This month at Water Street Studios, a trio of artists is featured in the Main Gallery and the Kane County Chronicle Gallery upstairs in the building.
Watching the show being hung downstairs in the Main Gallery was fascinating. The prep of the walls. The line to level the work. The careful choice of images on paper by Jesse Howard and sculptures by Todd Reed to create a resonating whole. It’s a little like preparing for a wedding. But it is a marriage of ideas both contradictory and challenging.
And while that was going on, Krisa Varsbergs was upstairs with her husband and a friend mapping out a display of her compelling paintings.
But it’s not an Upstairs Downstairs thing like some show on PBS. Quite the opposite. This is the next step in a new beginning for Water Street Studios, which recently raised $50,000 in donations from community leaders committed to the arts. And that money was matched by an anonymous donor. So the total came to $100,000, money that is targeted for ADA compliance and arts education initiatives.
So the three artists launching solo exhibitions tonight are symbolic of these outreach efforts, the goal to make connections in the community.
The work of Jesse Howard is visceral. His portraits are larger than life testimonies to the character of the people he draws. Working in a wet charcoal method that is part painting and part drawing, his work bears multiple thought signatures that bring out the complexion and complexity of the people he portrays.
At times he takes that intensity further than life, narrowing the face of a character to emphasise the crushing pressures of life. At other times, the liquidity of the eyes in his portraits stops you in your tracks.
These are drawings and paintings to be encountered, not just viewed. They speak volumes about people, but also about race. And how race is no way to measure people. It honestly can’t be done. Every swooping brush stroke beyond the faces and the body is a movement toward that end. And every deepening black within the charcoal grey speaks of the anchoring (and anointing) heart of the people within, and how they overcome all that they face.
The work of Todd Reed will always escape consideration from those who see fit to see sculptures as simple shapes and colors. For as all artists know, nothing is simple except that which you decide. So his decisions about shapes and landscapes are meant to both absorb those reflections, and emit them as well.
So understated that they calm, his sculptures in metal with their cool sheen and carefully combined colors are the opposite of a Rorschach test. They don’t test your personality so much as they question it. Are you aware of simplicity? Are you aware of the complexity that lies within. Can you handle a world that is reduced to its elements, so that a couch could also be a vista?
This is the world most of us occupy as children. Our imaginations are allowed to come and go between spatial planes. Only as adults are we trained to categorize by force of habit. So Todd’s work takes you back and releases these notions all at once. Take it slow. Don’t move from each piece until something strikes your mind. You will find it a rewarding experience.
In looking closely at the work Krista has presented in her solo show, it becomes clear why her work has such an earthy foundation. It is painted directly on unprepared wood. The grain of the wood shows through in places. Sometimes stained with a glaze of black paint. At other times etched, removed, or broken into hanging strips.
All these expressions of engagement contribute to the overall impression of the pieces she paints. Her women stand starkly, or pose ever so slightly. This tip of the hat to expected behavior is an irony…and we find that shoes, if painted in perfect detail, likely represent a closet full of them. But without that detail, and no flouncy skirt to match, the sexuality of the subject may be too much even for the object of the image to handle. Instead, the fashionable patterns of a simple dress are crossed by textured swipes of the brush. Paint flows down these passages, arrested by its own drying motions. These might be the attentions of men. Or they might be fears. Or they might be imagined. But likely not. The hollow eyes of life are all around her.
In Varsbergs other works, a jangling framework of lines to surround and sculpt the face, body and spaces both define and defy the heart of the figures. These lines take over the paintings at time while negative space pushes the commentary even further. Is this the figure of Christ? And is this a latent post-modern Madonna of the City?
It is this resonating balance between figurative suggestion and surface and space that takes Varsbergs works beyond mere abstraction, the trap of senseless artists, and works that do not let you go away easily. Her pieces all have the feel of night and consternation. Yet there’s a catharsis going on.
These three artists are worthy of the new “exploration” phase of Water Street Studios: Engaging the community in art that both rewards and challenges the senses, and expectations. That’s the thing with being an artist. It’s our job.