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Out From Under the Influence

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Wesley Kimler Picks Four

at the Lineage Gallery, through January 10

Though he was born in Montana and raised in northern California, Wesley Kimler has been a fixture on the Chicago art scene for more than a decade. A strong painter whose work both revives and subverts abstract expressionism, he has a forceful personality marked by contradictions close to the surface: engaging and almost dandyish, he also lets you know he could be a real bastard if he wanted to.

When I met Kimler by accident at Lineage and spoke excitedly about Anna Kunz, I wasn't surprised that he shared my enthusiasm: he picked all four of the artists exhibiting with him at the gallery. Lineage, a new space, boosts Chicago as a noncompetitive art community, inviting established artists to turn the spotlight on newcomers of promise. Ed Paschke and Vera Klement were the first two presenters; Kimler is the third.

I told Kimler I had trouble seeing anything of his work in Kunz. His replies, on this day and later, revealed two perspectives on the subject of artistic influence that couldn't be farther apart. He first denied having anything to do with the development of these artists, but on another day he claimed that the three painters--Mary Livoni, John Santoro, and Kunz--had all benefited from his "sensibility of how paint should be handled," and emphasized the extent of his discussions with them about the meaning of painting.

Kimler's ambivalent attitude about his own artistic influence doesn't seem to have affected the artists themselves. All of them acknowledge a strong debt to him, but their individual sensibilities are their own: they seem to recognize that influence doesn't have to be all or nothing. Since the newcomers' influence here is an artist who's not only active but sure of himself and rather contentious, they must have had to work to establish distinct identities without being disrespectful. What they all seem to have picked up, if anything, is Kimler's zest for conflicts, both social and aesthetic.

Kimler's own Ashland #2, the largest painting in the exhibit, is given the coveted space on the wall directly opposite the gallery entrance--you can't help seeing it as a road map to the work of the other artists. As full of contradictions as the man who painted it, the canvas is divided into fields of white and mint green whose almost placid surface is interrupted by a single bloody diagonal brush stroke. I found myself wondering about the psychology of the person who could create both the serene mood and the gesture of painterly violence, perhaps on the same day.

Livoni, Santoro, Kunz, and printmaker Autumn Rooney all tackle contradictions in their works, even as they grapple with the contradiction of acknowledging a progenitor without imitating him. Three of the four work in oil paint, Kimler's medium, and all three make some use of abstract forms but never to the point of imitation. Livoni has developed a series of paintings vaguely depicting piles of tires and other industrial refuse she finds in and around Lincoln Park. She makes no comment on decay from a social or poetic standpoint, however, instead limiting herself to aesthetic concerns. The paradox in her work is that, though she displays a masterly technique in rich, sweeping brush strokes, the formal issues she addresses--the balance and structure of elements in these piles--are normally associated with sculpture and architecture rather than painting. Bricks and Rain, hung on a different wall from the rest of her works, comes across as the most elegant, in part because of its compact dimensions and in part because of greater tonal contrast between the background and the foreground.

Santoro creates an uneasy fusion of abstract and naturalistic elements in his paintings, dropping colors and shapes from the world of toys into a swirl of undeniably Kimler-like abstract gestures. In Tyrannosaurus Landscape ravenous eyes peer out of a sky blue network of paint. Piper Cub #3 situates a model airplane in a narrow band of sky surrounded on all sides by an abstract expressionist painting. Although I was impressed by the fact that the abstract and naturalistic elements, though adjacent, refused to mingle, I imagined that more startling effects along these lines might be achieved by means of collage--another medium with which Kimler has had success.

Printmaker Rooney--who has worked in the studio of Tony Fitzpatrick, undoubtedly a more direct influence than Kimler--makes gum/oil transfers on paper in which two kinds of line drawings engage in perpetual debate. Black, thick-lined drawings of organic forms stand out against the faded outlines of technical drawings suggestive of patent documents; in some cases, the mechanical drawings stand out against the organic ones. With titles such as Distinctively Original and Customized Comfort--phrases that sound borrowed from advertising copy--Rooney gently addresses the folly of technological utopianism while noticing the sensuousness of beans and roots.

As I talked to Kimler about Kunz, I was looking at her boxed collection of three small paintings, created explicitly to identify the lessons she learned from him. One of these works bears the motto "mindless painting first." Viewing her three large works here--Red, Yellow, and Blue--and reading her long-winded but charming artist's statement, I came back to the motto as one way of understanding how Kunz has reconciled Kimler's influence with an artistic practice all her own. When Kimler, or any abstract expressionist, says "mindless" he means unconscious and liberated from convention and tradition. Kunz reinterprets "mindless" to mean freedom from having to imagine a new form. In her artist's statement she refers time and again to "mental blocks," and her way around them is to fall back on her personal library of images snipped from newspapers and magazines. She copies these images as place markers on her wooden painting surface until she's ready to rework them--often leaving nothing of the original.

Red, Yellow, and Blue are each divided into nine squares, enabling the viewer to invent stories from these vertical, horizontal, or diagonal ticktacktoes, piecing together narrative elements from squares decorated with color sketches of Klee-like simplicity: each square expresses its own idea. Given the painted wood and the arrangement, these seem another kind of mental "block." It isn't hard to string them together into phrases and sentences of icons (think of the game Boggle), but thematically the colors resist systematization, their meanings overlapping and contradicting one another. The titular color predominates, but not entirely: the upper middle square of Red shows a pea-green head in profile with only the faintest of red streaks. Blue features a prone corpse, forms that could be rib cages or veined leaves, and a protoplasmic cell. Red contains pea pods and another corpse, while Yellow is marked by botanical and insect forms. You get the feeling that once Kunz gets going, she forgets all about Wesley Kimler--though her work too is filled with paradoxes.

Influence doesn't have to be a big deal. Artists can sidestep the question of whether they're succumbing to it or overcoming it by accepting some of the other artist's terms--a work ethic, spirituality, a technique--and rejecting others, say by avoiding certain colors or even abandoning the other artist's medium entirely. In other words, if an older artist owns every property on the block, the younger artist can avoid renting simply by moving around the corner.

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