Forum for Contemporary Art curator Mel Watkin has been driving over the soybeans-and-corn sea of middle America to the college town of Champaign-Urbana, Ill., and finding a rich artistic life amid the Fighting Illini sweatshirts and John Deere caps. Those less informed than Watkin might be dubious about her chosen destination. In relation to American art, isn't Champaign-Urbana better known as the place painter Richard Diebenkorn left behind to realize his artistic destiny, the Ocean Park series, in California? Watkin delivers a corrective to this notion with an exhibition of four Champaign artists. She writes in the brochure that accompanies Champaign Summer that the community is the home of "one of the great treasures of the plains -- the Krannert Museum of Art" and that the city historically has supported innovations in modern art and today "boasts a nationally recognized community of visual artists."
If the four artists chosen for the Forum exhibition serve as an accurate barometer, then maybe more communities need to become hyphenated. Watkin has pulled together a most eclectic group of artists who collectively create a rich textural mix. Watkin has wisely avoided a thematic center to this show, allowing the element of surprise to be the unifying component.
In the first-floor gallery space, the paintings of Rosalyn Schwartz are lush with color and sensual patterns -- as reminiscent of natural forms as they are of floral designs found in Victorian wallpaper or tapestries. Schwartz's elaborate patterns of looping tendrils and curling spring shoots -- like newly emerging ferns -- are bound by a complex symmetry. The unhurried eye can be captivated by these designs for hours. Schwartz doesn't allow these images to grow bland or meditative, however. She has worked layer upon layer of paint on her canvas, with undercoatings and faint remnants of forms seeping to the surface like an unresolved history.
To further violate the pristine nature of her composition, Schwartz drips paint -- sometimes across the entire canvas, as in "Red" -- creating a tension between the randomness of the uncontrolled patterns (the drips) and the tightly executed design. Schwartz's handling of these paradoxical elements -- controlled pattern and chaotic form -- charges these paintings with a compelling power.
Schwartz has no qualms about delighting the eye. The arching ribbons and luminous spheres of "Thalo" -- with tendrils floating in an atmospheric veil of pale green against a brooding background of purple, blue and black -- might serve as a design for a mothership if film director Steven Spielberg were to go extraterrestrial again. Sometimes Schwartz makes her atmospheric colors the center of the painting, as in "Magenta I," with its soft pink cloud making up the negative space to which the surrounding delicate tendrils cling. "White" and "French Blue II" are named for the splashes of pigment that interrupt the picture planes. These vivid paintings invite the eye and hold it with a rich beauty that is both alluring and disquieting.
The shift from Schwartz's abundant imagery to Ann Coddington Rast's sparse minimalism in the third-floor installation, "viscera," is abrupt. Three bare white walls are altered by small indentations -- the back wall has three small holes with lengths of string extending from them and the side walls contain round woven rims of various sizes, entryways to a tantalizing variety of openings.
Somewhere in the acculturation process, boys and girls learn not to stick their fingers and hands into holes -- at least not in polite company. Later in life, boys and girls are invited back into such giddy exploration. Put a hand into one of Rast's holes in the wall and find not just that it is a woven basket but that the hand discovers curves and folds and mounds unseen, and startlingly familiar.
Watkin mentions in her essay that in the language of basketry, parts of the vessel are referred to as lip, belly and foot, so Rast has taken no great metaphorical leap, but no less a bold one by transforming this room into a body with openings that suggest a mysterious, dark internal life.
Next door to Rast's holes in the wall is Barbara Kendrick's "Jumper." As Rast's space is remarkable for its sly wit, Kendrick's installation is laced with an atmosphere of nostalgia. An ancient Bell and Howell projector ratchets a roll of film that winds, suspended, through the air. The screen itself is an antique, a portable model that rolls into a wooden carrying case. The projected image is that of a woman raising and lowering her arms in the simulation of flight, faintly reminiscent of those motion studies by the early 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge.
In the center of the room is a strange flying machine. Broad aluminum wings are covered with pinstriped fabric; the pilot's seat is a lawn chair, also pinstriped, holding a zippered vest lined with white feathers.
Adjacent to this contraption is a decorously plumaged hat attached by cords to a small white parachute. Hat and chute lie as parallel ovals on the floor, connected by tangled cords.
With this installation Kendrick returns flight to the realm of the imagination, where it prospered before the efficiencies and inefficiencies of modern travel. Flight as a prospect, as an activity to be imagined, has a power beyond that of the 747. In "Jumper" this is a feminine power, marked by ingenuity, absurdity and pathos.
The final installation, "Pacing, Yourself" by Cynthia Pachikara is, as with the other works on display here, remarkable for its textural qualities. Local artist and computer-imaging guru Paul Guzzardo has said that part of what drives artists is "a search for texture, almost a DNA need to surround yourself with it." Each of these artists exhibits that need and its attainment. Pachikara works with layers of light and image. Two overhead projectors are set apart from each other on the floor. One produces a bright rectangle of white light that extends from floor to wall; the other projects an image of pairs of shoes set outside a threshold. Yet a third video image, birds in flight, is layered onto these others from the ceiling. These images are constantly changing -- the birds are barely visible, then concentrated in a brief, frenetic storm; attached to one projector is a device that rotates a small triangular board that repeatedly blocks the lens so that shoes disappear and reappear.
Add to this the viewer, whose body blocks one light source, darkening and deepening the imagery, transforming the white light to blue.
Pachikara's is a haunting work, elegant, mysterious and one that invites repeated investigations.
That's true of this exhibition as a whole. Each of these artists invites the viewer into her work as an active participant. Some artists achieve -- even strive for -- separation or distance in their work, making art that is explicitly art (meaning that it is to be viewed as from some other realm, a contained object disengaged from the observer, an object to be admired, attained). The artists of Champaign Summer -- each in her own way -- dissolve the barriers of the artistic enclave and reform the gallery into a very welcome place.
Champaign Summer continues at the Forum for Contemporary Art through July 31.
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