Martha Ehrlich:

One Hundred Paintings

at Space Gallery, through June 30

Recently many artists have rejected their grand roles in the Western tradition as high priests, as creators of icons, as “the antennae of the race,” in Ezra Pound’s words. They’ve replaced the quest for God or truth or answers to eternal questions with images that, though they may have multiple meanings and references, are located in the everyday world, finding beauty and meaning in the smallest of objects, gestures, patterns.

Martha Ehrlich’s series “One Hundred Paintings,” now at Space Gallery, consists of 100 eight-by-eight-inch plaster blocks snaking around the walls. Into each one is set a smaller Masonite board bearing an image–but all the images seem to be the same. A man seen in profile is seated at a nondescript gray table resting his right cheek in his hands. His brow is furrowed, and his right eye is in such deep shadow we can’t tell whether it’s open or closed. A few objects are on the table before him–and this is the one part of the image that changes from panel to panel. In one there are four red balls, in another a toy animal, in another a blank piece of paper.

The minimally modeled images have the quality of illustrations, even cartoons, but I felt a melancholy air hanging about the man. We don’t know if he sees what’s before him, the only thing that changes in his world; I thought of how, in deep despair, physical variety matters little–one sees different things, but they all seem the same.

Each picture has a different title, and the combination of titles and subjects often argues for seeing beauty in the simplest of things. The first picture–A Brilliant Harmony of Fantasy and Function (the paintings are arranged alphabetically)–shows an empty table, and the title seems to declare its completeness and perfection. At the same time the table is a potential space for fantasy, almost like a cinema screen on which different images are projected. In the second, A Celebration of Design, the table holds an egg resting near a bowl: two simple, curved objects whose shapes echo each other. The third, A Chef’s Palette, offers a tiny pancakelike concoction garnished with what look like red berries (throughout the series Ehrlich compares the “mundane,” traditionally female activity of cooking to painting).

Proceeding around the room, I found more object-title combinations that argue for finding vision, even joy, in the ordinary. The simple, repeated composition helps this process by focusing one’s attention on the gray table space and what will appear there. In A Perfect Picture it’s a plate and what seem to be three green peppers–perhaps a reference to the photographer (and vegetarian) Edward Weston, who found worlds in his famous pepper photographs. In Delicately Crafted a carefully creased piece of white paper recalls the art of paper folding. And Everything You Could Possibly Imagine shows a collection of thin blue, yellow, and red sticks arrayed in an irregular crosshatch pattern.

In another group of pictures, however, the titles seem to bear an ironic relation to the objects depicted. In most cases, it’s our popular culture that falls short of the labels, which read like ad copy. Its Timeless Beauty Will Be Treasured for Years to Come displays a cartoonish bunny rabbit with Easter eggs; Old World Artistry is represented by three red-billed toy ducks. The Real Beauty Is in How It Tastes shows six greenish Jell-O molds, each topped with whipped cream and a cherry: images out of a 50s magazine ad. But, as many may recall, the taste of such desserts was something less than beautiful.

Most intriguing are works whose titles function both seriously and ironically. True Artistic Inspiration–a single piece of crumpled paper–can be seen as a sarcastic comment on art making or as a positive reference to 20th-century art history: thrown-away paper and other detritus make up now-classic collages. Objects of Rare Beauty and Fantasy at first seems clearly ironic: it shows three pieces of blank paper laid atop each other. But if one thinks of Robert Rauschenberg’s white paintings or of the many other great works that are mostly blank, encouraging the viewer to find beauty in simple white, the cliched title can be taken literally.

“Showstopping” seems an absurd way to describe the modest houseplant that appears in A Show Stopping Display of Color, but it also refers to an assertive tradition in painting that Ehrlich rejects. She doesn’t try to wow us–the whole series instead requires the viewer to find Everything You Could Possibly Imagine in a small collection of colored sticks. The greens of the plant leaves are subtle, not dull or flat, and the luminous yellow that tinges the edges gives them a hint of the variety of nature. These images suggest old master painting even while evoking magazine illustration.

Ehrlich, 37, a Chicagoan who was born and raised in Des Moines, studied art in college and grad school, but more important to her was a year spent in Italy in 1981. The early Renaissance Italian masters whose work she saw there remain her key influence; she cites Piero della Francesca as her favorite. His work “seems so devoid of air,” she told me. “It’s like slow motion, or like motion has stopped; it’s like a crystallization of something.” This series reveals a debt to Piero, whose lucid, cool compositions are filled with nearly translucent colors. Ehrlich’s simpler compositions don’t aim for comparison with his work, but they show a similar seductive combination of diagrammatic clarity and luminous delicacy.

That combination also relates to another subject and source of Ehrlich’s series: advertising. Not only are many images reminiscent of food ads or ads for children’s toys, all the titles are taken verbatim from ads in magazines like Family Circle, Parents Magazine, and Bon Appetit. The paintings were done after Ehrlich selected the titles, and sometimes were shaped by the products in the ads. Yet the copywriters’ grandiose claims could just as easily have come from art writers: there’s a link between traditional artistic ambitions and our consumer culture. Creating a Higher Standard could describe the aspiration of an artist, an assessment by an art critic, or the professed goal of a manufacturer. With perhaps a trace of bitterness, this piece shows a filter cigarette resting in an ashtray. But there’s no irony in the work titled An Elegant Display: its jacks and ball strewn on the table clearly do not have the faux elegance of molded desserts. Instead we’re invited to find a true elegance in the leftovers of children’s play.

If one looks closely at Ehrlich’s apparently identical scenes, tiny variations in shading can be found. She began with a line drawing of the man and the table, made 100 photocopies of it, attached each one to a Masonite board, then painted over it in acrylic–a painstaking process that took about a year. It was part of Ehrlich’s plan for such variations to occur: “I wanted them to be physically unique from each other.” They have a bit of the quality of household objects; they’re “like bathroom tiles,” Ehrlich says. The alphabetical arrangement by title undercuts any narrative ordering; that randomness encourages the viewer to make his own connections.

If there’s a unifying principle to “One Hundred Paintings,” it lies in the way the work explores opposite poles–meaning and meaninglessness, beauty and banality, interest and tedium. On my first visit, when I viewed all 100, they grew boring after a while. But then I began to see the way Ehrlich uses this tedium: the patient viewer soon enters a state in which the difference between six red balls in one picture and four in another seems meaningful. Suddenly one is surprised by the painterliness of tiny shadows behind red cherries. The sensuous green of the molded Jell-O begins to distinguish itself from the confident plastic colors of advertisements: this green is rather gentle, evocative–blending in with yet enlivening the even paler colors of the rest of the scene. Ehrlich’s colors, midway between old master delicacy and advertising flatness, also express her split vision.

The table in the last picture, like the table in the first, is empty. The title, You’ll Be Inspired to Create the Environment You’ve Always Wanted, combined with the empty table suggests Ehrlich’s idea: that anyone confronted with empty space can fill it as she likes, making her own private paradise. But the space Ehrlich provides is limited, too small for, say, a miraculous resurrection whose light will illuminate the whole world. What’s permitted, indeed encouraged, is using the mundane to fulfill one’s dreams. She replaces the hubris of artists who would reshape nature and culture with an invitation to arrange, and rearrange, some colored sticks.