I first saw Rebecca Wolfram's disturbing paintings in the summer of 2010, when I visited her home to check out something that sounded totally innocuous. It was a whimsical art project for which she'd received a small grant and was holding a tongue-in-cheek reopening.
Titled "The Museum of Objects Left on the Sidewalk," it consisted of a wooden display case that sat outside her house in Little Village, stocked with odds and ends that she and passersby had picked up on the street: a singleton glove, a papier-mâché goose, a box of seashells. There was a "Department of Toxic Substances" for things like cigarette packages and oilcans, and a "Blackboard Book" of chalk art by neighborhood kids (which also attracted the occasional gang sign). The public was invited to take whatever they fancied and contribute whatever they found. There was no mistaking the implied commentary on the world of museums and galleries, curators and collectors, and environmental folly, but the vibe—on a sunny afternoon in a front yard full of wine-sipping friends and neighbors—was lighthearted. Nothing about it prepared me for what I found when I picked my way through the crowd and went into the house in search of Wolfram.
She was nowhere in sight, but her walls were hung with a number of sizable paintings, all executed in the same, dark but glowing organic palette—mostly ochre and brown and dried-blood red. They were populated with figures that were clearly, but not exactly recognizably human: totally hairless, mostly expressionless, sometimes androgynous, gray-skinned nude creatures, going about some strange, unspeakable business, often involving hairless, gray-skinned, nude children.
There were animals too, not always identifiable, but reminiscent of the totem beasts in cave drawings or Egyptian tombs. The canvases were scarred and scraped enough to be ancient, and each was packed with vignettes of mechanistic, often ambiguous rituals, playing out in stages and amplified in border drawings. They looked like scenes from some kind of hell, the work of a truly tortured mind: tubes into brains, vomit into mouths, miles of umbilical cord that strangles. The artist, when she appeared, looked disarmingly normal.
Wolfram grew up in Oregon, a red-diaper baby dispatched to the University of Chicago. Intending to major in anthropology, she wound up with a BFA, and then began the job she's had for more than 30 years—as a part-time teacher of English as a second language for the City Colleges. It's an arrangement that has let her be a full-time artist, she says. And when you're teaching people English—as opposed to, say, teaching them art—"it's a useful thing."
She was a founding member of the now-legendary Axe Street Arena, a commune of politically driven artists—including Michael Piazza, Bertha Husband, Mary Jo Marchnight, Timothy Andrews, and James Koehnline— that flourished in the 80s in leased quarters on the top floor of the former Logan Square Goldblatt's building (their exhibits in the space included work by imprisoned Puerto Rican artist and FALN member Elizam Escobar). That influenced her, and so has her exposure to multiple cultures, often through her students. When one of them told her his sisters had been subjected to genital mutilation in Somalia, and he hadn't realized there was anything wrong with that until years later, after he'd left the country, Wolfram says her own focus sharpened.
Since the 90s her work has been a meditation on culturally induced blindness to the abuses we customarily take in stride: racism, sexism, war, and the consumption of animals, along with an even more unsettling sense that there are others we're too indoctrinated to recognize at all.
"The Invisible Worm"—a title borrowed from William Blake—is an exhibit of Wolfram's work, including a series of small paintings of women in branks (also known as scold's bridles) and a group of portraits of dead rats, is part of a Focus 4 exhibit at the Illinois State Museum Chicago Gallery in the James R. Thompson Center, through January 6.