When artist Joseph Crosetto opened the quirky, eclectic Art-O-Rama on West Irving Park Road in 1989, he was weary of dealing with curators and gallery owners and wanted to provide a showplace for artists like him who had struggled to exhibit their work. But soon Crosetto realized he had little time to paint, and that he had become “a gallery director instead of an artist, which is really not what I wanted.” Art-O-Rama closed after two years.

During that time, though, Crosetto developed a rapport with some of the artists whose work he exhibited. Pat McDonald and Peter Barnes are two artists who “showed up off the street, introduced themselves, and said, ‘Hey, can we show here?'” At the time Crosetto didn’t pay much attention to their work. “I remember being very busy, and looking at it, and kind of saying OK. But that was the way Art-O-Rama was. I wasn’t really editing things out . . . . When I really got time to look at it, you know, after the opening, I started liking it.”

Because Crosetto was receptive to differing styles, McDonald and Barnes gradually introduced him to half a dozen other artists, some who ended up exhibiting at Art-O-Rama, some who didn’t. When Art-O-Rama shut down, they all began meeting regularly to view one another’s work, offer support and criticism, and, says Crosetto, “have a good time.”

What resulted is now a collaborative of ten artists between the ages of 28 and 37 who call themselves the Colson’s Truck Group. The name comes from a painting Rick Therrio, one of the group, did of a derelict pickup truck owned by fellow artist John Colson: the bright red vehicle, sans driver, is in the foregound of the painting, speeding past a cartoony view of downtown Chicago. Crosetto says it’s the only name everyone could agree on. “We take our work seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously.”

Therrio, who had his first show at Art-O-Rama, paints vivid, playfully abstract portraits of himself (in which a politically incorrect cigarette dangles perpetually from his lips) and his cohorts. They are almost caricatures, albeit unintentional ones. Crosetto’s depictions of his friends and his wife, Lynn, are similarly colorful and heavily cartoon-influenced, though somewhat more exaggerated and expressionistic.

Performance artist, costume designer, and photographer Sandra Leonard choreographs people wearing her outlandish creations–like the “wooden suit,” made entirely of loosely linked beams of timber–and then photographs them while they move slowly about. What she exacts look like stills from Cirque de Soleil, which Leonard claims she’s never seen.

The one in the group who’s achieved the most mainstream success is sculptor Joe Seigenthaler, whose recent work The Couple was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art. The sculpture, in which a Buddha-like figure and a corpulent nude female covered with tiny blemishes seem to be engaged in a poignant dance, is now part of the MCA’s permanent collection.

“Everyone’s really individualistic, but it all works together,” explains Carla Winterbottom, whose earthy paintings of barren landscapes planted with stark, leafless trees convey a personal, childlike vision of the world.

Last summer the Colson’s Truck Group held their first exhibition, “The Quivering Line,” in an old furniture warehouse near Humboldt Park. The group had the place for just one weekend in exchange for a little renovation work. It was an unexpected success: more than 250 people showed up at the opening, and the artists, who had priced their work low ($25-$500), sold a lot.

Encouraged, the group are holding their second exhibition at the Bop Shop through January 2. They are planning at least two more shows there in 1994, having worked out an arrangement with owner Kate Smith in which each artist can exhibit individually in between group shows. With Smith they found the same casualness and openness that made Art-O-Rama so comfortable. “I usually take them on if I like them when I talk to them,” Smith laughs.

And the Bop Shop space, says Crosetto, fits in with their philosophy of making art as accessible and as fun as possible. “When you’re an artist, you have to exhibit your work, so why not exhibit with your friends, and make it a happy event? When we exhibit together, it’s a party.”

The Colson’s Truck Group show opens at the Bop Shop, 1807 W. Division, on Thursday, December 9, at 8 PM. Live music by the Good starts at 9:30; admission is free until then and $4 after. Prices for the art run from $25 to about $600, and negotiating is acceptable. For more information call 235-3232.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.