Rainer Gross: Fingertip-Tingling

at I Space, through October 8

Jane Lackey: Tabulations

at Roy Boyd, through October 7

By Fred Camper

A good movie, it is said, “draws you in.” We often hear the same praise of music, theater, and art. But there can be fascination, even beauty, in art that seems to turn its back on you, that’s deliberately uninviting. Sometimes the uncompromising, unaccommodating, hermetic approach can be seen in art that in fact doesn’t have much to offer. But sometimes, as in the abstract works of Rainer Gross and Jane Lackey, it evokes a strangely compelling orphic otherness.

Gross, 46, was attracted to the American pop art he saw in his native Cologne while still in his teens; “I didn’t quite know what to make of it,” he told me. He moved to New York in his early 20s, where he was Larry Rivers’s studio assistant for five years, and still lives there. The 12 paintings and works on paper at I Space make up his first Chicago show; he has a concurrent exhibition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The I Space exhibit is one of his first abstract shows; much of his earlier work involved the appropriation and collage of found images, including some thrift-shop paintings–he calls it a mix of “Hans Hofmann push-pull and schlock, high and low, my own painting and 18th-century painting.”

Gross’s warm, glowing Lasso might seem welcoming at first. But one soon becomes aware of several different elements in this large painting almost struggling with one another. Gross in fact painted it in layers, beginning with a yellowish one underneath, then bluish drips in a grid, then an “amorphous flesh tone” in puddles left in the center to dry, and finally small blue gray dots in rows over the whole surface. “I wanted you to be able to read all four layers,” he says, mentioning as one inspiration Adobe Photoshop, which allows the computerized layering of images. What makes the painting so striking is how different each layer is in its effects. The grid formed by the drips is often broken and irregular: though grids in minimal art communicate an idealized geometry, Gross’s handmade grid is a torn, imperfect fence. The allover dots add an almost decorative element, while the puddles of fleshy orange and red shine with an ethereal three-dimensionality, hovering over the canvas in the manner of a Rothko rectangle. The brightest of these glowing areas are in the center, suggesting an unnamed significance.

Not only can you clearly see all four layers in Lasso–you can’t avoid seeing them. The yellow ground glows behind the blobs, lines, and dots; the lines and dots interpenetrate. All assert themselves equally, like the separate melodies in Renaissance polyphony–but they undercut as well as reinforce one another. Any “meaning” attributed to the central shapes is undermined by the fact that the allover patterns march across them with the same rhythms they assert in the rest of the canvas. Ultimately one perceives the layers to be locked in a struggle, each representing a different kind of vision; their simultaneous and equal assertions suggest that no one way of seeing is correct or “true.”

This qualified view, that all imagery is provisional, made me think of Gerhard Richter, who seems to be making a similar point with his different styles of painting. Gross says Richter is not a major influence, however, though he sympathizes with Richter’s shift in styles and his questioning of “what constitutes a painting.” Perhaps Gross’s paintings are strange because he seeks “what I personally haven’t seen and what no one possibly has seen. I try to make something that startles me.”

Viewing several of Gross’s diptychs made me think of Richter again–of his three aerial views of Madrid, for example, which vary from realistic to abstract. Gross’s diptychs, perhaps the most fascinating works in this show, evolved from monotypes he was making; here the oil painting on the left was used to create the print on canvas or paper to the right. Gross has also rotated these mirror images 180 degrees, so that the casual viewer might not guess that the two images reoriented would look like the two halves of a Rorschach inkblot. By hanging them together, Gross engages in familiar art-world games–suggesting the process behind a work and questioning the art object’s originality and preciousness. But he does more: one experiences these rotated mirror images as both exhilarating and unsettling.

The geometrical effects of several diptychs are undercut by apparent deterioration. The paint appears to have flaked off in big chunks from the left panel of Minoike Twins, consisting of colored rectangular shapes on a greenish background. Relief effects are created at the thick edges of the paint that remains, and Gross has also added smears of contrasting colors on the bars. The painting looks like a badly decayed geometrical color-field composition, an effect that’s naturally increased in the print. In addition, Gross’s palette here is alienating–dark, heavy, almost muddy. But a lighter-colored diptych, Cristin Twins, has its own contradictions: behind its grid of lines, in the many areas of fallen-away paint, is a more regular geometric background of lighter blue, white, and cream. But because each diptych is eight feet high, the observer is plunged into an enveloping, labyrinthine environment from which there seems no escape.

These works may be undercut by flaking paint and smears, but their more disturbing and ecstatic effects come from the pairing of flipped views. Almost inevitably one interprets abstract paintings in terms of the everyday world. Fighting this, Rothko placed dark areas above lighter ones in his last works, trying to avoid any suggestion of landscape. In the left canvas of Minoike Twins, I found it impossible to look at the vertical red bar near the center resting on a black square without feeling an oppressive weight, because heavy black and blue horizontal bars sit atop the red one. But the print inverts the composition, so that what had seemed to press down now projects upward.

In fact the key to Gross’s remarkable diptychs is their pairing, which utterly negates any of the conventional interpretations we subconsciously bring to abstract designs. In his diptychs there is no up or down, no weight or weightlessness, no left or right. Instead the viewer is plunged into a world without ground, swimming in a sea of shapes that are themselves falling apart, in which any meaning one might hope to find is contradicted by the painting’s adjacent mirror image. This is art working in a profound way: instead of plugging into your pleasure receptors, like a movie that draws you in, it undercuts the hidden expectations we bring to all experience.

Like Gross, Jane Lackey has shifted direction in the last few years. A Michigan resident–she teaches at Cranbrook–Lackey, 49, “never really called myself a fiber artist,” she told me, but “that’s been the area I’ve concentrated in.” As a child she enjoyed making things; visiting her grandparents’ farm, with their attic full of implements–her ancestors were weavers and quilters too–was a key early inspiration, as was seeing major art museums on a high school trip to Europe. Long interested in drawing, Lackey developed an interest in fiber, she says, because “constructing the piece of cloth is like constructing a canvas, but the image is embedded in that construction–early on I was involved in a process called ikat, in which the threads are dyed first and then woven together. I really like the way dye is absorbed into the cloth rather than sitting on top of it.” Exposure to action painting and newer art forms in the late 60s sparked an interest in interactive art.

There are no fiber works in Lackey’s exhibit at Roy Boyd, however. Some of the 29 objects here are digital prints and photo etchings sandblasted onto Plexiglas; borrowing heavily from medical and nature imagery, these show the sources of Lackey’s larger “markers” and “tablets,” the strongest work in the show. Built up out of three sheets of Masonite laminated together, they’re then cut into ovals or rounded rectangles and covered with cork. On this surface Lackey layers paint, ending with gray and light tan, and burn marks, often visible as little holes–products of repeated work sessions.

The large oval markers–almost all of them 77 inches high–are objects that straddle the boundary between painting and sculpture. The evocative shape itself recalls a tongue, a medicine capsule, an old-fashioned oval portrait, a cell, and a gravestone; Lackey says she wanted the markers to “become both an object and an image at the same time.” While the sponged-on paint sometimes takes the form of defined streaks, sometimes of vague smears, it never comes close to making a conventional balanced composition. Just as these objects occupy the territory between painting and sculpture, so they also inhabit a twilight realm, half designed and coherent, half random, like nature.

Marker 4 looks vaguely functional but obviously has no practical use. Holes have been burned in horizontal lines across the cork, some of which seem to go right through the surface while others barely mark it; at times a line of holes ends completely. Apparently dripping from some of the holes are long, thin streaks of paint, giving the holes an active presence, as if they were mysterious fountains of color. The layers of sponged-on paint produce a shifting inner glow. But ultimately one has no idea what one’s looking at: the tiny holes suggest a peg board and Gross’s painterly dots, yet the holes and drips and smears refuse to congeal into a single picture.

One clue to the profoundly disorienting effect of Lackey’s markers comes from the more colorful areas of paint at the bottom of most. The bright vertical streaks in Marker 6 are rare in the center but form a dense reddish skein toward the bottom. I initially read this as a clustering of the paint that had dripped from various holes, but there are too few holes and too many streaks. It seemed more plausible that the clustered streaks had dripped up from the bottom, from clumps of wet paint, petering out before they reached the middle–and in fact Lackey said she often turned these ovals while working on them.

These dual directions are as perfectly balanced as the interlocking layers of Gross’s Lasso. Gravity is suspended, and we’re plunged into an amorphous field of paint and unpredictable holes that subvert conventional expectations. Confronted with a deeply unfamiliar prospect, the viewer is forced to quit relying on the art to tell him something and instead make of it what he will.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Minoike Twins” by Rainer Gross; “Marker 4” by Jane Kackey.