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Less Is More--Sometimes

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Robyn O'Neil

at Bodybuilder and Sportsman, through April 24

David Schutter

at Bodybuilder and Sportsman, through April 24

David Crawford: Stop Motion Studies

on the Internet

Robyn O'Neil is a trained artist who cultivates a "naive" style, rendered at a stunning level of precision. In her sparsely populated, somewhat surreal snowscape drawings at Bodybuilder and Sportsman, infinitesimal pencil marks blend into the tooth of the paper, creating textures both in the tempting luminosity of her surfaces and in the physical luster of the graphite. This clean technique is put at the service of a canny approach to clumsy representation. The scenes often focus on an odd item at dead center: a log, an asymmetrical tree, a curiously misshapen bison. Plants and boulders peek from the fringe of the page. The snow-covered middle ground of these drawings becomes a flat white screen on which minutely crafted mannequinlike human and animal figures are scattered artfully; often there's an ice creamy soft-focus mountain in the background. Airtight technique and a psychologically loaded approach to storytelling evoke the protorealistic winter dramas of Pieter Brueghel the Elder, the postphotographic inner vistas of Yves Tanguy and Leonora Carrington, and the work of "outsider" artists like H.C. Westermann and Henry Darger.

O'Neil's meticulous images hint at moving stories. Shirley Jackson's The Lottery is suggested by the show's mon-umental title piece, And Then They Were Upon Him. More than four feet by six feet, this drawing shows a comical mob of balding middle-aged men sporting fa-cial hair and sweat suits--O'Neil's stock characters--pelting a lone figure with objects that might be tennis balls, snow-balls, or stones. Perhaps recent divorces grappling with their mortality, these men resemble the marooned schoolboys in William Golding's Lord of the Flies, roaming the sinister alien environment of their home planet in the aftermath of a plane crash or nuclear war. In A Caribou and an Embrace, the caribou stands unperturbed a ways back while the usual men's-movement refugee lies prone in the foreground, face cropped out by the edge of the page but Nikes clearly visible. Like the Nikes worn by conjoined siblings in the perverse natural-history diorama of sculptors Jake and Dinos Chapman, his shoes suggest a brand-loyal character in a staged primeval setting, providing a pseudoarchetypal rush--an easy gag, but still a good one when done well.

O'Neil often depicts animals, most strikingly birds: tiny, ethereal, translucent coun-terpoints to the ugly wilderness tourists. Birds flee the middle-aged athletes in Looking Down on It From the Top Only Made Him Pity Them, and bird corpses create a rhythmic pattern in Five More Fallen. The crafted crudeness of these bleak environments suggests creepy oracular dreams, inhabiting territory in between the pastoral timelessness of Henri Rousseau and Grandma Moses on one hand and the logo-laden imagery of kids' drawings on the other. In O'Neil's pieces--which have the authority of etchings--the world inhabited by civilized humans is the despoiled, cruel, forgotten wasteland we deserve, not the spiritually vibrant aboriginal fantasy we project onto "naive" folk art.

O'Neil's schooling includes a BFA from Texas A&M and a stint in the University of Illinois at Chicago's prestigious MFA program. And her artwork reflects two familiar efforts in contemporary American art: the Gen X quest for a lost childhood, best represented in commodities, and a drive to invent or discover in folk and popular imagery a uniquely American style distinct from Hollywood's cultural imperialism. Ed Ruscha and Francis Bacon might have been the first fine artists to popularize the neo-Baroque isolation of energetically rendered elements in empty abstract space, but they're hardly the last. In fact O'Neil exhibits a lot of art-world influences. Her flat imaginary landscapes recall Matthew Ritchie and Russell Crotty, while the pastoral representation of a failed utopia echoes the work of David Thorpe and O'Neil's UIC classmate Angelina Gualdoni. These drawings' spare tableaux and expressionistic modeling even have some affinity with the sloppy, unsettling cartoons of Raymond Pettibon and David Shrigley. But it's no condemnation to say that O'Neil's drawings are a tasteful smoothie of many flavors, with a ginseng zing of visionary zeal. Part of what makes her work so appealing is its subtle, simply stated eclecticism.

I'm not the only one to find it appealing. Every drawing in her show was sold within a week of the opening. Of course, what sells now in this town is ei-ther contemporary "outsider" primitivism or polished semisurreal technicolor figurative painting--and, minus the color, O'Neil's work does well on both counts. Her art is also being shown at the Whitney Biennial this year, undoubtedly for its beauty. But its unblemished consistency is another asset: the pieces are like illustrations from a single storybook, stills from an animated film, or sketches from an anthropolog-ical field study. As every successful artist learns in school, consistency is the nature of the industry, predictability the hallmark of professionalism, and pack-aging the key to marketing. But for true outsiders, consistency comes with the obsessions. I'm not sure whether the look of O'Neil's drawings is the result of clever appropriation, rational strategy, or pure instinct. I just hope that if she has a different story to tell at some point, the market will let her tell it.

Consistency can certainly have its drawbacks. David Schutter's uniformly small, blotchy gray canvases in the project room at Bodybuilder are disappointing in comparison to O'Neil's delicate work. They're allegedly still lifes, and one crude shape does resemble part of a rabbit, and this or that glob might be a grape. But this work doesn't come close to the phenomenological exploration of memory and essentialism suggested by Schutter's pretentious statement.

Schutter may be going for the zen purity of Rothko or Ryman or, in a more local vein, channeling the aloof puritanism of Gaylen Gerber's gray paintings or the Ikea-esque monochromatic pieces at Zolla/Lieberman in the 90s. But now that the minimalist and color-field traditions are more than 40 years old, paintings in that line should offer a little something extra. Schutter's don't challenge assumptions or amuse in the way that that early work did: there's not much life in his putty-colored puddles. Perhaps I'm missing some subliminal cues in these murky rectangles. I know I can be seduced by austerity done well, but pointless austerity in the middlebrow aesthetic tradition doesn't grab me.

Austerity in the form of a simple but clever formal strategy can make for strong work, however--especially with the addition of intriguing subject matter. The Bodybuilder and Sportsman Web site is hosting displays of animated work curated by Huong Ngo, a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Featured this month is David Crawford's "Stop Motion Studies," a huge collection of animated stills shot in subways in Tokyo, New York, Boston, London, Paris, and Goteborg, Sweden, in 2002 and 2003. Crawford has applied the idea of stop-motion rather than the exact technique to his documentary "videos," producing choppy silent loops that highlight minor events transpiring over a second or two. As in the experimental manipulated-footage films of Martin Arnold, minute, isolated twitching motions are comically repeated in petrified settings.

Crawford takes still digital shots on a train or in a train station, capturing the usual crowded yet strangely lifeless quality of these environments. He then animates the stills using Flash software, creating a strobelike effect; given the monotony of the scenes he examines, the beginning and end of the loop are impossible to determine. These animations take up a tiny fraction of memory compared to the same span of continuously shot digital video. The result is that, even with a poky Internet connection, Crawford's work is easy to browse. In fact, the irregularity of a slow connection only enhances the scenes' eerie staggering movement.

The work speaks directly to an experience shared by urban residents throughout the world, displaying the trivial events, aimless meditation, glimpses of fascinating characters, and studious avoidance of eye contact common while riding public transportation. But here we have license to stare. I could watch Crawford's loops all night, flipping from one nearly still scene to another, then just letting a moment stretch into a minute or more as the figures in one scene vibrate to the music playing on my computer. From Japanese schoolgirls to a blind Paris beggar to a bespectacled bondage-booted salad-eating woman in Boston, these are compelling, entertaining portraits. They also combine the strange homogeneity of photographer Andreas Gursky's public spaces, the cinematic ambiguity of Jeff Wall's light-box photos, and even the lovely light and urban voyeurism of the Impressionists. The link to Crawford's work will be on the Bodybuilder Web site for an undetermined period, but his main page is www.stopmotionstudies.net.

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