Albert Zahn: I’ll Fly Away

at Intuit, through February 28

Marcos Raya: The Unreal World

at Aldo Castillo, through February 28

Michael Nakoneczny: Paintings From the Icebox

at Zolla/Lieberman, through February 7

Figurative sculptors commonly enliven their work either by achieving a stunning level of trompe l’oeil realism or by abstracting forms to capture their essences. Folk artist Albert Zahn–who made art at his home in Door County, Wisconsin, after he retired, from 1924 to 1950 (he died in 1953)–took the second approach, perhaps because he lacked the skill for the first. But it’s hard to imagine a bird sculpted with Audubon-like realism that would look more ready to fly than the schematic creature, flat wings spread wide, atop a wooden stump in Birds on a Perch, one of some 200 works at Intuit, most of them carved of wood. Three smaller birds clinging to the tapered stump look up, further focusing our attention on the first.

In this case as in other Zahn works, greater realism–carved and painted feathers, for example–would have distracted the viewer from the implied movement. The legs of the two elongated animals in Pair of Running Dogs are almost parallel to the ground, extended fore and aft to heighten the sense of horizontal motion; their extended tails contribute to the illusion of speed. Yet abstraction in Zahn’s work doesn’t always suggest movement. The tall, thin bird of Stork offers pared-down vertical and horizontal forms, its clear geometry and simple three-colored design creating a remarkable calm. (Zahn’s wife, Louise, painted the sculptures based on his instructions.) Similarly, the square-shouldered figures wearing hats in the three works titled Sea Captain are little essays in rectilinear certitude.

The untrained artist, removed from an aesthetic dialogue with predecessors and contemporaries, often seems isolated in his own self-created world. Photographs at Intuit show Zahn’s house and grounds, which he called “Birds Park,” decorated with a large number of his works. Born in Pomerania (now part of Poland) in 1864, he emigrated to the United States as a young man but reportedly sculpted the birds of his native land. According to the catalog, Zahn was a close reader of the Bible and intended many of his pieces to make biblical references.

The exhibit’s most extraordinary works are several that include multiple figures and suggest miniature cosmologies. A large white angel crowns the pillarlike Tree With Angels, Birds, and Barking Dogs; two groups of birds and one of dogs look up at it, suggesting it’s a religious icon around which the world revolves. In Family Tree With Birds, four tiers of figures include a central patriarch whose hands and head support a beam holding three more figures and nine birds–creatures that often symbolize the soul. The piece simultaneously evokes traditional family structures and, with its totemlike form, the soul’s ascent. Recalling the completeness of large altarpieces, both works seem designed to create worlds filled with belief.

Some artists go beyond creating self-contained worlds to acknowledge their peculiar apartness, often with little narratives about art making. Born in Mexico in 1948, Marcos Raya came to Chicago at 15; his formal art training did not extend beyond high school. Influenced by surrealism and Duchamp–whose work taught him “to stay away from formulas,” as Raya once told Jeff Hueb-ner in the Reader–this for-mer community activist is a 32-year Pilsen resident known as a mural painter.

Some of Raya’s pieces at Aldo Castillo have a surreal strangeness. For Cabecita, he covered the entire face of a found object–a miniature bust in the classical style–with a forest of dark tacks poking out. In Homage to the Street he adorned a full-size door with wooden piano hammers, rusty door keys, and two reliefs of faces on two lower panels. A central wood torso (Raya calls it a “robot”) encrusted with “jewels” has a male body and a slightly feline face, recalling an alley cat. The multiple objects, the use of panels to contain faces, and the clock above the central figure all suggest we’re looking at a living space the artist created–a world separate from but parallel to our own.

Raya includes some even more explicit allegories of art making, the best of which is the mixed-media Techno Muralist. A nude woman with her back to us is painting a large, somewhat cartoonish abstraction; meanwhile an electronic apparatus nearby seems to be wired to her brain. Offering a comically horrific vision of art in the age of artificial intelligence, the piece also suggests–in the context of a show filled with idiosyncratic works–that the creative pro-cess is not a dialogue with earlier art but occurs in a world apart.

Michael Nakoneczny has a BFA and an MFA and teaches at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. But his work at Zolla/Lieberman reminds us that trained artists sometimes paint with the eccentricity and obsessiveness of outsiders. Nakoneczny’s figures are schematic, with some of the irregular roughness of children’s art, and they’re often inspired by his personal life. White Out–a large, irregular grid of Alas-kan fish and mammals, including a few humans–recalls the way many naive artists, Zahn among them, seem compelled to inventory objects. Nakoneczny’s many drawings of pine trees on the painting’s snowy white background, images repeated on the curved panel atop the frame, also suggest the need to enumerate the objects in his world.

Though Nakoneczny says he’s trying to concentrate more on central images than he has, his works still contain pictures within pictures; little panels hinged to the corners contain additional images. Since these pictures don’t always connect with one another, Hamza Walker’s 1995 reference to “the flotsam and jetsam of [Nakoneczny’s] mind” seems apt. Still, the lack of logical relationships doesn’t rule out a map-of-the-world completeness, as if each image were meant to allow for a different contingency.

Perhaps the finest work here, Lovely and Delicious, has multiple components: going from image to image within it is a bit like wandering through a museum that covers many periods and cultures. At its center is a goofy blue-faced, four-legged critter with an eye that lights up when the viewer flips a switch embedded in the canvas to its left. Two of the inserted images show the same woman; in one of them, a giant-beaked beast seems to confront her–and in one of the hinged side panels a similar creature labeled “ME” appears about to touch her as she sleeps. There are other creatures too, and dripping red paint, and a small, green abstract painting within the painting at upper right. Ultimately, the effect of Nakoneczny’s diverse assemblage is to immerse you in a weirdly disconnected but seemingly self-sufficient world.

Like Raya, Nakoneczny also offers several allegories for art making that acknowledge the eccentricity of his project. At the center of Man With a Crayon is a boy with an elephantlike lizard on his head–is this the artist or a youth drawn by the unseen “man with crayon”? A box of crayons is painted at lower left and a copy of The Artist’s Handbook at lower right, symbolizing the two poles of Nakoneczny’s artistry: the free play of the imagination and the training and calculation of an art professor. Hinged side panels show animals, grids of bingo numbers, and a grid of Chinese and Japanese ideograms. Images, the techniques of image making, humans, animals, numbers, and language–all are here. What’s lacking is the coherent cosmology of, say, a fresco or altarpiece showing the Last Judgment or some other cosmic event. But it seems impossible for most painters of modern life to embrace past certitudes.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Fred Camper.