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Private Meanings

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David Russick: New Works

at Carl Hammer Gallery, through July 22

Andean Paintings

at Fourth World Artisans, through July 23

David Russick's somewhat cerebral art dwells at the intersection of his sparse, often puzzling imagery, the explanations one imagines for it, and the explanations he himself provides (if one knows them). There's little of the ecstatic vision of a Vermeer, whose delicate rendition of light creates a sense of completeness; but Russick achieves an intellectual engagement, placing the viewer at the center of a puzzle whose key is not completely contained within the image.

Many hold that art shouldn't need any explanation. This approach has always struck me as dogmatic, however, especially since viewers bring loads of cultural baggage and unacknowledged expectations and explanations to art viewing. Yet I did find that seeing Stillness, one of 12 new works by Russick now on display at Carl Hammer, with the artist's intent in mind was not entirely satisfying. At first this seemed a pleasantly cool, enigmatic painting: an oddly shaped object at the center appears to be stitched together out of cream and brown fabric; around it is a network of jagged lines set in a pale blue field with fuzzy splotches of white, evoking the sky.

But when I talked to Russick, he traced its origins to a film he'd seen in about seventh grade at a Catholic school in Ottawa, Illinois, where he grew up. It was a film about the Holocaust--"some teachers emphasized our Jewish heritage as Catholics"--that showed soap made of human flesh and lamp shades made of human skin. Some 30 years later, he's painted an abstracted version of those lamp shades. Though Nazi lamp shades were made of one piece of skin, in Stillness the different colors represent the many colors in the human family, while the jagged lines stand for the broken glass of Kristallnacht, which marked the beginning of the Holocaust. This new knowledge gave the work a creepy, even morbid edge, but my experience of the picture didn't otherwise deepen, perhaps because the painting was too cool, quiet, and almost antiseptic to convey the horror of its subject.

Russick has worked for some years at Chicago's Phyllis Kind Gallery, and many of his works contain art references--to his own work and to the art world as a whole. Negative Creep, one of three pieces in the show whose title comes from a Nirvana song, shows a bouquet of flowers with the black outline of a crank superimposed on them. For Russick this is an "accusatory painting" about "artists who make the same mediocre painting over and over again--the handle or crank is a metaphor for cranking it out." Here I could see Russick's bitter humor more clearly than I had the morbidity of Stillness, but the artist's anger is again undercut by the work's gentle, pale, unassertive colors. And the fact that Russick's bouquet is painted with some delicacy and skill, and that its muted colors are not those of the usual bad flower painting, seems to contradict his point.

If most of Russick's works protest the art world's endless parade of forms and designs, in All Apologies he finds refuge in a randomness that betrays no intentionality, freeing the viewer to find what he will. Like many of his other works here, this one combines several different kinds of imagery, evoking several different worlds. The resulting dislocation sends the viewer into a more abstract mental space. The two main components of the painting are an upward-gesturing Felix the Cat (which Russick says he uses as "an image of self, a personal emblem") and a large, black-bordered rectangle, occupying most of the picture area, containing a multicolored abstract design. Superimposed on the rectangle are white dots, suggesting stars; the viewer who steps back a bit will notice that the stars within the abstract design form the Big Dipper. Here Russick juxtaposes three worlds: cartoon pop culture, the night sky, and traditional abstract painting. Or, if one listens to Russick's explanation, the self, the night sky, and the floor of his studio--the source of the "abstract" painting--producing "a juxtaposition of the sky above and the floor below."

By painting an image of his studio floor, with its random streaks of paint, Russick parodies both painters who choose grand subjects and abstractionists who present their self-created forms as profound revelations. But once again his skill as a painter betrays him a bit. Though his abstract design has none of the inner order and beauty of a Rothko or Pollock, neither is it completely random--as disordered as it should be for All Apologies to be wholly ironic. Russick creates multiple levels of depth: some colors partly obscure others, and some are translucent, revealing other forms behind. There doesn't seem to be any hidden order, the design doesn't seem particularly expressive of anything, but even without the viewer knowing its source in the real world, it does have an odd kind of facticity, as if--like the constellation--it were an image of a natural phenomenon. The absurdly cute, overdetermined design of Felix, every curve contributing to his cuteness, is juxtaposed with random patterns taken from the real world--spatters of paint and the stars--and viewers are left to draw their own conclusions.

Dumb/Happy, the show's strongest image, also perhaps not coincidentally requires the least explanation. In a square at the center is a densely cluttered field of painted fragments of pieces of paper with various colors and typefaces printed on them. Around this square is what seems a collage of different types of skies, each with a different pattern of blue and fuzzy white. The center of the square is cut away to reveal another blue field, this one criss-crossed by three white streaks that reminded me of the latitude and longitude lines on a map.

The paper is torn every which way, into pieces small enough that they rarely reveal an identifiable word. They seem to be mass-culture images, and Russick explains that he painted fragments of junk mail to make what he calls a "junk-mail quilt." The maplike grid evoked for me the certainty with which we've divided and conquered our land--and it is actually a painting of the traces left by tools of conquest, since the three white lines are jet trails across the sky. The junk-mail quilt is another, similar record of the way civilization occupies space--filling paper with designs, mailboxes with ads. Stuart Davis also painted advertising signs, but as integrated parts of his own tight, rhythmic designs, while Russick's junk mail seems randomly torn and randomly juxtaposed. Yet each word and paper fragment is painted over with a precision and intensity of color that make looking at this melange pleasurable in itself.

In the Nirvana song from which the title is taken, the singer begins by wondering if he's dumb but concludes that maybe he's just happy. This work seeks happiness in avoiding cleverness, in avoiding work that's too determined in its design, too circumscribed by the artist's self. We're invited to appreciate the torn fragments for what they are, without trying to make them into anything more. When I asked him about this painting, Russick spoke of finding beauty in randomness, and recalled "a story about Kandinsky coming into his studio and looking at a painting of his upside down that he didn't recognize at first. He liked it that way so he left it upside down."

For Russick image making is problematic. The history of art weighs on his work; he cannot simply make a picture without worrying about its implications. His works are thought-provoking but, except for Dumb/Happy, more puzzles to be solved than images to be enjoyed. They left me with a retrograde longing for some good old-fashioned pictures.

At Fourth World Artisans one can see over 40 small enamel paintings on animal skin stretched over wood frames, made by indigenous peoples from two communities, Tigua and Quilotoa, in Ecuador's mountainous Cotopaxi province. These brightly colored rural views, much further from Vermeer subtleties of light and shade than Russick's work, can seem a bit kitschy, as if they were attention-getting souvenirs painted for tourists. In fact they derive from an old tradition of these peoples, who have long painted such views on the surfaces of drums; about two decades ago a dealer suggested they begin to do paintings for sale and created a market that supports at least some of the artists. But for all these works' limitations, I found them fascinating, full of not always planned complex perspectives, and often moving in the unified vision they offer of community, nature, and myth. Sensuously appealing, they recall a period--for many of us, childhood--when making pictures of one's environment seemed a natural, untroubled part of living.

Few have titles; a rural scene by Manuel Acricula is typical. We see a variety of activities: a woman leads a pack animal; another appears to have been washing clothes in a stream. The land is divided into small plots, some cultivated, some used as pasture. A road runs through the middle, before a background of jagged hills and mountains, one of which seems to be a volcano. Bright, sensuous colors draw the eye to the scene, whose perfectly ordered patterns of fields, road, mountains, and sky are almost Edenic. The people's expressions, though engaged and serious, betray no emotions. This is not an art about individuated human beings but about the identity of a community--an identity tied to their land.

Humberto Latacunga's paintings are more cluttered--each hill and flat field is covered with a different plant, giving the scenes a rich variety. They also reveal the variety of everyday village life. In one painting two cultivated hills frame a kind of central plaza in which several actors dressed in pink, green, orange, and blue clown costumes perform for a group of spectators. According to Michelle Acuff, a former Chicagoan who now lives in Ecuador and who curated this exhibit, this represents a traditional village festival, which often includes rather loose performances full of improvisation. Another Latacunga painting depicts a bullfight, also positioned in the center foreground of the picture.

Many of the works here feel a bit jumbled, partly because the artists don't always follow conventions of perspective. Hills rise abruptly from fields; and objects in the background, though usually smaller than those in the foreground, are often just as sharp, just as vividly present. In one Latacunga picture, a distant mountain is undimmed by atmospheric haze, and a woman riding a condor in the sky near the mountain is as clear as the foreground figures. But though these images lack a photographic realism, they seem true to the culture of these communities. The airborne woman, seen in a number of the pictures, comes from Quilotoa's oldest myth, about a condor who wanted to marry a campesino woman and flew her to the crater lake at the center of a mountain. But the mountain is not a myth--the crater lake exists today. And Acuff told me that the "bizarre, disjointed sense of space" is more realistic than one might think: the actual terrain is almost as irregular and jagged as it appears in the pictures, and since arable land is limited, there are crops everywhere, even on the smallest plots.

What's fascinating about these works is the way they blend unity with disjunction. A painting by Juan Lugan gives the land the feeling of a tapestry. Terraced yellow and green fields on the left echo the brush strokes atop a hill on the right, creating a consistent texture that integrates the human figures, all much smaller than the fields, into a single design. But in the center background a field of giant flowers, much taller than the people, adds an almost surreal incongruity. Similar spatial anomalies mark Manuel Cuyo's La Vida Campesina ("Country Life"). A hill with two animals grazing on its steep slope rises at almost a 45-degree angle, then drops off abruptly. We see Quilotoa mountain in the background, oddly enjambed with a small slope with grazing animals that's very much in the foreground. Yet a woman leading a pack animal and spinning wool as she walks on a road curving around this slope integrates the hill with village life: humans, plants, animals, and land are all seen as part of the same world. That unity, the mixture of sensuous colors, and the incongruities of perspective--however much they may be based on the landscape--are what make this work intriguing, alive.

In my review of Nicholas Sistler (June 30), the photos of his paintings were inadvertently flopped. We regret the error.

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