Kathy Keeley: Dim Dramas From the Anonymous Culture
at Idao Gallery, through April 6
Linda Robbennolt: Whole
at I Space, through March 2
By Fred Camper
Artists often combine purely aesthetic imagery with "impure" elements--photographs, found objects--to reconnect their art with the flow of daily life. Kathy Keeley and Linda Robbennolt both use abstraction and representation in their paintings, but there's a deeper link as well. Keeley combines some of her paintings with simple objects while Robbennolt pairs each painting with a performancelike photograph. In both cases the painted image is lifted out of the purely aesthetic realm and reintegrated in an almost visceral way with the physical world.
Keeley's Blue, one of 11 recent works at Idao, is made up of six small panels arrayed in a grid, each with a sketchy line drawing of a face on it. The faces project different moods--one looks tired, several have their mouths open, one seems to be screaming--a little inventory of the affections that's modestly appealing. But the stereo headphones hanging on the wall next to the paintings are more than a little jarring. My first thought was that these were to be listened to in the manner of science museum exhibits--but there's no cord. Instead the connection is metaphoric, hinting at a sound track for the drawings. Visually the headphones read as an integrated part of the work, reminding us that a drawing alone doesn't allow screams to be heard--but that there are screams in the real world. Keeley redirects our attention to the life of actual people and the sounds they make.
Dim Dramas, my favorite work in the show, offers a haunting vision of tenuous human identity. Each of its four panels is a solid creamy tan enamel, and in the center of each is the dim outline of a face even sketchier than the visages in Blue. There's barely enough detail for the faces to seem portraits of individuals. What gives these almost anonymous faces their peculiar power is the way Keeley integrates them with the background: the faces are delineated in semitransparent lines, mostly pale blue, with the tops of the heads represented by thicker brownish brush strokes irregularly applied. These lines lead to indentations in the enamel surface, not easy to see at first, that trace the outlines of a torso. The effect is of ghostlike figures barely emerging from an undifferentiated field to which they're about to return. Keeley has included some of her poems with the exhibition checklist; loss of identity and the interchangeability of identity are recurring themes.
Each of the four paintings is paired with a found object painted a lighter shade of tan. A three-dimensional letter O is mounted just beneath one, a clock mechanism below another, and a lightbulb underneath a third; in the fourth a metal ring is affixed to the bottom of the picture. There's a smidgen of goofiness to these juxtapositions: the lightbulb can't be turned on, and what can be hung from the ring? But by juxtaposing these faces vanishing into paint--enamel house paint at that--and similarly colored consumer objects, Keeley again questions our tenuous identities. Have they become irretrievably commingled with kids' alphabet letters and lightbulbs?
Keeley, 27, a Chicago native, told me that this show was influenced by the six months she recently spent in Holland. Living in a different culture, she found that she focused on "advertising, street signs--things I would never pay attention to here." The disorientation she felt spurred her interest in "signs and symbols and how we interpret them." This interest can be seen in the exhibit's other works, which are charmingly playful but not entirely successful. These are mostly very small canvas-on-wood and all-wood blocks carefully arrayed on the wall with lots of empty space between them. Each bears only one or two simple shapes, mostly geometric or biomorphic abstractions. No three-dimensional objects accompany these paintings, but the empty spaces have the effect of loosening the connections between the pictures and connecting them to the continuous space of the exhibition room, and by extension to the world. However, the depiction of disorientation in these is a bit too enigmatic.
Linda Robbennolt's exhibit "Whole" is wholly successful. In this unified presentation of 20 pictures at I Space, the ten paired photographs and paintings play off each other, not only projecting the abstract painted landscapes beyond the purely aesthetic but elevating the tiny, seemingly silly gestures in her photos to the level of art. I noticed the exhibit's quirky humor first but was soon captivated by Robbennolt's stab at redeeming the ordinary.
Robbennolt sees these 20 untitled works, hung in a single room, both as separate pieces and as pairs; she also considers the ten pairs a single work. One is encouraged to see each pair as a unit by the fact that the two images are about the same size and mounted side by side. The first pair (proceeding clockwise--Robbennolt's intended direction--around the room) introduces humor immediately. The painting shows a deep blue twilit landscape with a few stars high in the sky and a shooting star near the horizon. In the sepia-toned photo, Robbennolt crouches over a hole in a nondescript floor, her arm extended into the opening. I thought of John Donne's famous "Song," beginning "Go, and catch a falling star." In Robbennolt's joke, she's searching for the fallen star in this humble hole.
But the joke has a serious side, one that continues throughout "Whole." The juxtaposition of open, abstracted landscapes with photos all taken of the same spot in Robbennolt's Chicago studio, an area next to a bare wall with the hole in the floor, creates a constant play on scale. "Whole" portrays an artist who can imagine vast spaces within a small hole, an opening that becomes a metaphor for flights of fancy, for the freedom of the imagination. The third pair expresses this theme. In the photo Robbennolt dangles a long cord, most of it coiled at her feet, down the hole; the painting depicts a plain with two darker areas near the bottom of the picture, perhaps indentations in the land, recalling the holes. It's as if Robbennolt were taking depth soundings in her studio, an act being compared with aerial photography or mapmaking.
While in the first and third pairs Robbennolt's studio activity seems a metaphor for entering the painting, in the fourth the painting seems to depict her dreams. In the photo she lies asleep or daydreaming in a hammock; the adjacent landscape is even more abstracted and fuzzy than in the first three paintings, as if it represented a mental image. In the fifth group the relationship between photo and painting shifts again. Here Robbennolt arches her back as she looks toward the hole, her white dress turning her body into a gentle curve, and she's placed a miniature faux-brick archway over the hole. The landscape is dominated by a large white arc, making a kind of visual rhyme with her dress.
There's something both playful and profound about these shifts. We move from seeing the photo as a direct intervention in the painting to seeing the painting as depicting her dream in the photo to seeing the painted curve and her arched figure as formal comments on each other. The shapes we see may be pure shapes or metaphors or physical presences. Often they're all three at once. The painting's white curve looks a bit like a river entering the sea, and the tiny archway suggests that the hole is the grand entrance to a vast space.
Going from one pair to another the viewer continually confronts these shifts, which are the basis of "Whole." In the seventh pair the photo shows Robbennolt listening through a large tube for sounds from the hole; the adjacent painting, full of streaks in the land and sky, suggests the rushing of wind. In the eighth she points a fork with some food on it at the hole; the landscape is grain-golden. (Robbennolt told me that her pose was intended to create a parallel to the fertile land: "The landscape is as nurturing as the feeding.") This pair is followed by what seems to be a seascape with sheltered ponds and bays; in the photo Robbennolt's bare foot pushes a toy sailboat, sans sail, toward the hole.
These shifts--which resemble changes in grammatical rules--like the plays on scale both open up space and unfix the function and meaning of images. Robbennolt's photos are full of metaphors for losing oneself via the hole--she speaks of feeling really good when "the enormity of the Great Plains" makes her feel tiny--while the changes in image function pull the ground out from under the viewer. Born and raised in New York City suburbs, Robbennolt, 44, considers herself primarily a photographer and now teaches photography at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Long pursuing work that's "a combination of painting and photography," she meant the paintings here to "flesh out the photos." But the photos also flesh out the paintings. A lovely abstracted seascape? We're invited to go boating in it. Moving clouds? We listen to the wind. The hole in Robbennolt's studio becomes a metaphor for imagination.
But hers is not the grand, imperial imagination of the world-remaking artist. Instead Robbennolt's gestures in the photos are as straightforward as "the way you prepare food or work your garden." She makes dropping a cord in a hole, an act as simple as many household activities, akin to high art. Here those venerable supposed opposites--art and daily life--are united, in an artist's studio where anything seems possible.