Painting paintings of paintings

Last week in San Francisco, I went to see the Matisse/Diebenkorn show. It’s a beautifully put together exhibition which would’ve been perfect if not for the Saturday throngs which sardined their way through its galleries. I would’ve loved to’ve wandered through and lingered at this or that picture without phalanxes of audio-tour zombies blocking my view. But those are perfect world type gripes. I feel lucky that I got to see these paintings and to be reminded of some of my own painting roots, in which these two artists have played a not-insignificant part.

Throughout the show, examples of Matisse’s and Diebenkorn’s work are paired on the same wall. Sometimes it’s the color palette, other times a pattern or compositional similarity, but in all cases the curators have found great resonances between the two artists.

The pictures which spoke to me the most were ones where studio walls were depicted with paintings or drawings on them. Ever since art school I’ve had a wall of my studio devoted to reproductions of art I like. Twenty years ago I did a series of paintings which referred to these clippings as a wall of fame. 

In the first painting of the series, there is a Diebenkorn studio sink painting right in the middle. There have been many other pictures which have incorporated works in progress or the work of others hung on apartment walls. Painting paintings of paintings adds a layer of complexity to depicting one’s reality. Like quoting a favorite writer, sampling, or riffing on a standard, it is a way to pay tribute, to acknowledge one’s own past, or to note the continuity in which the work exists.

As years pass I’ve forgotten about how much guys like Diebenkorn and Matisse influenced me. Seeing how one influenced the other brought it all back home. How almost nothing is made in a vacuum. That painting is an established language which, however much it mutates, remains readable through the ages. Late in the show—mostly devoted to Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series—we see where he went to a level of abstraction which Matisse didn’t quite reach. But the older artist’s spare late paintings come pretty damn close to becoming completely untethered from the material plane as well. 

Whether painting paintings into their paintings or teetering on abstraction, these guys have been two of my most trusted guides and it was great to be reminded of that by this show. I sometimes forget that I don’t come from nowhere but it isn’t true, no matter how much it sometimes feels that way. Between the two, there were canvases which accounted for most of the twentieth century. I overlap with Diebenkorn for my first seventeen years and his last. There many others who took some part of what he did and ran their own way with it. Perhaps someday, some museum even half as grand as the newly refurbished San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, there will be a show devoted to us as well.

Theater Reviews

I’ve been enjoying writing capsule theater reviews for the Reader the last couple months. Chicago is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to plays of all stripes. Here are some recent ones:

Blood at the Root

Dominique Morrisseau’s play inspired by the Jena Six case, in which six black teenagers were initially charged with attempted murder in the beating of a white classmate after nooses were hung from a tree on campus in their small, mostly white Louisiana town, is given a furious and urgent staging by the Yard and Jackalope Theatre Company. From the moment the audience enters through a metal detector to take their seats before the classroom/football field/school hallway set, the tension is palpable, and it doesn’t let up until the show’s end. The cast, composed entirely of current and recent high-schoolers, talk, sing, rap, and dance their message with a passion impossible to ignore. Blood at the Root vividly illustrates the near impossibility of getting through one’s teenage years—fraught in the best-case scenario—unscathed when also having to tackle larger societal problems. It’s a necessary and evocative production all-around.

Our Christian Nation

In an America run by the extreme religious right a young family is forced to go on the run after the husband loses his job, their saga eventually exposing the lizard people who are actually in control of the country. There are a few laughs early in this comedy written by Joe Janes and directed by Andrea J. Dymond, but most have to do with the repeated appearances of an actor in an inflatable T. rex costume. And at nearly two and a half hours, this play is a sprawling and unfocused slog. Its simplistic pitting of Christianity as unalloyed evil against homosexual love as unambiguous good doesn’t work as either satire or polemic, and by taking on half a dozen current political issues all at once, it succeeds at rendering none of them with any conviction and leaves the audience both exhausted and confused.

Scapegoat

What if your congressional representative was literally an agent of Satan? Would it surprise anyone at this point? Such is the premise of the New Colony’s world-premiere production of Connor McNamara’s political comedy/thriller. The set, split between the devil-worshipping senator’s country home and the Washington office of his Bible-thumping rival, is presided over by a sinister portrait of Teddy Roosevelt. This parody of our political system sadly doesn’t seem very farfetched, and the dark humor is bolstered by the cast’s not playing it for laughs. One wishes the play would pause once in a while to take a breath, but it’s hard to argue with much of what it’s saying. Kristina Valada-Viers directs.

Great Works of Fiction

HipFlask Production’s debut show is a collection of sketches based on the books of Horace Delancey III, self-described as “perhaps the world’s most eclectic writer.” What follows is a series of riffs on Clue, House of CardsHamilton, and a half dozen other cultural touchstones. A babysitting scene that’s part Get Out, part Exorcist comes closest to hitting the mark but never quite fulfills its premise enough to make you forget its sources. If the notion of a sequel to Moby-Dick called Maybe Dick makes you laugh, then this is the show for you. Most of the bits jump off from plays, movies, and TV shows, which undercuts the entire premise of a show based on the work of a writer.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

Bertolt Brecht set this bludgeoning satire of government corruption in a comic-book 30s gangland Chicago, but wrote it in 1941 to protest Hitler’s rise in his native Germany. Given the recent fascistic turn on these shores, this material wouldn’t lack resonance even in less capable hands, but Victor Quezada-Perez directs the hell out of it: he’s able to find subtlety and nuance even where Brecht’s words lack either. And this Trap Door production is visually and aurally stunning, with a large cast—most playing multiple roles, all in pancake makeup and clown noses—that’s uniformly excellent. Each is constantly sniffing loudly through those red snouts as if to drive home the all-encompassing stench of their fictive Chicago. They’re only able to breathe easily through their own nostrils after being gunned down, as if freed from a lifetime of holding their noses to get through the days.

My Brother’s Keeper: The Nicholas Brothers Story

Rueben D. Echoles directs, choreographs, and costars in this world-premiere production of his own play. Echoles gives himself and his cast a tall order: not only do they try to tap dance at the level of the Nicholas brothers (the greatest innovators and practitioners of the form), they also perform original songs alongside all-time classics written by the likes of Cab Calloway and Johnny Mercer. The show moves briskly for 40 minutes, reaching its emotional peak with the funeral of the boys’ beloved father, Ulysses, but never quite regains its footing thereafter. Echoles brings joy and athleticism to his portrayal of the cocky younger brother, Harold, and Shari Addison (as the boys’ mother) and Vincent Jordan (as Calloway) stand out for their powerful singing, but other players can’t quite match that charisma or talent. Still, it’s hard not to root for Echoles and company as they labor to pay tribute to their heroes.

The Firebirds Take the Field

After 25 years away, neurosurgeon returns to her crumbling, post-industrial home town when 18 girls, most cheerleaders, all come down with the same mysterious ailment. This world premiere production of Lynn Rosen’s play works both as biting critique of the way women are treated in American society and as an insightful rumination on the ways unfulfilled hopes and desires can haunt or even poison the rest of one’s life. Though based on an actual case in upstate New York, this story works much better as a metaphorical tale than a medical mystery. The emotions ring true even when the science seems iffy. Directed by Jessica Fisch.

Bridgeport All-Star

I’ve lived in Bridgeport over two years now. It’s about the fifth neighborhood I’ve tried since coming to Chicago twenty-seven years ago, but probably the first one I truly feel a part of. At least as much as I’m able to feel a part of anything. A big part of this novel community feeling comes from working at Bernice’s, which has been here for over fifty years. Being connected to that place makes me feel connected to the streets which surround it. This is the first place I’ve lived where I’m recognized on the street almost every day. It’s a small thing but it makes me feel like I belong here, which is a rare feeling.

I started hearing about the Bridgeport All-Stars art show a month or two back. John told me to expect a call from Mike, the guy organizing the exhibit. Weeks passed with no call. Then postcards and flyers started appering at the coffee shop and other places around the neighborhood. Steve’s name was on them, so was John’s, but not mine. I felt a little left out but didn’t think too much more about it.

A few days before the show was to open, Steve told me he wanted to take a couple of my paintings along and insist they include me. I agreed, though not without misgivings. The art world, like every other world, functions almost solely on personal connections. Talent and merit have very little to do with success or whether one is included. Still, it didn’t seem right to be smuggled in at the last second and I have too much ego not to feel slighted for not being asked.

My last dealing with Ed Marzewski’s Co-Prosperity Sphere (where the Bridgeport All-Stars show was to be hung) was a couple years ago, when I made the artwork for Lumpen Magazine’s Field Guide to Chicago Jagoffs. I remember Ed from when he hung around Wicker Park back in the 90s. Now he’s the unofficial mayor of Bridgeport. I painted the Trump Tower on the cover of his magazine because I couldn’t think of a bigger jagoff. Back then, making fun of Donald Trump still seemed like a valid way to spend one’s time. Now we’re far, far through the looking glass. So much of the everyday comes off topsy-turvy now; having my paintings at Co-Pro only added to the strangeness.

Before the opening at 6pm Friday, I went to have shawarma at Zaytune’s a few doors down from the gallery. Four dressed-up women walked in after me. I recognized one of them from a couple nights before at the Skylark. Antonio introduced her as another artist in the All-Stars show. They had just finished hanging it and he was proud of the job he’d done. All the women at Zaytune’s were excited about the show but I couldn’t muster any enthusiasm. Openings invariably fill me with dread. Add the dubious way in which I was included in this show and I couldn’t even feign interest.

When I walked into Co-Pro, I immediately fixed both of my paintings, as they were hanging crooked. That, and the fact that they were installed above the kegerator, killed off the last of my good will. I wandered about a bit, then sat at one of the wooden benches and stared off into space. Mike, the curator, was introduced to me and proceeded to talk my ear off, but I wasn’t listening and did nothing more than nod and agree with whatever he was going on about. I fought the impulse to grab my work off the wall and walk out, but knew that would only invite attention I didn’t want. I left soon after to watch Detectorists (which you should all watch because it’s brilliant). I was home by 8pm.

Sunday morning I was a guest on Lumpen Radio’s Eye 94 show. The station shares space with the gallery so I was forced to think about the show again. I wasn’t mad anymore and was back to being grateful for being included. I still didn’t like the way my work was hung but the show would be done in a week or two and I was already starting to forget that I was even part of it.

I’m no Bridgeport All-Star but I’m still glad I live here and don’t plan on leaving anytime soon.