at the Chicago Cultural Center, through May 8

Estelle Richman in “Extracting the Essence,” a group of paintings on view at the Chicago Cultural Center, brings our attention to modernist aesthetics, which are often eclipsed these days by postmodern practices. Richman, who received her bachelor’s degree from the School of the Art Institute in 1986, approaches painting with an unfettered respect for the medium’s inherent complexities. Acknowledging the abstract tradition, Richman’s work reveals an emotionally charged aesthetic based on the layered intricacies created by surface, color, and form. In evidence are the influences of painters Willem de Kooning and Philip Guston.

The 13 paintings and one drawing in this show span four years, allowing one to see Richman’s growth as an artist as well as the metamorphosis of her technique. Her somber palette–which ranges from black to sepia to gray blue–is an essential component in the work, which evokes a peculiar poignancy. As the show’s title suggests, Richman’s interest lies in merging visual consciousness with subconscious imagery, and these paintings map this murky terrain.

Some of the works succeed because Richman’s expert manipulations of her medium transform what might seem the hapless gropings of a painter without a subject. Several of the earlier canvases reveal that Richman’s expressionistic impulse is a point of departure for the more subdued, minimal later work. A Wondering, a moderately sized canvas from 1990-’91, is the most obvious throwback to abstract expressionism, knitting together broad brush strokes of black and white against a gray ground. If all the work were like this, one might question why Richman was pursuing such a familiar painting strategy. But more developed pieces, though they use a similar palette and start from a similar place, go beyond abstract expressionism, allowing vague forms to evolve from the treatment. In the 1990-’91 Earth Dreams, her largest painting and a sort of bridge to the later work, Richman sets up a sequence of forms knit together by a neutral palette; a figure is vaguely suggested, but the form remains provocatively enigmatic.

Richman’s sensibility is similar to that of New York painters Bill Jenson and Jake Berthot. Like them, she allows the heavily painted surface to act as the agent for subtle shifts in color and form. But their work is somehow cleaner and more referential–the somberness of these paintings creates a very different kind of experience. In Richman’s work the form is so heavily veiled, so shrouded by layers of paint building up the surface, that the supposed images almost dissolve into the canvas. It’s like viewing an abstracted world through a fog.

Richman’s best pieces are her most recent. On one wall are a set of three large, untitled paintings from 1994. These have been heavily worked, and through reworking and thereby reducing and focusing the activity on the surfaces, Richman finds the “essences” from which the shadowy forms emerge.

A number of smaller works in the show unfortunately appear to have been hastily resolved and lack the depth of the larger pieces. Sweet Side of Anything (1992-’93) lacks complexity, looking like a cocoon encapsulated in a sea of black. In the large works Richman is able to fully develop the surface while reducing her focus. But because the scale shift in the smaller works is less dramatic, they lack the tension of the larger works and end up looking like studies rather than fully realized pieces.

While this show has its flaws, its best works are deeply satisfying, dark and melancholic yet without an agenda, suggesting human qualities yet not figurative. Richman’s skilled exploration of her painted world has much to offer the viewer willing to take the time to appreciate it.