Vadim Kravets: Works on Paper

at Maya Polsky Gallery, through November 20

Otto Upts, 1850-1933

at Carl Hammer Gallery, through November 15

By Fred Camper

It’s an irritating irony of the art world that nonprofit, tax-exempt museums are often less adventurous than commercial galleries. While the latest installment in our leading art museum’s seemingly endless series on French painting circa 1860 to 1926, the Renoir show at the Art Institute, is drawing the usual crowds, two commercial galleries are offering challenging portraits by two far more obscure painters. Like Renoir, Vadim Kravets and Otto Upts owe various stylistic debts to others, but their work is a lot more original than Renoir’s, from which I learned almost nothing. His eye candy, accessible in part because it’s painted in a style kitsch has made familiar, offers only the most limited psychological insights.

Kravets’s eight portraits and five still lifes, all pastels on paper, at Maya Polsky depend for their effect not on unusual subject matter but on fine details of color and line. When I asked him about key influences, Kravets named such painters as Philippe de Champaigne, Caravaggio and some of his followers, and David–no one from our century. Cut off from contemporary art in his youth in the USSR, he also counts growing up in Lvov, where he was born in 1959, as an important influence. “Lvov isn’t a typical Soviet city. It used to be a center for Hasidic Jews–the culture is more central Europe than Ukraine. It has a great museum, and beautiful Italian Renaissance buildings.” The art training he received in the USSR was traditional, including drawing from plaster casts of Greek sculpture. Only after he emigrated with his family, when he was 19, did Kravets get some idea of current art in the West. Coming to the United States in 1980, he visited Chicago and the Art Institute: “I saw Warhol and Lichtenstein, and I said, ‘This is not for me. It’s not my temperament.'” Desiring a more traditional and technically rigorous training than most American art schools offer, he enrolled in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he now lives.

Grinding his own pigments and following many Old Master “recipes,” which he sought out himself, he produces work of great delicacy. There is nothing “easy” about his work, however, which melds two traditional styles: the precise, hard-edged Northern Renaissance manner and sfumato, in which one color blends gradually into another. Rather than holding these opposites in a kind of tension, Kravets seeks a smooth combination: “I like the mixture that Italians bring–sometimes you have to be tight, and sometimes loose.”

How Kravets’s work looks depends a lot on how close you are to it. The artichoke in Artichoke I looks pretty sharp edged from a distance but reveals close-up the pale green of the leaves blending quickly with the gray background. Even the leaves’ veins are a bit soft. While these sharp-tipped leaves point outward with a hint of self-assertion, in this spare, pale world it seems a cry in a vacuum, a muted acknowledgment of sharpness blending into pure light.

The overall mood Kravets creates is of a delicate but austere silence. There are few details in his pictures, the backgrounds are pure color, and the figures in his portraits are shirtless. The man in profile in one untitled pastel (number five on the exhibition checklist) appears to be crying out, but part of what’s powerful about the image is that his expression doesn’t fall into a familiar category–he isn’t solely angry or happy but seems ecstatic and vexed at once. Unable to reduce his expression to a nameable emotion, the viewer is forced to look, look again, and wonder. And the man’s dynamic expression is in dramatic contrast with the pale grays of Kravets’s depiction: is this a real cry or the memory of a cry? Like the artichoke tips dissolving into color, this human expression might be a momentary illusion.

Taking care to pose his subjects in a way that he feels will reveal their psychology most deeply, and attending carefully to the two main elements of traditional portraiture–paint and character–Kravets does something else as well: he undercuts the personality and individual power that his subjects’ poses at first seem to give them. The show includes one Vanitas still life complete with skull, but all the pictures share some of that ethos: we feel we’re seeing a moment in time that’s passed–that everything we see is an impermanent illusion.

The man in Profile II is rendered in flesh tones at once luminous and a bit cadaverous. This may not have been Kravets’s conscious intent, but the suggestion adds to the picture’s power. The man’s eyes, staring straight ahead, have some purpose we cannot know, and any conjecture we might make about that purpose is undercut by the absence of background, the fact that the man is nude, and the odd way that color clusters in pools of varying luminosity on his skin. Is this a flesh-and-blood person or the silent dream of one?

There’s nothing silent about the paintings of Otto Upts: he renders the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and John the Evangelist all as boldly as his almost sculptural-looking paint will allow. Upts, who died in 1933, couldn’t paint nearly as well as Renoir or Kravets–indeed, his unschooled technique might be called crude. But in his case crudeness might have been a good thing. Part of the excitement of his work comes from the gap between his apparent aspiration–to paint pictures of famous men that would look just like heroic statues of them–and his limited skills. The result is work with an utterly original look and potential meanings that are a bit less fixed than one might think.

Upts was born in Germany in 1850; when he was nine, he and his family moved to Magnolia, Illinois, where they were farmers. That’s virtually all that’s known about Upts, except that he seems to have made art for much of his life, though the bulk of it was destroyed after his death by a family that apparently thought it worthless. The 28 works at Carl Hammer, Upts’s only show ever, so far as is known are all that survive. To judge from them, Upts may not have been fully literate in English: whenever he writes more than a few words in a caption, the text is in German. He seemed to admire mostly, but not exclusively, German and American leaders.

Three works hung together, all mixed media on cardboard, show George Washington, Frederick the Great, and Napoleon standing on pedestals, statuelike except that their faces are flesh-colored and Washington and Bonaparte have dark coats and boots. As is often the case with outsider art, representation functions in more than one way: these are at once pictures of actual heroes and pictures of their statues. There’s a wonderful tension between the forceful lines, faces, and poses of these almost-sculptural figures and their look of a children’s toy. The solid blocks of color with which the bend of an arm, the brim of a hat, or a pair of boots are rendered give the figures potency, yet Upts’s somewhat wooden technique also gives them the look of carved and painted wood panels, a folk-art tradition Upts likely knew.

Not all of Upts’s pictures are of well-known heroes, but all seem to come close to worshipping their often dynamic subjects. The swept-back tail and cape of a rider and a galloping horse–perhaps taken from a weather-vane design–provide a contrast to the rifle the man points behind himself. And a double-sided woman–two almost identical images of a smiling woman on either side of a piece of cardboard–has hair that looks more like a tapestry with flowers in it than three-dimensional flowers in real hair.

As usual, Upts renders this woman’s face as an almost flat surface with hardly any modeling–a world apart from Kravets’s subtle articulations of skin. But Upts’s faces have a sincerity and directness rarely found in paintings by the schooled. We don’t know who this woman was, but there’s something about the generosity with which she’s rendered, the extravagance of the flowers in her hair and the way an almost identical image is repeated on the reverse side, that makes me feel sure she was Mrs. Upts.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Profile II” By Vadim Kravets/ “Napoleon Bonaparte” by Otto Upts.