Joseph Hronek: The Drawing Primer Series

at Gwenda Jay/Addington, through October 11

Erin Riley: Some Paintings About Love

at Lyonswier Packer, through September 30

Carolyn Swiszcz: Dime Tours

at NFA Space, through October 7

By Fred Camper

To the pessimist, the world is going to hell. The last decade has seen wars and mass killings, thousands of species becoming extinct, and American mass culture obliterating long-standing local traditions. But as several current shows reveal, some artists still believe in the redemptive power of line and pigment–in old-fashioned ideals of beauty. The depth effects in Richard Loving’s large abstractions at Jan Cicero seem to lift the paint off the surface. Shona Macdonald is showing collages and paintings at Fassbender as visually stimulating as any impressionist work. And Jacquelyn McBain’s prints of her own paintings of flowers at Belloc Lowndes are so complex spatially and chromatically that they’re almost frighteningly seductive. In a catalog essay on McBain, Donald Kuspit announces “something seriously afoot in art…something that is truly radical in the current decadent situation: a return to Old Masters.”

It’s occurred to me that “avant-garde” art today might consist of precisely delineated Renaissance-style miniature paintings of such ordinary subjects as suburban subdivisions–which is more or less what Joseph Hronek offers in his five small paintings at Gwenda Jay/Addington (the show also includes seven drawings). His subtle textures engage the viewer as fully as more conceptual, paradoxical work. Still Life With Yellow Pitcher presents a yellow pitcher, a lemon, a cup, and several wooden surfaces, each sensual and seductive and glowing with its own life. The smooth, reflective curve of the metal cup has a completely different feel than the chipped wood of the block the pitcher sits on.

Hronek, who lives in Mundelein, names a variety of influences, from van Eyck to Ingres to Balthus. He made the five paintings in this show as demonstrations for the classes he teaches at two suburban colleges. The wall text accompanying each one is based on precepts he taught his students; his text for Still Life With Yellow Pitcher refers to achieving unity by providing variations on a “dominant shape or motif.” But while the picture is unified, it’s what happens on a minuscule textural scale that’s most extraordinary. In Apartment Complex in Barrington, Hronek suggests within a tiny space a vivid depth between a windowpane and the shade behind it.

These are not mere technical achievements–they convey a sense of wonder. One has the sense that Hronek uses paint, as van Eyck and Dürer did, as a way of enriching how we look at the world. Hronek’s intense colors and forms, more perfect than those of everyday life, make the old modernist critique of representation–that photography has rendered it irrelevant–seem absurd.

For Subdivision in Mundelein Hronek chose one of the less grotesque developments, not one of those seemingly self-replicating colonies of houses that overrun so many landscapes. A few buildings and trees sit below a sky that occupies most of the panel, but perhaps most striking is the expanse of lawn in the foreground and midground. It seems as if almost every blade of grass has been rendered within an area only about an inch high, and Hronek manages to suggest tiny humps; the lawn practically vibrates as it recedes toward the homes. Though it resembles a real lawn, grass seen at a distance is never quite this vivid or sensual or rhythmic. Paint is used not to imitate but create an even more perfect world.

The Bible says that a husband should “cleave unto his wife” so that they become “one flesh,” a concept Erin Riley carries to surprising lengths in 8 of her 13 small paintings at Lyonsweir Packer. Recently married, she combines some of her own facial features with those of her husband, Brian, in single images. The five other paintings show herself or her husband in adolescence. Of course, self-portraits and androgynous figures are hardly new in the work of recent art-school graduates (Riley received her MFA in 1998 from the Maryland Institute College of Art and now lives in Brooklyn). But like Hronek, Riley paints so meticulously and with such detail that her subjects take on new meaning.

Also like Hronek, Riley cites northern Renaissance painting as an important influence, as well as early American folk portraiture and Frida Kahlo, and like him she works in oil on panel. In Scout the uniformed boy’s winning, toothy smile is made a bit more real by some faint abrasions on his face. This is the kind of detail Norman Rockwell would have painted loudly and starkly, turning it into something cute, but here it’s a subtle addition. In Sun-Kiss Teen the area around Riley’s eyes is lighter than the rest of her face: obsessively concerned with her appearance in adolescence, Riley told me she sometimes overdid the tanning, though she wore sunglasses. Riley says that she wants her paintings to be “beautiful” but also “slightly unnerving, a little bit weird”–and these details do give them an edge.

Riley created the five “Himself Portrait” paintings by looking at photographs of herself and Brian and combining their features in single head-and-shoulders images. In Himself Portrait (Lemon), there’s the hint of a mustache–but it’s no darker than other shadowed areas of the face. In Himself Portrait (Turquoise) the mustache is a bit darker, and the shoulders are a man’s–but he’s wearing a woman’s necklace.

All these heads are set against solid, luminous backgrounds brightened by Riley’s addition of white to the colors. Indeed, her palette is key. None of the colors looks familiar, and Riley confirms that few if any are right out of the tube. Sensuous and seductive, they’re also a little strange. Riley says she paints flesh a bit grayer than it actually is; even more striking is the way its texture suggests both human skin and the smooth plastic of doll flesh. Whereas Hronek’s paintings would probably be the same if postmodernism had never happened, Riley’s are a fascinating blend of high-art and pop sensibilities.

Two paintings larger than the others, Dot and Dash, show Riley’s hybrid figures against patterned backgrounds. In Dash, Riley’s face appears on her husband’s lean body; with his pants sagging a bit, he’s a distinctly sexual presence. His verticality is emphasized by vertical stripes behind him, strengthened by horizontal stripes on the sides. Dot, Riley’s body with her husband’s face, has a similarly geometric background, mostly red and pink and purple concentric circles–decorating scheme gone mad. The circles echo the base of the chair in which the figure is seated and some tiny red loops in the figure’s hair.

Seeing the circles as originating from those loops, I wondered if Riley’s vision wasn’t peculiarly narcissistic–the world reduced to one couple, its members just versions of each other. Riley does say that her almost “angelic” representations of her husband are subjective: “They come from a place of love.” But these works do more than simply represent a young couple in the early stage of a happy marriage: Riley creates tension in the way the colors seem both familiar and unusual and the way the faces fall between doll-like flatness and the real texture of flesh. Are these human beings or artificial confections?

Rejecting grand themes for modest ones is a continuing movement at least as old as the beginnings of European genre painting in the 17th century. Carolyn Swiszcz has painted such subjects as telephone booths, Quonset huts, and insurance agencies in her 23 pictures on paper, canvas, or wood panel at NFA. (The show also includes an artist’s book.) She depicts either Minneapolis, where she lives, or Miami Beach, where she’s had an artist-in-residence position for the last three winters. Miami Beach has apparently influenced her work: much of it has a cheery, somewhat retro tone that’s partly the result of sweet, almost pastel colors. But like Hronek and Riley, she seems to believe that a sufficiently supple, unironic use of paint will convey her affection for her subjects.

Trained as a printmaker, Swiszcz borrows some techniques from monoprinting; she also sometimes collages elements onto her surfaces or glues sheets of paper to one another in a process she calls “quilting.” Her large, deep, mostly empty urban spaces sometimes recall Edward Hopper–acknowledged as an influence, as is Ed Ruscha. She also mentions cartoonist Ben Katchor, who depicts absurdly inconsequential urban incidents. Swiszcz says of his work, “There’s a solitude and a loneliness, an expression of happy and sad and lonely all at the same time, a melancholy that I really respond to.” He also reminds her of “the importance of slowing down and taking notice of really small details.”

Swiszcz revels in her mixture of clarity and rough, abraded-looking surfaces. And her compositions give the humble settings she chooses a bit of surrealism’s monumentality, as in a series of eight outdoor pay phones. In Meridian Ave. Phone a phone in the foreground suggests the human presence denied by by a broad plaza and a blank two-story industrial building. Phone on Lenox Ave. shows a phone in the left foreground and a white table in the center background. It’s as if the phone were conveniently placed for the use of those who might sit at the table, though there are no chairs.

Swiszcz’s interest in monumentality sometimes takes the form of draining a grand structure of its power. Fontainebleau Hotel Phone–which shows the outlines of two BellSouth phones in front of one of Miami Beach’s most famous hotels–depicts the curvy Fontainebleau in fainter and sketchier lines than the phones, and the left third of the drawing is mostly blank. Dairy Queen (a Minneapolis picture) gives us the familiar drive-in structure but without any identifying signs (“I was struggling with not wanting to make an advertisement,” Swiszcz told me), making this figureless scene seem even more abstract and giving the car leaving the parking lot an almost ominous power.

Another Minneapolis picture, Dinsmore Laundromat, also seems ominous. A lone man carrying a laundry basket stands in a plaza before the eponymous building; his task is ordinary, but the long shadow he casts is strange. Tropical Fruit Palace (from Miami) shows another freestanding building, its shadow, a large lot, and no people: the main objects are two construction barriers and a motor scooter.

The element present in Swiszcz’s work and absent from Hronek’s and Riley’s crisply delineated scenes is time. Swiszcz’s long shadows suggest dawn or dusk, the day’s transition points. The Laundromat man is on the way to, or from, doing his laundry. The construction barriers and motor scooter in Tropical Fruit Palace are signs of past and future human narratives, as are the unused phone booths and tables in other pictures. Even Swiszcz’s rough surfaces and quilted papers call attention to her process, reminding us that a work evolves over time.

But the directness and sincerity of Swiszcz’s renditions keep real melancholy at bay. The washing machines and dryers in the Dinsmore Laundromat are not drawn with “correct” perspective, but if they seem a bit too large and recede awkwardly, it’s not because Swiszcz is questioning the artist’s methods the way a modernist would. Finding beauty in disregarded settings, Swiszcz in her own eccentric way celebrates the dual pleasures of ordinary things and the possibilities of paint.