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On Exhibit: the inscrutable Rene Daniels

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Something about the paintings of Dutch artist Rene Daniels tickles the funny bone. Hanging in the white-walled gallery at the top of the Mies van der Rohe staircase in the Arts Club of Chicago, these paintings seem like they might laugh at themselves if they could. It would be a pleasant laugh, a giggle of surprise and no more than that. As if to say, "Oh! Here we are. In a gallery!"

The funny thing is that most of the pieces in this exhibit are paintings of galleries. Or places that might be galleries. Or at least shapes that remind you of other paintings by Daniels of galleries. Then again, maybe these are just paintings of bow ties, drawn so that they resemble a room that could be a gallery. Because the first thing you notice when you look at Daniels's paintings is the bow ties.

"You really don't know what you're looking at. You never figure it out. That's the point," said Paul Andriesse, a Dutch art dealer and close friend of Daniels who gave a talk at the gallery. Like the surrealists, Daniels puts things in his paintings that don't logically belong together. But Daniels also uses flat geometric shapes and bold patches of color reminiscent of the minimalist painters. He then combines them in ways that suggest he's following the rules of perspective to create rooms or parts of rooms. Then, by introducing elements in unexpected places, he undermines that sense of perspective.

In The Battle for the 20th Century, he suspends a room like a big red bow tie above the sea. In Observatorium, he turns that same room on its side to resemble an hourglass, or a high-rise building. Innodiging (a distortion of the Dutch word for "art opening") is a simple-looking painting with bright colors and thick lines suggesting a gallery (with two side walls and one down at the end). There's art on the wall and a microphone and piano in the middle of the room. The walls' edges (of course) form the shape of a bow tie. There's an opening between the left and back walls. It looks like someone could slip through there if they wanted to. A white square with a black capital "I" in the middle hangs in the upper left corner of the canvas, above the gallery's walls. On second glance it looks like two white walls with an opening at the corner that someone could slip through if they had such a notion. "He mixes it up so the person can't place himself in a specific relationship to the space," Andriesse noted. And to further throw the viewer off, Daniels made another shape just like the wall, only it's reversed, painted a solid color, and placed in what should be the foreground right below the microphone.

This recycling of elements in Daniels's work stems from his preoccupation with the idea that a painting is never really finished. Each picture continues with the next canvas, which becomes the same painting as the one before it, but different. Het Huis looks like a painting of Innodiging. It has the same "I" shape in the corner, the same gallery walls that resemble bow ties. But this time there's a transparent layer on top of the gallery scene, a white wash. On top of that layer, there are dark outlines of those same bow ties. Then you notice variations in the gallery scene. Slight differences in the wall. A different arrangement of the piano and the microphone.

Daniels was so caught up in each painting, says Andriesse, he didn't want to leave or forget it. This gives his work a palpable joy, as if it delights in just being there. This series might be the last in his career, however. In 1987, at age 36, Daniels suffered an aneurysm, which severely limited his neurological capabilities. For a man who never wanted to leave his paintings, nothing could be more devastating.

Rene Daniels's work will be at the Arts Club of Chicago, 109 E. Ontario, through October 23. Call 787-3997 for more info.

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