Measures of Humanity | Art Review | Chicago Reader

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Measures of Humanity

Dylan Morgan/at David Leonardis Gallery, through October 26. Nancy Eiseman/at InsideArt, through October 27. Kathleen McCarthy/at ARC, through October 26.

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Dylan Morgan

at David Leonardis Gallery,

through October 26

Nancy Eiseman

at InsideArt, through October 27

Kathleen McCarthy

at ARC, through October 26

By Fred Camper

We often hear highfalutin spiritual and philosophical justifications for art, but one rarely offered today is the idea that art expresses emotion. The relatively few artists who do focus on such an apparently ordinary concern face the problem of bringing new life to a mode thoroughly picked over in previous centuries. Yet Dylan Morgan succeeds in most of his 15 paintings based on black-and-white photographs at David Leonardis, using broad brush strokes and soft-edged forms to render human dramas. Many of the compositions pivot around a single person in an enclosed and enigmatic setting; Morgan's brushwork adds color and feeling, making a face or a body or a pair of hands into the emotional fulcrum on which the entire image rests. His rough, splotchy surfaces give a confrontational rawness to subjects that sometimes border on the sentimental.

In Man Eating, San Francisco (after a photo by Robert Frank) a man sits alone at a table, a cafeteria tray before him. The dark browns and grays of his clothing and hair accentuate the light flesh of his face, which in turn highlights his sad dark eyes. While many other painters have rendered faces similarly--this one is streaked with white, pink, brown, gray, and black, giving it more color and texture than anything else in the picture but a few plates of greenish food--this man's face sits at a compositional focal point, and its painterly variety somehow seems to include the whole scene within it. At the same time the face extends its presence throughout the image. The man looks down, across and above the table, leading the viewer's eye to cross the tray with its humble meal. This is an individual trapped in his social context--his class and his isolation from others seem like little prisons.

Morgan mostly chooses photos of people from the lower regions of the economic pyramid. Some are at the very bottom, such as the boy in Starving Child (after Robert Capa), who reaches out from his crib, his eyes and hand seeming to cross the space between the picture and the viewer. But I was more intrigued by Morgan's more enigmatic narratives. Who is the man in Man Eating, San Francisco? What is he looking at? Why is he eating alone? Porta Lee & Mr. Will, Arkansas (after Eugene Richards) is even more mysterious. The viewer looks into the front seat of a car, the windshield rendered in smears of paint that admit no view of the surroundings. A woman in yellow in the far right foreground holds her hands in front of the steering wheel, palms facing us; a man appears to be sleeping in the passenger seat. The woman seems to be looking at her palms, which have far more variety than the rest of the picture, painted in a mixture of white, red, tan, and gray. Her hands are the focus of an image in which we cannot see her face, the clearest sign of her selfhood.

Her hands, like the faces in Morgan's other paintings, are more sensuous and variegated than a photograph could make them. The rough brush strokes, reflecting the artist's hand, humanize them. At the same time the painting has a photographic depth not usually associated with brushwork so loose. The woman seems unusually large compared to the man, likely the result of a wide-angle lens. Most of the paintings in the show convey similar effects: objects are arranged in space in a manner we associate with an "objective" photograph. Morgan translates the emotional resonance of his photographic sources into painterly terms, adding a kind of sensuality photography lacks, identifying his paint with the feelings the images suggest.

Morgan, 41, born and raised in Texas, now lives in Santa Cruz, California. His father, Paul, was a writer and painter who lived at home while Dylan's mother worked; he grew up with his father's paintings around him, which were influenced by modernists like Kandinsky, Miro, and Klee. Morgan, who was a jazz drummer in his 20s and has never taken an art class, didn't seriously pursue painting until he was 29. The influences he mentions are diverse--Velazquez, van Gogh, Tamayo, Robert Henri, George Bellows--and though he's been to Europe, most of his experience of art is from reproductions. A landscape painter in the 80s, he began painting from photographs in 1990.

"One thing that appealed to me about the photographic image was that it was not invented," he says. His left-leaning parents impressed on him "the situation of various people in the world--the class struggle, if you will," an awareness that doubtless affects his choice of subjects today. "I'm not really big on the aesthetic value of painting for its own sake. I'm trying to tell a story, I'm not trying to call attention to the storyteller. It's important to me that I'm trying to address the human condition in my art, not just painterly concerns, which I find hollow. Painters are trying to solve the painterly problems--these photographers are tying to solve the human problems."

A few of Morgan's paintings are based on photos that address the great human problems, such as starvation, but the idea of the human is realized in most of them through small, enigmatic moments--such as a woman contemplating her hands. In Saxophone Player, Boston (after Eugene Richards) the face of a uniformed youth, his mouthpiece, and the small music holder attached to his instrument are arrayed in a line, leading the eye toward the background, where an abandoned building surrounded by weeds stands in an empty lot. The effect is of the player serenading the wasteland in which we assume he lives. The three figures in Barbecue, Chicago (after Richards) are blurred by gray smoke rising from the grill in the foreground. The woman tending the grill is rendered in browns and reds, but the reddest area is a dab of lipstick: like the hands or the sax or the intense eyes in other pictures, this almost accidental daub of paint is a sign of her uniqueness, a tiny measure of her humanity.

Where Dylan Morgan reclaims the picture space for human feeling and social meaning, Nancy Eiseman in her 16 spare drawings at InsideArt seems a world apart from individuated emotions and urban angst. She renders the simplest of subjects--fruits, vegetables, nutshells, sea-shells--in pencil on white backgrounds. Though these works are representational, I thought immediately of the spiritual tradition in abstract art--of Mondrian and Malevich, of Barnett Newman and Agnes Martin. Eiseman, 36, a Chicagoan who grew up in New Jersey, was inspired to become an artist in college after seeing the work of Georgia O'Keeffe; she mentions Giorgio Morandi, Louise Nevelson, and Edward Weston as other artists she likes.

But Eiseman's Two Peppers is very different from Weston's famous photographs. While Weston's peppers have an almost infinite variety of shades and textures musically modulated, Eiseman's two peppers are nearly white at their centers, with delicate light grays around the edges and darker grays in the small shadows beneath. What she shares with Weston, and O'Keeffe, is the removal of objects from any human context. Her work aspires to a pure and elegant silence.

Yet these drawings have their own quiet dynamism. In Nutshell, Stone, & Fossil everything but the named objects and their shadows is white, but the shadow under the nutshell is rendered in grays with varying degrees of sharpness. Delicately shaded, it feels oddly alive: the darker areas, growing gradually out of the surrounding light gray, almost seem to be actively gathering darkness. In Two Nutshells Eiseman juxtaposes the inside of a large shell, made up of intricate chambers, with a smaller, rounder whole one whose surface is smooth and almost evenly gray. But as I looked longer, the subtly shaded surface began to seem as complex as the larger form. Juxtaposing them, the artist seems to be saying that even the simplest of things is alive with spirit.

Eiseman is forthcoming about her sources: "It's important for me to communicate my spiritual perception of the world, what lies beneath or beyond the surface. I converted to Catholicism in about '87, and that's been a major thing in my life. I also meditate and hang out with Buddhists--I see pretty much the same truth in all religions, but I worship as a Catholic." The white in her drawings is like a spiritual ground. Within the objects she depicts the white areas are in many ways indistinguishable from the surface of the paper, and if she gave us only the decontextualized objects we might see the white paper as a mere backdrop. But by including shadows Eiseman makes her objects three-dimensional, encouraging the viewer to read the white surroundings less as paper than as light: the light that shadows can block out, the light out of which objects can emerge.

This is clearest perhaps in Big Shell. An area of shadow at the center, where the shell spirals inward, has a very different feel from the shadow underneath, whose sharpness and intensity subtly shift as this curved form rises and falls from the invisible surface on which it rests. Many areas of this gently curving form nearly bleed off into the paper's whiteness, but the shadow below, cast on a surface no more visible than the background, suggests that the whiteness stands for neither empty space nor the paper but a world consumed by brightness.

I enjoyed seeing these two exhibits together because they seemed opposites: one artist represents human dramas and social realities while the other expresses a spirituality underlying things. But seen from another perspective--that of Kathleen McCarthy's luminous installation at ARC, The Structure of Empty Space or What Does the Void Look Like--they began to seem more similar. Both base their artistry on small movements of the artist's hand; both bodies of work express the artist's point of view. But McCarthy, a 1995 graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, seeks not to create uniquely expressive objects the viewer experiences as conveyors of her vision but rather abstract, interactive structures. Yet in other ways her piece, with its appeal to emptiness and light, reminds me of Eiseman's drawings.

McCarthy has filled a room with strands of clear fishing line in groups of three, each group 18 inches from the next, making a giant grid between opposite walls and from floor to ceiling; denied entry, the viewer can see the work only from one of the room's two doors. On bright days the filaments catch the light from the windows at one end; on dark days, when the lights are turned on, they catch daylight at one end and incandescent light at another. The visibility of each thread depends on where you stand; a slight movement renders one part invisible while filling another with light.

The linear arrangement of her piece and its title suggest Cartesian geometry, a system of measuring positions in space. But because the work changes with one's viewpoint and the light, it seems to deny the objectivity of a system of measurement. The threads both draw the viewer in and physically bar access. The absence of any obvious self-expression in the work's grid and the way its appearance changes depending on circumstances beyond the artist's control keep it from feeling finished; only the viewer can complete it, in his own mind.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Miners, Bolivia" by Dylan Morgan - photo unattributed.

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