Joanna Beall

at Thomas McCormick Works of Art, through December 23

Ellen Steinberg: Luminous Flux

at University of Illinois at Chicago William and Mildred Levine Hillel Center, through December 13

Bonita McLaughlin

at InsideArt, through December 30

By Fred Camper

The feminist reevaluation of art history has occasionally focused on women whose artist-husbands were more famous: it’s now almost a cliche to announce that a woman artist, long eclipsed by her husband, not only did better work but also gave him all his ideas. I’ve never quite understood this–many great women artists in our century have been worthier of notice, the argument for the artist-wives often seems unsustained by the work, and in any case these artists’ unique merits are often obscured by oversimplified, unnecessary comparisons.

Yet the handsome color booklet produced by Thomas McCormick Works of Art introduces Joanna Beall, who was married to H.C. Westermann, by discussing Wassily Kandinsky’s wife, Gabriele MŸnter, whose work in my opinion was striking but in no way as strong or original as his. Whether Beall’s work is as good as Westermann’s–and I think it is–is beside the point. Only a few pieces echo his work; Beall speaks in her own, different voice. Hers is an art of wry commentary, of surrealist-inspired imagery that jokes about grand ambitions. Born in Chicago in 1935, Beall–who died last year–lived most of her life in Connecticut; the 38 works in this retrospective include paintings, sculptures, and collages. Mostly representational, often humorous, and unafraid of references to commercial imagery and mass culture, her work obviously has some connection to the imagists–she was a School of the Art Institute student in the late 50s and came under some of the same influences–though she never exhibited with them or was much of a self-promoter.

Some of her paintings seem to tweak particular artists. Old Virginie (1967) is a lush, Rousseau-like landscape undercut by several inset images, such as a floating cube and a circular view of a more realistic landscape. Rising steps lead grandly into the background, toward the sky, but Beall’s attitude seems to be represented by a tiny, partly nude woman at the lower left pointing toward the steps, a kind of decorative tour guide who tells us that this is not an authentic dream but an artificial confection offered up for viewers’–perhaps male viewers’–pleasure. The insets have a similar effect, emphasizing the constructed nature of all imagery and subverting the authority of any one image. Beall makes a similar point in Seascape (1969), whose two icebergs are a bit reminiscent of Frederick Church’s paintings, widely exhibited as tourist attractions in the 19th century. His icebergs are mysterious conveyors of light, depicted with the same romantic awe that informed his sunsets in the wilderness. But Beall’s peaked, mountainlike icebergs are rendered more than a little absurd by their bright red and orange stripes, closer to candy canes than to nature.

While Woodsman From Gary (1967) is not my favorite painting, it confirms my interpretation of Beall’s work: a man appears to be chopping down a gigantic column with an ax. Apparently Beall connects the peaked iceberg, an upside-down church steeple in Ace of Spades (1972), and this column with the whole Western tradition of heroic architecture and phallic privilege. More generally her point is that no shape and no image represents an absolute; the alternative views in her collagelike paintings are all equally true.

She makes this point even more strongly in the collages, which don’t merely parody earlier approaches to art but hint at what she herself loves. Using expansive images reminiscent of Joseph Cornell’s collages, Beall combines similar rather than disparate pictures: instead of expanding the space, creating a feeling of almost infinite possibility the way Cornell does, she turns each piece back on itself, rejecting the common artistic ambition to remake the world. A vast landscape in one untitled collage (circa 1970) includes the sea and a distant hill town, but insets show a cactus and a woman’s head and shoulders. Beside the woman’s head is another inset, a fragment of a similar landscape with one key difference: while the trees in the main view are heroically straight, almost like columns, here the central tree is elaborately crooked. As in her other collages, Beall celebrates the organic over the geometrical, the irregular and the particular over the ideal.

Ellen Steinberg’s six-part installation, “Luminous Flux,” looks totally unlike Beall’s work: Steinberg has arranged drawings of brightly colored geometrical forms on Mylar in the Hillel in ways that comment on the center’s architecture. But the first two pieces that one sees–large drawings of Brancusi’s “Endless Columns”–recall Beall’s attempts to undercut traditional, arguably phallic art. Rather than render these famous sculptures, meant to be solid and eternal, realistically, Steinberg gives them bright yet gentle pinks and yellows and reds; the translucent Mylar further undercuts any sense of solidity. In part an homage to Brancusi’s shapes, which lead endlessly upward, it’s also the opposite, making them decorative rather than monumental; the drawing placed in a stairwell doesn’t so much point visitors skyward as direct them to the second floor.

Steinberg’s column drawings are not quite luminous enough to capture Brancusi’s eternal quality. More successful are the other four elements of the installation, all placed in subtle relationship to the center’s second-floor windows. In the recess of two of them are mounted tall, thin strips of Mylar colored with diagonal bands of brown and white that lead the eye upward. They are abstract enough to suggest that they point not only toward the sky but also beyond imagery, toward thought that cannot be reduced to pictures. A large, tapered red cylinder between two sets of windows suggests a similar movement upward and out. Late one afternoon, wisps of pink clouds provided a curious echo; Steinberg’s work is particularly strong at night, because when the windows are dark these pieces seem to point more clearly to the nonvisual beyond.

Like Beall, Steinberg creates her art in relationship to other work–the center’s architecture–implicitly rejecting the role of the artist as maker of new worlds. Her more contingent art plays with the idea of transcendence at the same time that it questions all absolutes–or at least an artist’s ability to lead us to an absolute. In this she echoes the architecture of the Hillel Center itself–an engaging building completed in 1990 and designed by Phillip Kupritz and Associates that incorporates numerous small deviations from its overall rectangular shape: the walls are not flat but slightly faceted, and the windows are at slight angles to the walls.

A vertical row of nine square glass bricks rises toward a circular window at the top of the room’s east wall. The exterior wall surrounding this window, Steinberg writes in her statement, is “a square frame of stone imported from Jerusalem,” the “only place this material is featured in the building.” And on the inside, Steinberg surrounds this window with a square of yellow Mylar with a hole cut in it, suggesting gold and the sun–but not the all-enveloping gold of an icon. Her addition has a more delicate tone, shading the architecture rather than remaking it. Both Steinberg and Beall are modestly doing something very large: reducing the power humans have over their surroundings–which, in light of what we’ve done with our surroundings so far, just might be a good idea.

At first Bonita McLaughlin’s work might seem more ambitious. Her 13 paintings and drawings of seeds and leaves in gridlike geometrical shapes at InsideArt recall various forms of heroic abstraction, perhaps Mondrian. But she adds to her patterns careful renderings of organic details. In Pumpkin Seeds #1 the particularities of each seed and the shadows created by its tiny bumps and ridges make the grid seem merely an aid to meditation, a way of accenting the differences between organic objects by placing them in regular relationships.

McLaughlin is a former Chicagoan now living in Massachusetts who used to write art reviews for the Reader. Surely she knows that her work resembles that of a number of artists who’ve placed natural elements in grids. In that sense she’s like Beall and Steinberg, rejecting the modernist ideal of originality–the notion of the artist as form giver. Nothing is more worthy, Pumpkin Seeds #1 seems to say, than contemplating nature’s tiny variations.

In some paintings, however, the underlying geometrical pattern is rendered as fully as the natural objects. The symmetrical arrays in Kith and Kin include a large circle, a square, and a central yellow cross with five bay leaves placed along its horizontal bar. The geometric shapes have some of the free-floating, ambiguous depth that has long evoked the spiritual in abstract painting, while the five leaves’ jagged edges seem willful disruptions of any “perfect” patterns. Two leaves placed at the edge of the circle break its compasslike perfection slightly, but the leaves are arranged to complete the circle almost perfectly, fusing the particularities of nature with the ideal.

Indeed, McLaughlin seems to want to balance opposites–the particular and the general, the geometric and the organic, nature and culture. The bay leaves in Evening Came, Morning Followed are torn into pieces, creating a variety of jagged patterns, but since they’re arranged in a mandalalike circle, they also seem to approach eternal perfection. The title invites us to read the circle as sun and moon and to read the background–a bright red band separated by two pale fields–as a sunrise. But despite this suggestion of vast depth, the leaves’ shadows remind us that this is a painted surface–a final rejection of illusionism that places us back in the studio, with the artist, contemplating her tiny pieces of nature in a state of quietude, at rest.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Ace of Spades” by Joanna Beall; Drawing by Ellen Steinberg; “Evening Came, Morning Followed” by Bonita McLaughlin.