The Conviction of Sight
by Conrad Bakker
from The Paper (Grand Rapids, Michigan)
Any good detective understands that
the world of facts is open only to the
disciplined observer. This type of
observation is pertinent to art as well,
in both its viewing and creation. The
artist and viewer must train their eyes
to see the meanings in the world.
The current show at Gallery Arcadia
focuses on the act of
observation in paintings and sculpture. The exhibition
includes recent work by Chicago artist Tim Lowly under the
title "Proof," and a group show titled "What We Have Seen"
which was organized by Lowly and includes 8 other artists
from Chicago (Meltem Aktas, Dean Bienvenido, Steve Carrelli,
William Frederick, Rive Lehrer, Joel Sheesley, Jeff
Thompson, and Tim Vermuelen) whose work is connected
through an attention to figuration.
"What We Have Seen"
implies that these artists are
"recipients" of certain sights and images. But these
artworks are more than mere sights--they are disciplined,
formal constructions of reality which embody distinct
One of the more compelling images
in the show is "Signal," a
small, egg-tempera painting by Steve Carrelli. This simple
image consists of a shiny metal bowl with wisps of smoke
rising from it on the edge of a table with the tablecloth
cascading down and taking up most of the picture plane. The
intricate attention and detail in this image is delightful
as the careful rendering of the folds and reflections in the
bowl abstract and flatten slightly. The wisps of smoke
become a shifting focal point as the form and function of
this image merge.
The tiny painting/drawings of
Meltem Aktas work in a similar
quiet mode with slightly more emphasis on line to convey the
movement and evidence of observation. This small group of
images works best as a whole, as the images repeat delicate
lines and shapes and attach together like a visual
Riva Lehrer's images also take
on a serious level of content
through their observation. By using herself as the subject,
her images are powerful statements of identity and the
relationship of "self" to "body." Her most effective image
is the mixed media on paper "Circle Story #4: Self
Portrait." This image consists of two panels, one showing
her head and shoulders, the other (about two and a half feet
below on the wall) her legs and feet. The gap between these
images is unnerving as we attempt to imagine the missing
torso. A close look reveals what appears to be Hebrew
lettering on her forehead, perhaps connecting the act of
self-picturing to the clay "golem" of Jewish mysticism who
was brought to life by a Hebrew inscription on its forehead.
The paintings of Tim Vermulen
take the show on a humorous
turn with simple paintings of figures in quirky narratives.
"The Four Elements: Fire" is the most intriguing with a
figure glancing toward the viewer while pulling back a
curtain on the window so we can see the house burning next
door. The simple style of these images gives this otherwise
grave scene a refreshing charge of energy.
Other works of note in the show
are the large ceramic head
and busts by Jeff Thompson, the facile though somewhat empty
realism of William Frederick, the elegant brushwork of Joel
Sheesley, and a few heartfelt paintings by Dean Bienvenido.
"Proof" is a collection
of paintings and objects by Tim
Lowly. These works follow a similar code of realism to
"What We Have Seen" and contribute to the discussion of
figuration and the conviction of observation. With craft
and conscience, Lowly makes art objects that resonate with
both the eye and the mind, allowing a depth of vision to
deepen into insight.
In one of the partitioned rooms
of gallery Arcadia, one
encounters two life-size casts of Lowly's daughter, Temma,
on the floor. These ghost-like sculptures dramatically
affect our perceptions and reorient our understanding of the
body to that of one who is severely disabled.
On the east wall of this room
are a line of ceramic bowls,
each with a small, circular painting of a fragment of a face
with an eye (presumably belonging to Lowly's daughter).
As the viewer looks from left to right, the painted eyes shift
placement and read like a slow musical score with subtle
variations and inflections.
A small painting of Temma's head
(from the side and facing
upward) is placed up high on the north wall, almost out of
reach. This beautiful image contrasts with the gravity of
the figures on the floor by adding a mysterious sense of
lightness and ascension.
Text fragments are used in conjunction with these objects as
a subtle narrative device relating conceptually to notions
of "proof." These words generate an epistemological
liturgy of the senses: "What you touch", "what you dream",
"what you see", "what you remember"... The only thing that
does not work is the way the text is presented as
hand-written cursive on plastic, horizontal plaques--a small
detail which unfortunately takes away from the continuity of
the work in this room.
Out in the main gallery space
is the painting "As the Earth
Waits," a medium-sized portrait of Temma. The oddity of
this work is that the figure and the background are the same
tonality, making her appear to be camouflaged or created out
of the same material as the ground she is resting upon. The
illusion is superb and resembles the subtleties of a relief
The exhibition title painting,
"Proof," is a dark image of
Temma lying on the ground
next to a rectangular hole.
In the far background, one
notices tiny childlike figures
running. The transition of
space between foreground
and background isn't as
smooth as it could be, yet the
narrative of life and death is
by itself almost enough.
One of the most striking images
in this exhibition is the
painting "Plenty" of Tim Lowly's wife in front of a Chicago
skyline. The circular portrait is placed so that the face
of the figure is close to the average viewer height. This
image manages to encapsulate what Lowly does best: present
to the viewer an "other," a presence that they are forced to
deal with either in terms of difference or sameness.
Confronted by the figure's gaze, we respond automatically
and even look away, as if we were facing a real person.
Discomforted with the way we see, we work to see
differently--perhaps even with hope and humility.
"Proof" and "What
we have seen" is a visual testament to the
way art can have a conviction of form that matches a
conviction of belief.
Copyright © Conrad Bakker 1998
Conrad Bakker is an artist, teacher and writer based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Tim Lowly index