Dreamy Scenes

Bizarre details undercut the dreamy, romantic mood of Erling Sjovold’s 11 paintings at Gescheidle. In Garden Figure a kitschy plaster sculpture of a woman lifting her dress surveys a misty landscape; the orange disk of the sun barely penetrates the haze, punctuated with sensuous excess by some oranges hanging from a branch in the foreground. A second sun, a bit lighter than the first and to its left, gives the scene a science fiction aura. And closer inspection reveals tiny smoldering fires on the land. Sjovold says the scene was suggested by an event in his adolescence: his family’s California home was completely burned by brush fires, and their neighborhood was “all smoldering piles.”

To create the delicate look of his pieces, Sjovold applies thin layers of paint with a brush, then uses a palette knife to press out the ridges and soften the boundaries between colors. His objects look misty, as if filtered through a veil of emotion–a soft-focus effect that also signals the painting’s artificiality. Subtly orchestrated color variations bring the image to life. Sjovold cites the desert landscape as a key inspiration: he lived in the Mojave for two years between his undergraduate schooling and graduate study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he earned an MFA in 1990. He says the desert sensitized him to the varieties of white and gray in what seems at first monochromatic sand.

Sjovold’s plaster figures, images within images, and weirdly collaged landscapes give his paintings a self-consciousness that counterbalances their seductive air of romance. He says landscape photographer Robert Adams, who documents human effects on the land, influenced his approach to the theme of the constructed nature of our environment. Vulpes Fulva is a kind of allegory of nature and culture: it includes the hindquarters of a red fox (painted from a stuffed fox in the bio lab at the University of Richmond, where Sjovold teaches), a sterile corporate office park, and a sky crisscrossed by two fungus-covered logs.

As a teenager Sjovold was a political cartoonist, and he says he still uses objects to symbolize ideas. The most humorous painting here, Titanic & Mockorange, shows a blooming mock orange bush in the foreground and behind it a bulbous ship “sinking” into what appears to be a round blue tarp laid on the ground. Sjovold, who painted the ship from a giant inflatable amusement park slide, sees the work as an observation on the way our society takes “human tragedy and converts it into entertainment.”

At the center of Dawn is a color comic strip (“Blondie”) with the speech balloons cut away, revealing fruit behind the newspaper; the top of a doll’s head appears above the strip. Though a tree and sky are suggested, a table in the foreground implies an interior. Folds in the red tablecloth echo the many folds that distort the rectangular panels of the comic strip. However odd the image, Sjovold’s technique makes the comic strip colors and plastic-looking doll skin and hair sensual, engagingly supple but fragile surfaces. His deliriously beautiful images are revealed to be confections.

Erling Sjovold

Where: Gescheidle, 118 N. Peoria

When: Through February 26

Info: 312-226-3500

Hidden Meanings

David Russick’s ten paintings at Byron Roche are filled with hidden autobiogaphical meanings. The abstract Cry Instead appears to be no more than an elegant pattern against a blank ground, but Russick says he’s depicting (not implausibly) an origami fortune-telling device–which signifies to him the brutal twist of fate by which a woman he knew and her fiance were killed. Another painting follows the design of Georgia O’Keefe’s Sky Above Clouds IV at the Art Institute: Bye and Bye (That’s Beautiful Dad) shows a huge grid of similarly shaped white “clouds” against a blue field while below them is a “landscape” of colored envelopelike shapes. It turns out the clouds are copies of the soles of his daughter’s shoes, whose treads he painted “one tiny line at a time” to “echo the slow process of parenting and that of growing up.” No one would guess all this–but the double suggestion of clouds and shoes, which is pretty clear, gets at what’s interesting about the work. Every shape seems about to unravel into a chain of meanings, though what they are is less important than the evocative mood of Russick’s spare, carefully designed pictures.

David Russick

Where: Byron Roche, 750 N. Franklin

When: Through February 25

Info: 312-654-0144