Karen Reimer

at Beret International, through October 16

MRI Painting Projects

at Bodybuilder and Sportsman, through October 9

Virginia Meredith: Born Again

at Peter Miller, through October 9

By Fred Camper

The problem with much ironic postmodern art is that while it often seems “smart,” that wit can easily slide into an unequivocal air of smirking superiority toward its mass-culture targets. We learn only what the artist thinks is worth laughing at, and the effect can be a bit like listening to the endless catty barbs of someone who’s lost all passion–though few artists are quite this cynical and empty.

Four Chicagoans in their first solo shows here present imagery from mass culture with a measure of humor–yet each avoids the hollow laughter of those who know only how to mock. These shows also reflect the artists’ encounters with feminism and their interest in remaking appropriated images by hand, transforming what might originally have been sterile and cliched into something dynamic and alive. “Love”–a word banalized into uselessness–kept coming to mind as I viewed these shows, because in each case the artist personalizes the impersonal, affectionately sensualizes the anonymous, and produces something that’s a bit askew, not just another cloned artifact of our media-dominated age, helping the viewer recover the pleasure of looking.

Karen Reimer’s 28 embroidered works at Beret suggest a desire to remake the world–or at least printed matter and some handwritten notes–in cloth and thread. Reimer often reproduces pages from books with black thread on white cloth, but she’s also made fabric replicas of candy wrappers, a parking ticket, a Popeye’s soft drink cup, receipts, and a completed crossword puzzle, using colored fabric and thread to re-create the color in the original.

A Faith in Documents is typical of the book pages. It shows the beginning of a chapter of that name; Reimer didn’t read the novel, she told me, but liked the chapter title. As in most of her embroidered texts, the words are extremely small, and as a result mostly illegible–though visually lively. One may strain to read the texts–and Reimer is interested in the viewer’s attempt to decipher them–but my attention was directed away from reading and toward the tactile qualities of thread on cloth. Reimer usually represents the loops in letters with a single stitch called a French knot, which produces a tiny black disk or ball; other curves are made of several straight stitches. The lines of text are not precisely straight, and the raised thread adds a slight relief effect, making the piece more dynamic.

Reimer grew up on a farm in Kansas, where she was born in 1958, and learned to sew as a girl. Not surprisingly, she mentions Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger as influences, and in fact most of her choices of texts are hardly naive. St. John I shows the famous beginning of John linking God with the Word. The Spectator shows both text from A Short History of the Printed Word and a facsimile of a page from the famous 18th-century literary periodical, its tiny text rendered as dots and dashes. Reimer’s choices often reflect a gently ironic view of both printed pages and the works she makes of them. It’s hard to have “faith in documents” when one cannot read the words; the title of The Spectator and the largest words in it address the viewer. Even the stitched version of a receipt whose largest word is a “Paid” stamp seems self-conscious, reminding the viewer that all the works here are for sale.

Yet irony is far from Reimer’s dominant mode: she says that the “faith in documents” phrase reminded her of the homey mottoes people used to embroider on samplers; for me it also suggests that one doesn’t have to be able to read or understand a printed text in order to have faith in it. The edition of the Bible she chose for St. John I has Christ’s words in red, and the shiny red thread she uses makes those words brighter than in any printed Bible I’ve seen.

Part of what’s so appealing about Reimer’s work is its almost naive realism–all 28 pieces, for example, are life-size. More, More, More carefully reproduces a bright red cigarette package. Gold stitching replicates gold bands on the front, and yellow fabric the gold wrapper inside. Little details like a rectangle of darker red for the seal suggest a loving attention to color and shape: the small, careful decisions Reimer has made about how best to represent the package force one to look much more closely at it than one would have looked at the original object.

More Value shows the envelope that an American Express solicitation came in. The fabric is torn to replicate the way the envelope was ripped open, the oblong address window is cut out of the fabric, and tiny black stitches represent the computer-generated bars on the bottom of the envelope–a pattern created entirely by machines. At least the advertising slogan–“More Value”–was written by some committee of consumer-psychology experts, but by also stitching the bar codes, untouched by human creativity, Reimer redresses in a way I found truly moving the complete loss of a human presence in objects of the postindustrial age.

The seven paintings at Bodybuilder and Sportsman–one is a diptych and another a triptych–contain a total of 28 glamour girls. MRI Painting Projects is the name assumed by Rob Davis, 29, and Mike Langlois, 25 (“Mike Rob Incorporated”), who first collaborated when they met while students at the School of the Art Institute. But why would these young men paint such obviously sexist pictures? No. 3 Girls shows three blue-eyed women looking out at us; the blond in the center has a plunging neckline, while the girl to her left leans sensuously against her. The women’s poses seem stagy and unnatural even for a painting, and their creamy, seemingly airbrushed skin is perfectly smooth: I’ve never seen skin quite like this before, midway between the suppleness of Titian and the hard, cold “perfection” of Vargas–a mix, in other words, of high and low.

When Davis and Langlois were look-ing for a project to do together, Davis’s girlfriend at the time suggested they paint from her collection of fashion magazines. Collaborating on each painting–the two took turns–became a way of compromising “in order to achieve a more beautiful object,” Davis told me. Langlois says that collaboration “removes the work from just one individual psyche.” And these pictures do have some of the impersonality of advertising.

But painting from fashion photographs produces somewhat strange results. The subjects’ poses are typically a mixture of naturalism and fantasy; the women are performing some minor task but are never fully engaged in it. They display themselves with a peculiar bored anomie, as if waiting for the right person (perhaps the viewer) to add excitement to their lives. No. 1 Girl is looking at a blank tan rectangle–Davis and Langlois had in mind a painting–her pose midway between standing and walking but not quite right for either. The mix of a static pose and suggested movement is somehow appropriate to a photo but strange in a painting. Yet Davis and Langlois tip the balance toward painting by ignoring the props and backgrounds of the original photos, substituting their own, often placing the women in abstracted spaces marked by a few “hot” colors–part of the sensuality of No. 3 Girls comes from the contrast between light skin and intense purple background.

The care the painters have lavished on surfaces and backgrounds seems at odds with the subjects’ transitory, unstable poses. And indeed Davis refers to the paintings as “slowing down” the figures: the seductive use of paint invites the eye to linger in a way that a magazine photograph cannot. The seven women in the diptych No. 7 Girls are not part of any real-world event but exist simply as a collection of beautiful objects. One looks gentle and fetching, another with one arm raised seems hardened, still another looks in her purse. Scattered throughout featureless rooms with creamy walls and floors, they never look at one another.

The painters’ mixture of photographic realism and unnatural poses reminds the viewer of the artificial, constraining nature of sexual fantasies. Ultimately No. 7 Girls has an almost unpleasant edge: these women are trapped not only by the male eye but by the male imagination that created their stances–one can almost hear a photographer yelling at them to put out a little more attitude, just as one can see the painters piling on more color. Davis and Langlois are too honest and self-aware to simply accept the fantasies they want to wallow in, so they produce intelligent, uneasy mixes of beauty and self-conscious artifice, pictures that at once attract and repel us.

Virginia Meredith, born in Chicago in 1953, has gone through a variety of periods, from figure drawing to abstract painting to performance art, supporting herself mostly as an illustrator. Her show of 13 paintings at Peter Miller is the most ironic of the three exhibits: she’s painted brightly colored images of dolls, toys, even a chicken over amateur artists’ paintings of the sort found in thrift shops. In her statement, Meredith recognizes that the impulse behind the paintings she paints over was “pure and wondrous,” but she calls the results “astonishing in [their] vulgarity,” referring to the thrift-shop paintings as “low art” and the images she paints over them as “high art.” Arthur J. Fournier writes in an essay about Meredith, available in the gallery, “Many of these [thrift shop] paintings do not so much present aesthetic experiences, they simply reference them.”

But while the objects Meredith adds are painted with more care, I had trouble seeing them as “high art.” The base painting for Alien Ichthys is a pale, decorative landscape complete with inviting water and big old tree stump; in front of it hover Meredith’s paintings of 24 purple, red, and orange space-alien dolls in the shape of the ancient Christian symbol, their glowing colors (this is the only painting that uses acrylic in addition to oil) as garish as any in advertising. If “high art” produces a complex, suggestive experience over time, this dumb landscape, with its relatively supple use of paint, is closer to high art than Meredith’s additions.

What’s actually happening with Meredith’s work is more complex than her statement suggests. By adding images from pop culture painted in its instant-gratification spirit, she makes her backgrounds look almost profound. Her humorous pieces clearly comment on our commodified world, but contrary to her stated intentions they also paradoxically redeem the “bad” thrift-shop work.

Similarly, the shadows painted behind Meredith’s objects have what seems an unintended effect. Each space alien in Alien Ichthys casts a shadow on the landscape–which one might anticipate would drain it of any illusionistic potential. Instead, the shadows make the underlying image, which remains dimly visible in the shadowed areas, even more suggestive: Meredith’s objects seem solid but are unmistakably less subtle than the recycled landscapes.

Sometimes thrift-shop paintings have an odd interest–there have even been traveling exhibits of the more eccentric ones. Meredith’s Inflatable Adult Porno Sheep, Baby takes as its background a strange blue landscape with abstract elements, bands of color and three dark blue squares hovering in the sky. Meredith paints inflatable sheep with red lipstick over these squares, completely obscuring the middle one; below them a baby doll floats, presumably counting sheep. The combined weirdness of Meredith’s additions and the original strange landscape are what give the work its real strength. One can see that the nude doll’s body is in sections, and the painting comes to seem a study in artificiality.

Meredith’s humor can have a nasty edge: in Baby, Bali Dolls two Balinese dolls with erections float above a group of children gathered around an organ-grinder’s monkey, largely obscured by a nude female doll. The Bali dolls’ penises point downward, toward the kids, making Meredith’s “collage” a reminder of children’s sexuality–a fact that cute paintings of kids usually seek to avoid.

The Bali dolls are unlike the anatomically incomplete dolls in the rest of the show, and finally Meredith’s apparent celebration of bland, anonymous mass-manufactured items and her surreal, irreconcilable juxtapositions can be seen as comments on the absurdity and soullessness of our culture. Empty repetition has denied the possibility of meaning, sending Meredith to a kind of painterly theater of the absurd.

Fournier suggests in his essay that sanctity and sublimity are no longer possible in the postmodern age, and Meredith makes this view plausible by choosing thrift-store paintings that take banality to real heights, or depths. St. Barbie is a flat rendering of a familiar scene: Joseph and Mary with the infant Jesus on the left, the three Wise Men on the right. But Meredith places a large, nude female doll (not an actual Barbie) between the two groups–a welcome addition to a scene thoroughly in need of some such disruption. Connecting two kinds of cliche, she implicitly compares the derivative paintings she’s chosen with the mass-manufactured items she adds to the scenes. And it’s a sad comment on our culture that sometimes the backgrounds are more suggestive, more aesthetically appealing, than the objects Meredith paints with so much finesse.