When Renee Dryg moved here in 1989, she was looking for new subjects for her paintings. Yet everyone read something into them that she hadn’t intended. She created industrial landscapes with big geometric forms–“things that were kind of sticking up”–and people commented on their phallic quality. Thinking of Sol LeWitt, she made a grid of glitter, and someone thought it was a joke. “I painted the cement factory on the corner of Chicago and Halsted. An instructor told me that when Le Corbusier was here he said that was the most beautiful thing in Chicago–and I was like, ‘Oh, whatever.'”

Though she’d been influenced by artists from van Gogh to Johns, she’d never heard of modernism or postmodernism. “I did these stripe paintings and everybody said ‘Stella,’ and I’d never seen Frank Stella’s stripe paintings.” While Dryg was working on her MFA at the University of Illinois at Chicago, one instructor suggested that she bone up on art history. “I was like, why? It has nothing to do with me.” Instead Dryg drew from her own history–making abstract depictions of a Hostess cupcake as a white swirl on black, Neapolitan ice cream as colored stripes. “I was always making fun of myself and of the idea that artists are special.”

For Other Peoples Messages, one of 11 pieces in her current show at Automatic, “Nice Fucking Paintings…and Oysters While They Last,” Dryg sent answering machine tapes to friends and asked them to record messages. The tapes can be played in the gallery, offering a voyeuristic peek into others’ lives, which eventually start to sound similar. “I might have asked the most exciting person that I know and the most boring person for tapes, and their tapes might be identical,” she says. “The point is that we’re all so much alike–even though we’re individuals.”

Four paintings are based on nude photos from publications such as Playboy and Playgirl. “One human universal is mating,” Dryg says, “a natural instinct.” Troubled by why a woman would “value attention and money more than privacy and display her private parts, I also wanted to express the humanity of the models in the magazines, so I took the magazines’ names of them for the titles of these pieces.” One of the pieces is called Debbi, Sandi, Tonya, & Lisa. “Once you begin to look at these magazines, all the women, all the poses, start to look the same,” says Dryg. “Because they look the same, why do so many people need more than one?”

In Blow Job Painting, a large red lollipoplike skein of lines hovers over a painted text. The red lines represent “the gestures of my tongue giving a blow job, made from memory right after the event,” which produced an “intense feeling in me that I felt deserved a response. The text reads, ‘Joy Sorrow Pain Pleasure….What the hell is love?’ because I don’t really know what love is, but I think I know how I felt, and I think that these words might express some of what I was feeling.” Another autobiographical picture, Mark, Jose, Juan, Lou, Nate, Tim, Carlos, & Brian, takes its title from the eight boyfriends Dryg has had since moving to Chicago. But there are only two bodies; all the boyfriends are combined in the blue figure, and the painting depicts Dryg’s favorite sexual position.

“There’s supposed to be this little bit of a joke about how the man is an object. But it’s just a joke–they’re all very special people. I feel I’ve been able to forge relationships that are based on unconditional love or mutual support,” she says. “I guess the bottom line in my work is the idea that people are the most important thing in the world. Good or bad, I’m not going to be the judge.”

“Nice Fucking Paintings…and Oysters While They Last” is on display through March 9 at Automatic, 1087 N. Hermitage. Gallery hours are 1 to 5 Friday through Sunday. Call 773-395-3958 for more. –Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Jim Alexander Newberry/ “Mark, Jose, Juan, Lou,Nate, Tim, Carlos, & Brian”/ “Blow Job Painting”.