Hot Lava, 1993, 1950s TV with 4 lava lamps, 18 x 40 x 52 in. Credit: Lee Grantham

L
ee Grantham, whose new show “Reverse Acrylic Paintings” is at Jean Albano
Gallery through February 24, is a Milwaukee-based painter whose work can’t
escape the Chicago Imagists’ long shadow.

Celebrated treasure hunter John Maloof, whose own Imagist-indebted reverse
acrylic paintings are also represented by the gallery, first brought
Grantham to Albano’s attention more than a year ago. Maloof insisted she
visit Grantham’s modest south-side Milwaukee home. “When John says ‘You’ve
gotta see this,’ you go,” Albano told me. What she saw was a house
chock-full of brightly colored acrylic paintings on vintage television
consoles, silverware boxes, and canvas. But the ones that attracted her
most were executed in reverse on Plexiglas.

Albano, who has represented many of the most prominent Imagists over the
years, marvels at the scale on which Grantham often works; his largest
paintings can measure up to six feet long. “How does he do that?” she
wonders aloud.

Born in 1953, Grantham studied painting at Ball State University in his
native Indiana after serving in the navy. During his senior year he saw a
show that included two small reverse paintings by Chicago Imagists Barbara
Rossi and Karl Wirsum. They were such a revelation that he decided to
change his manner of painting and move to Chicago rather than New York upon
graduation. He never studied with Rossi and Wirsum, though he was included
in some local gallery shows in the 80s and 90s; then he moved to Milwaukee
and his exhibition history has been sporadic since. Albano told me he works
a full-time job, has a wife and kids, and is getting ready to retire, but
she’s cagey about revealing any more personal or professional details than
that.

Grantham takes his imagery from instructional manuals, industrial
illustrations, and, occasionally, from art history. His Van Gogh tribute, Worth Cutting Your Ear Off For (1991), presents an outline of the
artist with bandaged ear, his face blank save for a cartoonish mouth, and
pairs him with a similarly featureless bodice- and panty-clad blond. Around
these two central figures are various bits and pieces from Van Gogh’s
paintings, as well as renderings of knives, scissors, paintbrushes, and
paint tubes. I don’t know why Vincent and his scantily clad friend have no
eyes or nose, but the rest of the imagery is straightforward enough. I
suppose she’s meant to be the mythical prostitute he presented his ear to,
but that’s an interpretive leap.

Grantham’s work, like that of his Imagist forebears, manages to be both
polished and oddly unformed. The pictures are obviously the product of a
dogged personality, but it’s often difficult to discern any meaning or
message. Their bright, clashing patterns connote celebration or frenzy, but
the featureless, frozen figures which people them rarely convey either
personality or thought.

The most gripping mystery is why Grantham kept cranking out his work all
these years while keeping a low profile in the art world, but the sleek
plastic surfaces of these paintings do not yield many insights.   v