Tucked away in the back rooms of Artemisia Gallery (which is capable of mounting five one-person shows at once) is a refreshing surprise. The drawings of Michael Russick and paintings by his brother David are entirely unfamiliar to me, yet both follow a familiar sensibility uneasily known as the “Chicago style” of art. Nevertheless, each Russick asserts his own individuality while continuing in the traditions of cryptic wit, flat planar design, and popular sources of imagery that distinguish this city’s aesthetic.
Michael Russick’s graphite drawings, boldly rendered in basic black and white, read like stills culled from some film noir. He applies graphite so heavily over large expanses that it not only takes on a high polish but achieves an impasto effect. He usually prefers this rich darkness to the plain paper as a ground for his subjects. Thus they seem to vibrate from a void, an impression enhanced by his leaving a thin border of white around the images’ outlines, as if they were strongly backlit or haloed.
The drama of this technique is reinforced by Russick’s drafting style, which is reminiscent of the old Dick Tracy comic strip, particularly in his depictions of facial features such as eyes, mouth, and ears. This cartoon reference is further sustained by the structure of his pictures. He treats the things he draws — gun, hands, pitcher, tract house, buttered bread — iconically, isolating each on its own square or rectangular picture plane. A sprig of cherries is set in a graphite square: the image is treated like a precious gem in a fine setting.
Although a number of works are single-frame pictures (some with multiple images) Russick prefers to juxtapose several of these symbolic snapshots on a single piece of paper. Neatly contained in formal shapes, the images are amplified by the serial conventions of the cartoon. Russick proceeds from triptychs to multiple strips, culminating in No Lip, which is a 16-panel grid of discrete scenes.
Counterbalancing Michael Russick’s formal composition and superb facility for line drawing is his fascination with the grotesque (long a characteristic of Chicago Imagist artists). The ears and eyes of the man’s face in Airplane are so exaggerated as to be deformed. Lines that denote anatomical features seem to be slipping into surreal representation, as if his figures’ skins were abnormally elastic, even liquid. In Dirge he actually scalps the outer skin of a man’s face from his adam’s apple almost to his hairline. Underneath is a grisly imaginary depiction of muscle and cartilage.
The sense of chaos suggested by these creatures is complemented by Russick’s use of strong, oblique angles of perspective. Objects or scenes are rarely viewed straight on; we always seem to be looking down or up at a sharp slant. Sometimes, as in Your Mouth #2, we are given a dizzying aerial view. In two works, Attempt and Narrow Passage, Russick delivers a truly dazzling perspective. Both feature a central panel of a nude man seen from below. In the first he’s underwater, entirely submerged save for his right hand and head above the nose — both limbs being eliminated by a graphite ground. In Narrow Passage the man is falling through a void of white paper, forelock and penis fluttering back from the velocity of his descent.
Despite the dramatic and dynamic tension created by his cinematic tactics, Michael Russick’s themes don’t flow from narratives. Random images are juxtaposed with no apparent relationship, and seemingly expressive objects and figures are paradoxically frozen in motion. Russick leaves the explication of a drawing’s theme to its title, which applies a vigorous and often scathing meaning. In The Elite Eat two separately framed male heads seen from contrasting angles pursue the same action: ripping some organic mass through their rounded teeth with tiny hands.
Futures perfectly illustrates how Russick achieves this fusion of meaning from title, composition, and imagery. Its central picture is a big square filled with four male heads in a conspiratorial huddle, their individual features seeming to melt together. Above this scene are three uniform stills: a bit drilled through wood, hands scrubbing a plate, a burning cross. Below the main panel are three more stills: a hand touched by a smaller one broken at the wrist to reveal a ball joint, a hot dog speared on a stick ready for roasting, a pair of hands manacled around a tree trunk.
Russick’s drawings are volatile incursions into contemporary aspects of culture and society unified by a single emphasis. The series is obsessed with examining the status of the male at present, and whether it is a head of a man taking on the look of a dinosaur three panels away, or a man’s torso sarcastically alluding to a dressmaker’s dummy, it presents modern man in big existential trouble.
David Russick’s acrylic-on-canvas paintings are larger and brighter but calmer than his brother’s. He schematizes his figures more, making no attempt to render them in the round. Instead, thick lines denote shape and form, maintaining a flat outline of a thing or person. David Russick’s style is more benevolent and personal.
He also delights in formal arrangements of color, shape, and image, sometimes to an overly dry effect. Such a piece is A Hard Place, which establishes his basic pictorial format. Here the title and the picture intersect simply to form a pun. A boy lifts his head up toward a russet square containing a schematized image of a rock. A square of white focuses on the boy’s hands, which are clasped in a posture of prayer.
Throughout this series of paintings, David Russick plays a compositional game with a limited repertoire of basic colors, a central figure outlined in his severe fashion, and rectangular or square patches of color that usually contain an iconic or emblematic image. Frequently this symbolic counterpoint to the main image is inscrutable, like the anchor in What You Need. Or it may have purely personal significance, as in And Be Stayed, which uses a single-candle, birthday cake in a pink square.
David Russick relies, like his brother, on a work’s title to further its meaning, but too often his puns become purely self-referential. The central image in Road to Nowhere is a thin box shape whose side and top are delineated by a two-lane highway with broken centerline marks. In the rectangle above, the outline of a handsaw blade contains a fine, if abbreviated, landscape, while the bottom strip bears a series of colored lozenge shapes. Although formally beautiful, this picture is a little too arcane to invite interpretation.
When David Russick replaces an arcane emphasis with more simple depiction, his paintings assume real grandeur. 100 Years is a fine contemplation on aging and mortality. It focuses on an old man with dark round spectacles, sitting in house slippers and holding an old orange juicer. Above left, in a black square, streaks a comet. The manner in which Russick uses his thick, even strokes to render the figure in And Be Stayed (which seems derived from Catholic tableaux of the stations of the cross) is masterful and loose enough to prove his gestural facility in the youth’s shock of hair.
Overall, David Russick’s painterly realm is so very private and purposely mute in its concatenation of imagery that I almost felt like an unwanted intruder. Curiously, his most atypical piece is the best. On a small square canvas painted with a funny faux-wood frame that directs the eye to the center, rests a delectable orange image of an old glass orange juicer suspended in a serene blue-gray ground. Entitled Object of Affection, it is the only one of his paintings, appropriately, that is not for sale.