At the end of his first year as an MFA student, Robert Horvath received a disastrous critique. He’d been painting the same sort of imagery for years, encouraged by his instructors at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to continue making landscapes with anatomically correct hearts floating over them. Then, in the spring of 2000, a visiting curator “ripped me apart,” Horvath says, “and asked questions I couldn’t answer–like why do you paint like this?” Horvath decided to take time off and discovered that, “for a little town, Champaign has an interesting nightlife.” He also found out what it feels like to be “a piece of meat.”

When Horvath began painting again a few months later, his first image was a portrait of himself dressed in a shirt with ruffles, his hair slicked to one side, holding a piece of meat in his hands–what he calls a “sleazy, overtanned car salesman look.” For the last decade he’s traveled whenever possible, and in the last four years has visited clubs in New York, Rome, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur. “The pattern is the same everywhere,” he says, “the same music, same lighting effects.” Most of his 14 new paintings at Aron Packer show multiple figures against one or two brightly colored backgrounds; he met some of the models in clubs and others at the gym (“It’s the same meat market–it’s all about where your exercise machine is so you can view and be viewed”). In the studio he “orchestrates” and photographs his models in 50 to 100 poses, changing the color of his lights, then paints from one of the images. He titles most of his paintings with the “snooty stage names” he invents for his characters, inspired by the way people in clubs “take on new personalities.”

Horvath’s bright, commanding backgrounds vibrate almost hypnotically, suggesting the flashing lights of a club; he paints in as many as 20 layers “to get fine blends–you’re able to look through films of color as the light goes below the surface and bounces back.” Using models of various races and sexual orientations adds to the polymorphous sensuality of his paintings. Each of the figures in Dangerous Dolls–two men and two women–is gazing at a different member of the group, which connects them all sexually. At the same time, the lavender background and red light depersonalizes them, blending them with their surroundings.

Everyone is judged by appearances in clubs, Horvath says. “I like that I don’t know are they gay, are they straight, are they bi, are they everything at the same time? The pulsating light, the beat that is being repeated constantly, bodies on bodies–clubs are intoxicating, a very high-energy environment. Colored and dim light retouches everything–we lose blemishes and wrinkles. We’re like birds whose colors brighten during the mating season.”

Horvath, who was born in what is now Slovakia in 1974, was painting in oil by first grade. As a child he particularly loved a Caravaggio painting he saw in a book of a boy holding a fruit basket, and Caravaggio remains an inspiration. “He was also a troublemaker,” Horvath says, “who was involved in the nightlife of his time.” After his parents paid a substantial fee for Robert to come to the United States in 1992 as a high school exchange student, he arrived in Texas to discover that his new family wanted him to work as an unpaid laborer on their ranch and attend church every Sunday. But he made some friends in high school and later left to live with one of them. In 1993 he was awarded a full scholarship to study art at Midwestern State University, in Wichita Falls.

In some of his most recent paintings Horvath’s solid fields of color seem to liquefy, then re-form into abstract shapes: “personalities interacting with the people,” he says. Morboy Finnesh & Luvier Bariedad, a portrait of two muscular men, poses each in a different field of color. The man in the foreground appears to be lifting some red goo from a plate on a table–which has apparently seeped there from the other man’s red background. Just as flesh merges with color, here color becomes an object.

Robert Horvath

Where: Aron Packer, 118 N. Peoria

When: Through February 12

Info: 312-226-8984

Like Horvath’s images, many of Katharina Bosse’s 22 vibrantly colored photographs of people at amusement parks are pointedly theatrical and artificial. “I am very tuned into other people’s creations of themselves,” she told an interviewer. Some images show women dressed up for Coney Island’s “mermaid parade”–two dressed identically in shiny blue skirts and shell-shaped bras in Mediterranean Mermaids and a bare-breasted couple smooching in Kissing Mermaids. This photograph is especially reminiscent of Horvath: the figures’ painted bluish skin resonates with the blue sky. Here too people have become their appearances, and again appearances can intoxicate.

Katharina Bosse

Where: Alan Koppel, 210 W. Chicago

When: Through February 11

Info: 312-640-0730

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