Though it’s a stripling in comparison to that of New York, the physical environs of Chicago’s gallery scene are showing signs of an expanded maturity. Warehouses, storerooms, and garages are being converted into sleek, white-walled showrooms at a rapid pace. Where industrial quarters have lain abandoned and barren, formidable galleries are sprouting up.
Still, Chicago lacks a concentrated gallery district comparable to New York’s Chelsea, where upwards of two hundred galleries cluster inside just a few city blocks. In the whole of Chicago, some one hundred and fifty arts-focused venues are dispersed across twenty-one distinct neighborhoods, according to the most recent count by the Chicago Gallery News Arts Guide. A recent migration out of the trendy and expensive West Loop into the more favorable rental clime of West Town—the former bastion of the city’s Polish and Eastern European communities—has, however, created something of a unicorn in the Midwest: a cluster of well-curated art spaces within walking distance of one another. Led by the preeminent Richard Gray Gallery and its five-thousand-square-foot converted warehouse space, West Town’s galleries afford viewers the opportunity to experience works from a diverse array of established and emerging artists with local, national, and international reputations.
Now on view at Western Exhibitions is “Sordid Orchestra,” a collection of kaleidoscopically hued, mixed-media works on paper and panel by the Chicago-based painter Geoffrey Todd Smith.1 Smith makes well crafted, minutely detailed abstractions that highlight his use of the humble gel pen. His works are held by several significant public and private collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago.
His latest show is a joy to behold. Each of the ten works on display is welded to an architecture of playfully meandering lines. Embellished with a series of diminutive corrugations and emphatic dots, Smith’s work possesses a fine-tuned instinct for color and the complexities of all-over composition. While the accompanying press release admits that Smith’s works are not intended to “convey the mood of the moment,” the exhibition comes equipped with a virtual component featuring a brief reflection by the painter on each piece. Some are insightful, more are inessential, and there’s an aura of post hoc rationalization to several.
In the 1950s, the English poet and luminary Sir Herbert Read suggested that the Neolithic aesthetic revolution (ca. 10,000–2,000 B.C.) embodied a symbolic magic whose repetitive markings salved the fears and anxieties that arose from man’s expanded knowledge of the world and himself. The ornamental design of the Neolithic period expressed a newly awakened understanding of balance and symmetry, and thus of beauty, on the part of man. Both geometric and abstract, Smith’s works connect to a visual tradition that has its roots in the repetitive markings of Neolithic art, evoking the idiom if not the intent of this ancient tradition. Even the red, white, and blue of Star-Mangled Dangler, his most compelling and spatially complex piece, is ultimately a compressed and decorated flat object. As repetitive as an archaic cup-and-ring carving, the work is neither symbolic nor mystical. But considered within the context of our present age of incoherence, Smith’s formal proclivities point towards a similar desire for order, balance, truth, and beauty, values deeply out of step with contemporary cultural priorities.
While the magic of the unconscious may suffuse Smith’s output, it’s the magic of myth and folk memory that animates the richly brushed and colored scenes conjured up by the Filipino-American painter Maia Cruz Palileo. On view a few blocks away at Monique Meloche Gallery, Cruz’s “The Answer is the Waves of The Sea” is a brilliant and provocative rumination on the nature of heritage, history, and place.2
The tropical flora, fauna, and figures that populate Palileo’s large-scale oils stem from her research into nineteenth-century colonial Filipino life conducted during the summer of 2017 at Chicago’s prestigious Newberry Library. Palileo’s visual narratives are neither documentary images nor overt political messaging, despite their origins in a colonial photo archive. If anything, Palileo’s interest in the Filipino politician Isabelo de los Reyes’s 1889 book El Folk-lore Filipino informs the otherworldly qualities of her lavish surfaces.
As irrational as any magical narrative, a work such as Towards the Bay Shores Where Reeds Grow (2021) recalls the Bay Area painter David Park’s gestural treatment of the human figure, fused with the uncanny quality of Gauguin’s Polynesian works. In Towards the Bay Shores, a man appears riddled with holes while holding the neck of a dead goose. Beneath him, a classic 1980s-style boombox melts into the jungle floor. In the distance, men harvest bananas. As captivating as it is confusing, Palileo’s work shows that she understands that the role of art is as much to envision the shape of alternative worlds as it is to depict or critique our mundane one.
The exhibition is enhanced by a series of small gouaches executed while the artist was prevented from accessing her Brooklyn studio as a consequence of last year’s lockdowns. Of all the works on display, these are the most clearly derived from Palileo’s research at the Newberry. The photographic quality of the space in Kumander (2020) is palpable and at odds with the more imaginative spatial and narrative juxtapositions in her larger paintings. Nevertheless, Palileo’s deft touch with the chosen media, radiant palette, and ability to use superimposition in sotto voce narratives such as Flores (2020) make a strong argument for the gouaches’ inclusion in the show.