Lee Grantham can’t escape the long shadow of the Chicago Imagists | Art Review | Chicago Reader

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Lee Grantham can’t escape the long shadow of the Chicago Imagists


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L ee Grantham, whose new show "Reverse Acrylic Paintings" is at Jean Albano Gallery through February 24, is a Milwaukee-based painter whose work can't escape the Chicago Imagists' long shadow.

Celebrated treasure hunter John Maloof, whose own Imagist-indebted reverse acrylic paintings are also represented by the gallery, first brought Grantham to Albano's attention more than a year ago. Maloof insisted she visit Grantham's modest south-side Milwaukee home. "When John says 'You've gotta see this,' you go," Albano told me. What she saw was a house chock-full of brightly colored acrylic paintings on vintage television consoles, silverware boxes, and canvas. But the ones that attracted her most were executed in reverse on Plexiglas.

Albano, who has represented many of the most prominent Imagists over the years, marvels at the scale on which Grantham often works; his largest paintings can measure up to six feet long. "How does he do that?" she wonders aloud.

Born in 1953, Grantham studied painting at Ball State University in his native Indiana after serving in the navy. During his senior year he saw a show that included two small reverse paintings by Chicago Imagists Barbara Rossi and Karl Wirsum. They were such a revelation that he decided to change his manner of painting and move to Chicago rather than New York upon graduation. He never studied with Rossi and Wirsum, though he was included in some local gallery shows in the 80s and 90s; then he moved to Milwaukee and his exhibition history has been sporadic since. Albano told me he works a full-time job, has a wife and kids, and is getting ready to retire, but she's cagey about revealing any more personal or professional details than that.

Grantham takes his imagery from instructional manuals, industrial illustrations, and, occasionally, from art history. His Van Gogh tribute, Worth Cutting Your Ear Off For (1991), presents an outline of the artist with bandaged ear, his face blank save for a cartoonish mouth, and pairs him with a similarly featureless bodice- and panty-clad blond. Around these two central figures are various bits and pieces from Van Gogh's paintings, as well as renderings of knives, scissors, paintbrushes, and paint tubes. I don't know why Vincent and his scantily clad friend have no eyes or nose, but the rest of the imagery is straightforward enough. I suppose she's meant to be the mythical prostitute he presented his ear to, but that's an interpretive leap.

Grantham's work, like that of his Imagist forebears, manages to be both polished and oddly unformed. The pictures are obviously the product of a dogged personality, but it's often difficult to discern any meaning or message. Their bright, clashing patterns connote celebration or frenzy, but the featureless, frozen figures which people them rarely convey either personality or thought.

The most gripping mystery is why Grantham kept cranking out his work all these years while keeping a low profile in the art world, but the sleek plastic surfaces of these paintings do not yield many insights.   v

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