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Friese Undine: Perdition in Chickentown

at Aron Packer, through August 17

Bradford Johnson

at Gwenda Jay/Addington, through August 24

Though neither Friese Undine nor Bradford Johnson claims Gerhard Richter as an influence, both make paintings based on photo-graphs and both step back from the role of artist as icon maker, as author of a compelling and complete universe. Indeed, questioning artistic and political authority, denying grand meanings, is part of their theme, as it is for the seminal artist whose work is now on view in a retrospective at the Art Institute.

Undine writes in his statement that his work is "based on the power structures in various human relationships," some of them "between the government and the governed." And many of his 65 paintings at Aron Packer undercut the usual power dynamic, some quite explicitly. A woman seated at a table in An Authority Crisis looks ready to devour the chicken on a plate before her--except that the chicken's head is upright and facing her. Has it come back to life? Though the pose is copied from a serving suggestion in an Asian cookbook, Undine told me, the consumer is still being confronted by the consumed. The title of Nestled in the Warm Bosom of Fellow Elites is similarly ironic: the lumpy-faced couple standing in front of an old shack cradling chickens in their arms don't reveal much more intelligence than their charges. And something about the orderly lines of bottles behind a man at a bar in All the Dire Overemphasis Casts Doubt on the Text suggests that they are the scene's real "text," which may be "doubtful" because the man seems to be in a drunken stupor.

Like most of the works here, these are monochromes on gessoed canvas, the figures heavily outlined and shaded with simple grays. The titles appear as words stenciled over the images. These are not supple works with expressive rhythms; the human animal here lacks any soulful depth; the compositions don't elevate the subjects. Instead the works' rough textures have a blunt, posterlike physicality that combines with the texts to send the viewer into loops of thought, usually about how we humans may not be quite as special as we assume.

At times Undine uses ambiguous texts to address common human problems. The Boat Blames the Water (originally called "The Man Blames the Boat") shows two happy swimmers and a boat rowed by a sad-looking nude man. The lack of specificity as to what he "blames the water" for allows Undine to make a larger point about the way humans butt their heads against things they can't change. The "happy" swimmers, roughly outlined with little nuance, don't offer a much more attractive alternative. The space (as in All the Dire Overemphasis) is tilted, suggesting its photographic origins and making the image more difficult to enter; Undine's hard-edged lines add to the feeling of rebuff.

Born in Los Angeles in 1965 to Mormon parents and a Chicago resident since 1998, Undine grew up in a small Utah town. He cites Goya's Los Caprichos, a series of etchings renowned for its biting social commentary, as formative. His present work is also influenced by Soviet propaganda posters, other propaganda art, and the great anti-Nazi photomontagist John Heartfield, who also used texts. These influences can be seen in one of the few two-color pieces, We Learned to Shake Hands but Not With Each Other. Printed diagonally above a seated dog is the title, with the words "shake hands" larger and enclosed in a red banner. Bands of gray suggest the folds in the dog's skin, but the animal never acquires any expressiveness, partly because its face is cut off by the left edge of the picture. Here the text looks loud and declarative, like propaganda, while the title and the faceless animal under-cut certainty. This mix of authority and ambiguity is perhaps connected with Undine's upbringing and his eventual rejection of the Mormon faith. "It was really sex that led to the downfall" at the age of 18, he said. "It was a very bumpy but short route away from the church."

Undine's cleverest title, Chronic Euphemisma, is painted over a man standing in front of an aerial view of Chicago. Though he looks like a bored laborer, it seems he's about to applaud something. Wisps of smoke around his head suggest a pun on emphysema, but it's the combination of clapping, "euphemism," and his blunt, almost blank face that makes the work's point: that many of us go through life like automatons, thoughtlessly praising things we don't care about.

Even more impressive is Lucky, an almost frightening grid of 24 portraits of people who look bottled up, trapped. Undine says he painted them from photos in the New York Times, which "loves to print pictures of disappointed or grief-stricken people clutching their heads." Here the hands covering the eyes and faces knotted in grief suggest emotion but also withdrawal. Each portrait has a number painted under it (which Undine generated randomly using playing cards), recalling a prison ID or other dehumanizing numerical identification. Together the subjects' generic gestures and expressions, masking whatever's within, and the numbers reduce people to ciphers, suggesting that we aren't as knowable as we think.

Bradford Johnson paints from photographs too but uses a very different technique, wet-transferring color photocopies to panels (Rauschenberg was a key early influence), then painting lines of various colors over the resulting image on 15 to 30 layers of clear acrylic. The result is a kind of pointillism of lines rather than dots (Johnson also counts Seurat as an influence): different colors blend to make a recognizable image at a distance, with a soft focus that recalls Richter's photograph paintings.

Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1963, Johnson now lives in Boston. Like Undine, he has a religious past: though he remains a Christian today, he says he lacks his parents' doctrinal certitude. Because of his dad's love of sailing, Johnson spent much time on the water off Cape Cod, where he became fascinated by marine biology and the Loch Ness monster. His father also collected declassified photos of submarines, warplanes, and missiles, some of which serve as Johnson's subjects today.

A. Lincoln, one of Johnson's nine paintings at Gwenda Jay/Addington (six more can be seen on request), addresses the anti-iconic theme. A very wide but short canvas, it shows only Lincoln's nose and eyes, which are partly closed. His relatively blank expression undercuts the piercing effect one might expect from the composition. And of course Johnson's multilevel brush strokes call attention to the surface, which subverts the picture's illusion: from up close the viewer sees the image breaking down into strokes that go every which way, verging on abstraction.

Johnson's technique defuses the image still further in C-3, which shows a missile launch. From a distance the rocket's nose seems to thrust aggressively toward the sky, even though the colors of the two don't create a strong contrast. But up close all one sees is paint, suggesting that human constructions are arbitrary accretions of chaotic elements.

The same might be said of the lush, romantic landscape Green Field L. Ness, its vanishing point across a distant body of water, recalling Caspar David Friedrich's landscapes, in which the vanishing point represents the sublime. Perhaps the open space reflects Johnson's experiences sailing, but once again his brush strokes undermine the picture's illusion: he strikes a balance between representing and denying the spirituality of nature. Rather than create a traditional eye-filling masterpiece, he and Undine--like Richter (and his influences Cage and Rauschenberg)--open up space for the viewer.

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