Tamaki Honda

at ARC, through June 29

Sylvia Nieves

at Aldo Castillo, through July 6

Tiny figures in abstracted landscapes can be found in Western paintings as early as the 17th century, and even earlier in China and Japan. But Tamaki Honda gives her eight paintings at ARC a self-aware, modernist twist by making the compositions pivot around her small, ungendered figures. Most of these paintings are schematic, consisting of a figure, an area of color representing the land, and another representing the sky. The brownish figure in FAQ 2 almost merges with the brown land, but details of the figure play perceptual games: its belly protrudes a bit against the black sky, but no more than some adjacent rises in the horizon. Its feet and head, however, intrude unmistakably. These features plus a slight variation in color are all that differentiate human from soil. We take ourselves too seriously, Honda seems to say.

Honda told me that she uses “FAQ” in her titles because she feels her paintings pose the kinds of questions anyone might ask (“Where we come from, what we are doing here, where we are going”). And the small puzzles in each painting do seem to reflect on human existence. The figure in FAQ 3 is again brown like the land but stands erect, a tiny silhouette cutting into the blue sky. Both the figure and ground are relatively even, an effect achieved by applying the paint with a palette knife. The brown of the figure is a bit more solid than that of the land, however, and the viewer alternates between viewing the person as an extension of the land and as an assertive presence that blocks the sky.

Where Western art has traditionally stressed individuality, Honda’s paintings seek to restore a balance between the individual and the environment. Her modest work engages with its subtle details. Observer sets a jagged cliff on the right against sky at the left; in the center is a fuzzy area of lighter brown that suggests a curled-up person–or a statue carved into the cliff’s face. Like a knot in wood, the figure focuses attention even as it seems to vanish into the brown around it.

Honda, born in New Jersey in 1966, has lived in Chicago since 1985, earning undergrad and graduate degrees from the School of the Art Institute. But she grew up mostly in Japan, and Japanese was her first language. Many have told her that the simplicity of her work seems “very Japanese,” but she says she “cannot think of any concrete Japanese influence,” naming instead Rouault, Dubuffet, and Giacometti.

The meditative quality of the show overall is undercut by a few pieces exhibiting a rather broad humor. The largest and most imposing figure here is a squat shape in Aloof 2 whose thick red stands out against a light sky. It recalls iconic “primitive” statues–but is shown balanced on its head. In Attempt 3 a large leaf with a hint of a brown figure near the tip crowds the frame, grotesquely large and assertive–a bit of the natural world given a proud monumentality denied Honda’s human figures.

Though Sylvia Nieves’s figures dominate the landscape, she also undermines the human presence. Eleven of her 15 mixed-media works at Aldo Castillo present a single figure in relief, at times with sly humor. All the faces here come from photographs she took of friends and family members, Nieves told me, but other parts of her figures are three-dimensional or painted. The ink-jet face of the Knight of Wands, seated on a horse in a traditional heroic pose, is mounted on a three-dimensional plaster relief. The suit of armor is actual metal that Nieves shaped, and the horse’s reins are actual strips of leather. Other areas are painted, some also on plaster relief, and the whole piece hangs framed on the wall like a painting.

All the works are copied from pictures on tarot cards, which Nieves says in her statement “represent one of the first socio-physiological studies ever documented because in them are contained all aspects of human behavior and progress through the different stages of life.” The Queen of Swords, according to tarot tradition, is “a woman who has a very strong character and is devoted to finding the truth–that’s what her upright sword means.” In Queen of Swords the figure is huge, towering over some trees in the background. Her sword is an actual metal blade, held upright, that dominates the sky. Both aggressive and a wry comment on phallic aggressiveness, the composition evinces both conviction and kitsch.

Born in Venezuela in 1969, Nieves was raised there and in Houston but has lived in Chicago for the last decade. She was trained in graphic design and fine art and cites as influences Dali, Magritte, and the Spanish colonial art of Latin America, such as painted wooden sculptures of saints that “even have fabric to dress them.” Nieves writes that her mix of materials creates “a playful dance between dimensions, materials and textures…becoming a unique interaction with the viewer, where he or she can introspectively mirror the different aspects of their lives.” That’s certainly one possibility, but I was more intrigued by the way her paintings blur the boundaries between belief and irony, questioning human existence through exaggeration.

Most striking about The Empress, who sits holding a wand with a forest and stream behind her, is the peculiarly awkward look of her photographed face, carved wooden crown, and collaged and painted hair. The media don’t blend smoothly, and the proportions of head, crown, and hair aren’t quite right. It seems the empress is as uncomfortable with her role as most of the figures here are. She looks off bemusedly to the right, apparently more engaged by something out of the frame than by her role as regent. Her chair rests on a bed of sticks, paper clips, and fragments of newspapers, suggesting another way of looking at the figures: rather than real presences they’re cultural pastiches.

While the vividness and particularity of the figures encourages the viewer to read them as living humans, their mix of materials suggests that our cultures spawned us, resulting in a jumble of influences that sit together as uneasily as the empress’s crown on her ink-jet face. If Honda’s figures seem to bow to nature, Nieves’s nod toward culture.