan Brakhage once argued against what he saw as an emerging academicism in film--a "structural" approach based on an evident or predictable formula--by saying that he tried to make films about what he did not know, attempting to articulate the full chaos of the mind. Many artists have similarly turned away from art that expresses certainty, perfect clarity of vision and theme, to embrace doubt, turmoil, and even disorder. Elements in Lorraine Peltz's paintings, Gabriela Morawetz's manipulated photographs, and Karen Lebergott's paintings and drawings all undercut the works' unity and bring the viewer to a disturbingly chaotic edge, though each artist has a different purpose in doing so.

In each of her ten paintings at Gallery A, Peltz places one or more household objects against a solid color field containing repeated shapes, some of them related to the object or objects, creating almost a wallpaper effect. Knot sets a piece of rope with two simple knots against a field of tied bows outlined in purple and white, applied with a stamp to a splotchy purple field. The precisely painted rope, frayed a little at the ends, is slightly ominous, but the almost obsessive repetition of the bows has its own strangeness. Though these and other Peltz designs seem to be about redeeming "decorative" and "feminine" traditions in art, their effect is more unsettling than that: there's always something not quite right. In Knot the purple background is not solid, as in a printed design, but varies in intensity; the bows, too, don't repeat exactly because the stamp is imprecise. The repetition of the simple bow doesn't merely redeem the shape but gives it an almost iconic status.

Most of Peltz's paintings contain incongruities that open them up, giving the objects a psychological dimension that threatens to overwhelm their apparent ordinariness. A lone white handbag floats near the top of Laid Out against a luminous dark blue field covered with stamped bumblebee shapes; the whole surface is sensual and oddly unsettling. The bumblebees seem less a wallpaper design than a living environment: a few of them float in front of the handbag's straps.

Their in-depth presence exemplifies the vibrant quality of all the backgrounds. Snip Snip, for example, sets two pairs of scissors against a mostly red field without the usual repeated objects but made up of curved brush strokes with some of the appeal of the human figure. The red--suggesting lipstick, sensuality, and blood--has an almost wild intensity, which makes the scissors, both open, especially unsettling. The scissors also collide with the background visually: their pointy, straight blades clash with the more organic red streaks. Why are the scissors open? What is their use? Peltz's objects generally imply such narratives: Who tied this bow, and why? But since Peltz leaves questions about foreground and background unanswered, narrative logic is subsumed by a powerful physicality--a kind of painterly id bubbling up just beneath her works' hot surfaces.

This effect is perhaps strongest in Balls. Filling its bright pink/red field are white globes partly covered with light pink doilies whose frilly pattern suggests naughty underwear. In front of these float two black high-heeled shoes, toes pointing away from each other as if they'd been abandoned by a woman with her legs apart. I kept wondering who'd "decorated" these balls--a totally ridiculous question, of course. But Peltz's skill and almost visionary conviction give her balls and shoes a disturbing reality as they hover, like all her shapes, on the shadowy edge between the world of actual things and the inner realm of sensual passion.

Gabriela Morawetz, a Polish artist who lives in Paris, is a painter and sculptor who's only recently begun using photographic processes. In her work the chaotic effect doesn't come so much from calculated sensuality, as in Peltz's paintings, as it does from the chance results of her technique. She paints photographic emulsion directly onto slate surfaces, which she usually precoats with pigments; using an enlarger, she then prints one of her own negatives on the emulsion, which is what she displays. On the resulting dense, thick surfaces, heavy brush lines often create relief effects and color comes through in irregular splotches and streaks. The apparently random effects of the process often evoke natural patterns: moss, lichen, decay.

Morawetz's 29 untitled works at Maya Polsky are grouped into series, each of which explores a single subject. All landscapes and nudes, they're seen through a heavy, oppressive darkness, the pale outlines of the photographic image almost overwhelmed by the thick surfaces and brown, tan, and green pigmentation. What light there is seems diffused and leaden, weighing down objects as much as illuminating them. Northern European paintings of the Romantic era can have a similar inner light, but Morawetz takes these qualities to such an extreme that her surfaces almost dominate her subjects. In the landscapes of "Series VII," precisely outlined trees and bushes contrast with a streaky sky; in some, the sky seems to darken near the top and sides of the image, making it seem even more self-enclosed. Green areas, the result of Morawetz's irregular application of pigment and emulsion, evoke the struggle between chaotic, unpredictable nature and the artist's sharply delineated photographs.

In her dark, brooding images, things are not what they seem; Morawetz almost seems to strip landscape of its externality. Trees might be trees--or ghosts; figures are often presented in artificial, even contorted poses and are often androgynous. The figure in "Series I" is a nude man apparently wearing his hair in a bun. He's in a narrow room whose light walls and dark curtain look theatrical, making the images seem even more artificial. But the sense that he's carefully posed and composed is undercut by random patches of gold, which might suggest the gold of icon paintings if the model's skin weren't just as likely to be golden as the background. At times it's hard to tell where his body ends and shadows begin.

Morawetz's work evokes decayed paintings and photographs ruined by time, a private world in which mysterious, uncontrollable forces threaten to overwhelm the inner eye. She makes her materials evident not so we can understand how her images were made but as a way of further mystifying her process, allowing her materials to dominate the imagery. Morawetz offers a vision so private it almost obscures its subjects, as people and trees seem on the verge of being absorbed into disorder and darkness.

Karen Lebergott, like Peltz a longtime Chicagoan, makes works that are in one sense even more process oriented than Morawetz's: her slate surfaces, however obscure, retain a certain surface elegance, while Lebergott's eight paintings at Jan Cicero are not at first particularly pleasurable to look at. Her restrained colors offer none of the immediate sensual kick of Peltz's paintings; her abstractions are not nearly as well composed as Morawetz's images. But on repeated viewings I liked the way Lebergott's paintings appealed more to the mind than to the eye. Her rectilinear designs, combined with more painterly elements undercutting geometry, set me thinking about mapping and landscape, nature and culture. The six drawings also on view make that connection explicit, adding resonance to the paintings.

Lebergott mentions as a turning point a Philip Guston retrospective almost two decades ago. This show was key for a number of other artists as well; seeing the bizarre cartoonish figures of Guston's later paintings in a museum freed many to pursue their own directions. It was, Lebergott says, "probably the first time I understood that art truly needn't conform to the idea of beautiful. The aesthetics of beauty was challenged, and yet the exhibit was the most profoundly emotional experience that I'd ever had from art."

Evidence, a grid of brown and tan rectangles, certainly doesn't aim for conventional beauty. The pattern of its lower half is echoed in the upper, though the colors are different; otherwise there seems to be no repetition--each group of rectangles varies in shape and hue. Whatever expectation one group sets up is undercut by the next, giving the picture a quiet dynamism. But at first I found it hard to discern meaning in these perceptual effects.

The drawings clarified Lebergott's work for me. In several of them she paints small squares of color over topographic maps; others include more abstract grids resembling plats for small towns or housing subdivisions. In Elsah Quadrangle she's ruled a tight grid of lines over a topographic map and colored some of the resulting squares yellow or blue. Their arrangement is fascinatingly arbitrary: they neither make a pleasing design nor relate specifically to the map beneath them. Indeed, all of Lebergott's grids seem to reflect the arbitrariness of human impositions on nature. Our plats, logical and consistent in themselves, have no real relationship to the organic, more chaotic patterns of the land. In her statement Lebergott refers to human activities as "defining, regulating, controlling," and she begins the statement with a quotation from Robert Smithson, who asks that the artist "take on the persona of a geologic agent...becom[ing] a part of that process rather than overcoming it."

Reflecting the process by which they're made, the best of Lebergott's paintings encourage one to see them not as instantly accessible compositions but as objects of contemplation. Products of a temporal process not unlike the processes of nature, they evoke the world our cities are obliterating. Untitled (#1) is almost filled with a large white rectangle set at a slight angle against a black background; occasionally the black undercoat shows through. Scrapings and punctures in the white pigment also reveal black below, and their arrangement in curving lines creates abstract designs akin to the curves of a leaf or face. Seeing it, one understands that the punctures came after the paint, and that the white paint followed the black. Neither this evidence of process nor the contrasts of rectilinear designs with organic shapes is particularly original; what's powerful is the way they intersect. Lebergott presents all human interventions, curved or straight, as arbitrary products of a single instant, tiny fragments of a chaotic continuum of processes too large for any picture, or any single mind, to encompass.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Evidence" by Karen Lebergott/ Work by Gabriela Morawetz/ "Balls" by Lorraine Peltz.

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