Gabert Farrar’s seven densely layered, labyrinthine paintings at Monique Meloche are inspired by his feelings about cities. “Anybody walking down the city street sees a jumble of cars and buildings and street lamps,” he says. “The spatial relationships in this jumble can become unclear, and you don’t know if you’re looking at backgrounds or foregrounds.” Jagged, brightly colored shapes are intended to approximate this confusion–augmented by barely legible text fragments that also encourage you to try to resolve the image.

After a “pretty bucolic” childhood in Richmond, Kentucky, Farrar says, he was stunned to see his first big city, Toronto, at nine or ten. Two of the classes he took while at the University of Michigan also had a major influence on him. A course on art and architecture of the ancient Near East exposed him to the idea that the forms in art might express a culture’s ethos. He came to think of the geometrical designs produced by early urban civilizations, for instance, as “a way of exerting psychological control over inhuman elements like a river or a plant or an ox.” A drawing course taught him that art is “really about how you perceive and describe things–how does something sit on a table, how do two planes meet? It’s a way of understanding the world.”

Farrar graduated in 1994 and two years later moved to Chicago, where he found himself fascinated by the city’s infrastructure–the bridges, he says, and “how the subway connects one part of town to another.” He first made stylized paintings inspired by the cityscape, then in 2000 began more diagrammatic representations. “But I would break up the lines in arbitrary ways and allow the foreground to bleed into the background or vice versa,” he says. Later he started depicting “some of the most random and confused areas,” like some intersections on South Western, industrial areas, and train yards.

“I live in Pilsen near a junkyard, a coal-burning power plant, and barbed-wire fences penning in lots where trailers and Dumpsters are stored,” Farrar says. “I was feeling this anxiety about living in an area that I felt was very cold and inhuman and didn’t want me around.” But most of his attempts at depicting these spaces left him dissatisfied. He sometimes felt he was trying to inject too much emotion into work that couldn’t sustain it: “How can you put all of your worries into a painting of a lamppost?” Casting around for ideas, he began painting noirish scenes, World War II scenes, and “zombies and mummies and ghosts” influenced by movies like Night of the Living Dead. “I felt these monsters and masked people and detectives were precisely the types that thrived in the nondescript spaces I’d been painting,” he explains. Eventually he installed these in an untitled grid, included in this show. Within the grid he juxtaposed these representational images with small, abstract paintings, writing out words in cursive and mixing text with abstract designs. These led to the other paintings displayed here.

Farrar takes his texts from things he’s read that have affected him. The most legible passage, “Repent the end of the world is upon us” in Repent…, comes from Alan Moore’s comic book Watchmen. The words, mostly in blue, turn red wherever tan lines cross them. In He Would Be…, thick green letters spell out “he would be transfigured. Weakness and timidity and inexperience would fall from him”–a quote from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It’s half-obscured by geometrical designs and cloudy white blobs, which arguably contradict the text’s prediction. The line in This Is…, “This is My First Time Ever,” is Farrar’s paraphrase of a Buddhist text he read years ago about the newness of each being. “All living creatures live bewildered,” he says. Here it’s almost impossible to distinguish the words from the fragmentary other marks–and Farrar says he intended his prominent yellow brushstrokes to “cancel” the layers underneath and “scramble” how the work would be read.

Gabert Farrar

When: Through 6/3

Where: Monique Meloche, 118 N. Peoria

Info: 312-455-0299

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.