Ellie Wallace

at Artemisia, through January 31

Nicole Hollander

at Artemisia, through January 31

By Fred Camper

Though these two shows by Chicago women in adjacent rooms of the same gallery have plenty in common, in one way they couldn’t be more different. Both artists focus on ordinary objects–a spool of thread, a loaf of bread, kernels of corn, children’s toys. Both appear to ennoble these objects, often displaying them as if in a shrine. And both approach their humble subjects with gently self-deprecating humor. But Ellie Wallace and Nicole Hollander are working at opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum.

Roger Brown once differentiated the Chicago Imagists from New York-based pop artists by saying that, while Warhol and others were trying to raise mass culture to the level of fine art, he and his friends understood that advertisements and packaging were already art. Messy, brash, direct pop culture doesn’t need modification, he suggested, in order to be art–art and advertising exist on a similar level of discourse. Yet traditionally fine art has taken a very different rhetorical form, rarely offering imagery that can be grasped at a glance. Fine art usually involves a dialogue between the visible and the invisible: the longer you look, the more complex the work’s effects become. Vermeer’s sunlight is more than sunlight; Cezanne’s apples are not merely apples. Similarly, Wallace’s painting of a cracker against an evocative color field invokes the unknown as well as the known. But Hollander’s loaf of Wonder bread–an actual loaf–is just that, no more.

Most of Wallace’s ten works at Artemisia are oil-and-beeswax paintings on plywood. Applying both in layers, she creates depth: some pigment may overlay the wax, but a lot is beneath it, showing through not as distinct forms but as fuzzy areas of color. The actual-size spool of purple thread in Thread sits above layers of wax, painted so precisely that one can see each strand on the spool; a single strand, unwound, continues to the top of the frame. The spool is set against a large area of peach splotched with reds and distant dark greens, many submerged far below the painting’s surface. These layers also suggest a cloudy sky even though the colors are off. And in that case, the spool with its rising strand recalls paintings of Mary’s and Christ’s ascensions.

In one statement Wallace writes that she’s “not interested in glorifying the object, [but] simply knowing it well.” In another, however, she says that her goal is “to celebrate the ordinary,” writing that she feels “a connection with icon painters”–“although I do not consider the paintings themselves holy, what I put into them and what I get back out of them certainly is.” While “holy” may be too strong a word to describe the effect of her paintings, they do adhere to the rhetorical form of fine art: an object rendered with photographic realism floats above clouds, becoming a kind of spiritual presence. Wallace’s paintings of rubber bands juxtapose a single red or green loop with a large, luminous bluish white field whose depths never suggest the photographic illusions of the Renaissance but rather a shifting perceptual field: things are not what they seem.

Most of Wallace’s works depict objects found in the home of a recently deceased grandmother. She kept a whole drawerful of colored rubber bands as well as other “junk” Wallace remembers from childhood visits. “I loved it more than the toys,” she told me. “Ramona had great junk: nails, decks of playing cards, weird things like a plastic tooth from the dentist’s office.” One of the five-by-seven index cards Wallace found in her grandmother’s home became the basis of the wall-size Index Cards: actual-size paintings of an empty card arrayed in an 8-by-13 grid with lots of space between them–the whole piece is almost 17 feet wide. Though Wallace copied a single card, she varied the lines and surfaces on each to give the illusion of a large collection. Some of these variations could be due to the vagaries of printing, but others–lines that aren’t exactly parallel, for example–remind us that these are handmade copies. Similarly, the white backgrounds vary in luminosity and suggest depth. I was reminded of Chicagoan Walter Andersons (whose work Wallace doesn’t know), who meticulously paints handwritten notes or photocopies of a picture or text. Both artists interiorize and personalize the mundane, making these humble objects their own and giving them an individuated nobility.

The scale of Index Cards is also important, reminiscent of a modernist grid but also of multipaneled altarpieces. Cracker similarly makes its subject, a life-size cracker set at the top center of a body-size painting with a multilayered background, almost an object of worship. I began to think of the painting as a kind of mystic doorway: if you “eat” the cracker, the only solid object present, you can pass right on through. It’s very much in the spirit of our age–and in the spirit of much feminist art–to paint spiritual spaces occupied not by saints but by detritus belonging to the artist’s grandmother and admired by the artist since childhood. Ordinary objects and lives, Wallace seems to be saying, can also be a window on the spiritual.

Nicole Hollander, best known for her comic strip Sylvia, is exhibiting 19 constructions of found and purchased objects and painted wood and Styrofoam at Artemisia. In contrast to Wallace’s palette of gentle hues, Hollander works in bright, clashing colors, and her pieces have a brash, rough-edged quality; their humor is direct, even a bit aggressive. Rooted in the physicality of their pop materials, her works have an effect that’s the opposite of Wallace’s airy weightlessness.

Like Roger Brown and the Chicago Imagists, Hollander takes her cue less from high-art traditions than from the designs and color schemes of mass-culture objects. At the center of Wonder Bread Shrine and Breadbox is an actual loaf of Wonder bread in a bread box; a large part of the work’s color comes from the bright circles on the wrapper. Hollander has painted the box blue and yellow and added a painted tower and tiny plastic figures in bright store-bought colors: the work’s color scheme is little more calculated than that of the Wonder bread package. The Shrine is even more cluttered, a box of stuff including a Buddha figure, a miniature pagoda, palm trees, a bridge, a tiny carrot. In front of the box are offerings to the shrine: vials, disembodied hands, pennies, candles. Many shapes and colors are piled on one another not with an eye toward any traditional sense of balance and contrast but with an eye toward excess.

This in fact is what I liked about Hollander’s work: it presents the materialism of mass culture in a clarified, more visible form. Re-presented in an art context, the world we’ve come to accept unthinkingly can be seen more clearly. And there’s often real humor in Hollander’s presentation: these “shrines” make a loaf of Wonder bread an object of worship, and the offerings to this “god” look more like trash than valuable gifts, reminding us of how closely our culture’s plethora of cheap products resembles a pile of garbage.

Though Hollander’s acceptance of mass culture as her medium and model is more typical of young artists, she was born in Chicago in 1939–a generation before Wallace, who was born in Naperville in 1963. Hollander told me that, while she thinks her present works are linked to her comic strip by their humor, there are no specific connections: someone who knows Sylvia well won’t necessarily get more out of her show. Though she’s been drawing since childhood, TV wasn’t an influence, since she grew up without one. In school she says she pursued fine art and was most influenced by German expressionism, mentioning Max Beckmann and Emil Nolde. I wouldn’t have guessed their influence from this work, though perhaps their concentrated, imaginative use of color is reflected in Hollander’s wild combinations of colors and forms. After college she worked as a graphic designer: “I was more interested in doing something outside of that very closed world of art. Standing in front of a canvas and drawing or painting what was inside of you seemed limiting to me.” For a long time her comics were her main outlet; her return to fine art dates to the early 90s. “People would say, ‘Don’t you miss doing painting?’ and it was always no, and then all of a sudden it was yes.”

Some of Hollander’s subjects come from the work she does for Sylvia. A researcher combs periodicals for material, and Hollander watches a lot of television. On public transportation she observes and listens. And she finds herself to be empathetic with people who buy things. “That’s their expression. After a certain age most people are terrified to make art. I think buying is what remains of that. People are very involved in this, and in their hair and their nails–it is a real personal expression, and it’s amazing because of course they’re buying ready-made objects and clothing.”

It’s no surprise, then, that Hollander adopts the language of advertising and popular movies. Barbie Sees Something Bad at the Beachouse evokes low-budget horror films: the toy house has giant lizards on its walls and a skeleton hanging out a window, while the Barbie outside has her arms raised as if in fear. Hollander also includes a sailboat and palm trees–the house seems to be on a small island. Nothing quite matches or adds up; indeed, the visual clashes between shapes and colors echo the improbable combinations of a cheap thriller–anything for an effect. At the same time the fakery of Hollander’s objects gently mocks the illusions underlying mass entertainments, and the tilted house and broadly painted ocean create a visceral pleasure–a drama of visual collisions, a joke on artifice.

In other, more restrained pieces Hollander still uses the visual principles of mass culture–sensual stimulation, lack of balance, excess–but seems to come closer to making personal statements. Several works center around wedding cakes made of Styrofoam, with plaster frosting opulently applied to each layer; Hollander actually took a course in cake decoration in order to make these. And the ziggurat of ascending layers in a wedding cake is a perfect exemplar of the aesthetic of this show: objects repeated to excess and placed in a shrinelike array become rather ridiculous.

Taking the Plunge offers a pointed social critique. Here the cake layers are square and angled to the other ones, producing a cake that’s seriously askew, destroying the ascending “perfection” of a wedding cake surmounted by the perfect couple. Completing Hollander’s critique of marriage are a caption under the title warning us of the sharks that swim at the cake’s base, lone female figurines on several of the layers, and a lone woman at the top.

In fact, underlying many of Hollander’s pieces is an antimonumentalism that links them with Wallace’s gentle celebrations of thread and rubber bands. None of Hollander’s shrines or cakes truly works the way an object of worship usually does, as praise of something we’re sure of. Nothing is certain here; a palm tree is as important as a Buddha. Culture is a kind of chaos in which various forms vie for dominance based on physical appearance alone, making it impossible for any form to “win” in a deep or meaningful way.

For many of us, materialism based on the worship of kitsch falls apart in the end, and there’s a hint of hollowness even in Hollander’s strongest works. The cage in Birdcage With Glitter Furniture is mostly empty, as are the two glittery chairs placed within it. But the artist’s contradictions and sense of humor prevent any of these works from collapsing into a single interpretation–one can only guess at the function of the little yellow bunny that sits in front of those chairs.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Thread” by Ellie Wallace (detail); “Taking The Plunge” by Nicole Hollander; “Wonder Bread Shrine and Breadbox” by Nocole Hollander.