Carie Lassman

at Dogmatic, through March 13

Kirsten Rae Simonsen

at Peter Miller, through March 20

Maurizio Pellegrin

at Carrie Secrist, through March 20

The centerpiece of Carie Lassman’s eight-work exhibition at Dogmatic, 480 Plaids, celebrates image making through its sheer size, exuberance, and variety. Her grid of 480 sheets of paper, each containing a pleasing, even lyrical plaid design, covers two adjacent walls. (In fact she’s painted more than 1,000 different plaid designs on paper, and the number in any given installation is determined by the size and shape of the space.) The plaids are mostly blue, but some also include reds and greens and browns, and the designs vary widely–some are airy and open and others clotted with layers of lines. Overall the walls go from dark at the bottom to very light at the top–an effect enhanced by the ceiling lighting–suggesting a movement from water to sky.

Irregularities are key to the work’s effect. Lassman–who here uses gouache, watercolors, markers, crayons, and acrylics–drew the lines freehand, and strict symmetries are rare. Two of the paper columns are narrower than the rest, and the bottom row spills onto the floor–oddities necessary to completely cover the walls but that add to the work’s playful feel. These are not the perfect grids of conceptualists like Sol LeWitt; instead the variety of Lassman’s handcrafted plaids argues against idealism.

Plaids also have a personal meaning for the artist. A Chicagoan born in Evanston in 1967, Lassman has loving parents, she says, but “very eccentric” (her dentist father supplied the unusual spelling of her first name). “I grew up Jewish in Winnetka,” she writes in her statement, and she told me that her dad “drove a fancy sports car way too fast in this very quiet town, mortifying his children.” Plaids represent her dream of having “preppy things” and conservative parents. But rather than celebrate the well-bred, airless perfection of Ralph Lauren plaids, her messy designs honor the variability of the imagination–and of the body.

The show’s larger–and arguably stronger–paintings heighten the contradiction between the ideal and our attempts to re-create it. Untitled Blue and White contains two plaids of very different sizes, one made up of thick blue and brown lines and tiny bands and the other very finely drawn in red and blue. In Untitled White and Red pink and black dots make a curtainlike shape around three edges of a white field–a sort of stage occupied by vertical red columns pierced by tiny white squiggles that make shapes like snowflakes. Rather than create an easily unified composition, Lassman encourages the eye to wander among engaging details.

Kirsten Rae Simonsen’s 21 paintings and drawings at Peter Miller raise questions: it’s not often you see a rat performing cunnilingus on an upside-down woman drawn in the style of children’s book illustrations. In Mouse Hole the rat is enormous and the woman is tiny, and her head has dissolved in a fog of paint. In the line drawing Supper, three large rabbits surrounding a nude woman seem to be eating her head, again in a fog, with spoons.

Simonsen–who was born in Missoula, Montana, in 1971 but grew up in Chicago suburbs–has an MFA from the University of Chicago and counts her radical parents’ political beliefs among her influences: “My dad taught environmental ethics for years,” she says. In her statement she argues for an ecological reading of her work, saying that she reverses the usual order by showing humans being “emasculated” by animals. In conversation she also acknowledges the effect of finding porn magazines in the woods as a child: because she connected the woods with animals, sex became part of the storybook animal world in which she’d felt safe.

Sex is not Simonsen’s main subject here, though–rather it’s the loss of human identity in the face of a powerful natural world, represented by animals. The Curious Dog is divided into two color fields, a placid green background for the kneeling woman at the upper left and a hot pink field for the dog at the lower right. But the woman’s head and shoulders have disappeared in the pink mist, and the connection between red and blood gives the dog a menacing presence. In an untitled work a woman sits on a vine with her head bowed, suggesting defeat, while a much larger rodentlike creature looks up at her calmly with a mix of curiosity and threat.

Simonsen–who moved to Tallahassee, Florida, last year for a teaching job–was an avid reader of Mother Goose and the Brothers Grimm as a child. She experimented with a variety of styles before she began painting in children’s-book style two years ago, when she was “thinking about motherhood.” Among her other influences are the Teletubbies, Hindu art, the Pre-Raphaelites, and Rothko. Indeed, what takes her work beyond its kinkiness and ecological theme is its beauty, recalling the Pre-Raphaelites’ delicate aestheticism and Rothko’s clouds of color. Her soft, variable hues and sure but sketchy lines are mysteriously airy, and by painting her work on Mylar sheets she then mounts a bit away from the wall, she adds to this sense of transparency. Creating pieces worthy of her painterly influences, she evokes what she calls “this pure space, this state of bliss, where everything is falling together.”

Maurizio Pellegrin, born in Venice in 1956 and now living in New York and Venice, creates assemblages out of objects he’s collected from around the world, often painting the wall behind them a solid color. In the ten examples on view at Carrie Secrist he creates the same euphoria as Lassman and Simonsen but does it by selecting and arranging objects from his collection with a vision that surpasses that of most museum curators. For The Red Telephone he places objects (most of them red)–balls of yarn, a felt bag, an old phone–in front of a huge red rectangle he’s painted on the wall. The color intensifies and unifies our experience of the work while the large empty spaces between the objects contribute to Pellegrin’s theme: “Where is the communication?” he asks. “Do we still talk to each other or are we just tools among tools?”

Making art is the subject of The Drawing Panels. Pellegrin sketched five figures in red pencil, then framed and mounted the sketches along with two small hand-shaped objects, rulers, and a T square on three wooden panels he covered with red scribbles. What results is a stunning combination of lines and textures. At first the freehand, almost random loops of the scribbling, the straightedge tools, and the restrained, controlled lines of the figures seem to clash. Then one starts to see them as connected–to see that the anarchy of the scribbles is a necessary prelude to the controlled drawings.

Pellegrin, who was exposed to Venice’s greatest 16th-century artists while still a boy, discovered Picasso in books when he was about 12 and Rauschenberg at the Venice biennial. Aware of the city’s long tradition in world trade–he mentions Marco Polo–he searches the world for his objects. Drawing on a broad education that includes a bachelor’s in philosophy and literature, a master’s in art, and studies in Buddhism and Zen, Pellegrin is interested in the Chinese idea of “perpetual energy connected with the idea of the circle” and in the differences between Asian and Western ideas of space. He began making assemblages around 1986, when he was living in a 17th-century Palladian villa that included a chapel. A remodeling miscalculation years earlier had left part of the foot and of a column from a Christ sculpture protruding through his studio wall, and he “started to arrange objects around these fragments.” Fittingly, what first inspired his assemblages–designed to suggest multiple associations–was the layering of culture and history in Italy.

Pellegrin’s work, which celebrates the joy of looking at things, is not without its humor. For The Lion Stripe he painted a vertical ocher stripe on the wall and let the paint drip into a puddle on the floor, where he placed two small bronzed lion sculptures he’d purchased in China–“the kind of lion that defends you against negative energy,” he says. The stripe has the effect of both poking fun at and celebrating art’s power: by providing the lion hue the original artist left out, Pellegrin wryly suggests that the artist can not only curate but add color to the world.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Fred Camper.