When Riva Lehrer was an art student in Cincinnati in the 70s, she was told she should look for universal images. “The establishment art world told women their personal experience was irrelevant, unworthy of great art,” Lehrer says. “Unless you knew better, you bought into it. I was so confused, I had no idea why I wanted to be an artist.” Then she discovered the work of Frida Kahlo. “I had never seen anyone deal with anything in artwork that approximated my experience. It was like I was run over by a truck. It was permission to do what I wanted.”

What she wanted was to paint the images that were haunting her, images arising from her own life and the lives around her. “Those images just come,” says Lehrer, who has been working in Chicago for most of the last decade. “They come again and again, mutating in my mind without my trying to work on them. I feel compelled to do them. For a long time I was afraid of doing the ones that wouldn’t leave me alone. Now, I try not to let other people’s discomfort stop me.”

Lehrer’s small, jewellike acrylics glow like the religious art of the Flemish masters she admires. Her subjects are another matter. Calm as any 15th-century Madonna, they may repose on beds with lesbian lovers, or perch on hospital examining tables awaiting diagnoses that will descend like an Annunciation, changing everything. The images are so strong, some viewers can’t get past them.

“The first thing I get asked is, ‘Where do these images come from?'” says Lehrer, whose spina bifida has landed her in the hospital one hundred times or so in her 35 years. “If people aren’t disturbed by the medical aspect of it, they’re disturbed by the sexuality. The discussion becomes more political than aesthetic.

“The primary fact is that I’m a painter. Not that I’m a lesbian, not that I’m disabled. I work from a language of physical difficulty, but the paintings are not about my specific health problems. They’re about the way extreme physical experiences bring you to a realization of who you are. They’re about transcendence.”

Does that sound like a springboard to the universal? See for yourself. Lehrer is one of seven artists included in “The View From the Bed: A Personal Look at Illness and Disability,” at the International Museum of Surgical Science, 1524 N. Lake Shore Drive, running through January 14. The show is free. Hours are 10 to 4 Tuesday through Saturday, 11 to 5 Sunday. Call 642-6502 for more information. A piece of wearable Lehrer will be among 60 one-of-a-kind artist-decorated T-shirts that are being auctioned at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s benefit street party, 6:30 to 10:30 next Friday, September 10, at Superior and Orleans. Tickets are $30, call 280-2673 for more.

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