Last year painter Jim Dempsey was helping his friend John Corbett transport some paintings for a retrospective on Chicago-based artist Tristan Meinecke when they got to talking about Briggs Dyer. The artist and School of the Art Institute professor was a favorite of Meinecke’s, who credited him as a major influence. Meinecke’s wife had told Corbett that Dyer’s widow was going to auction off some of his work, and the pair wondered if they could get a look at the paintings before they were sold. “People take these paintings to these dinky county auctions, and they’re being scattered to the wind,” says Corbett, who teaches sound, exhibition studies, and art history at SAIC. “No one keeps track of where they go, and there’s no way to research them.”
Last August Corbett and Dempsey drove to Springfield to meet with Dyer’s widow and daughter, spent an entire day looking at his work, and between them wound up buying 14 paintings. On the way home, Corbett says, “Jim and I looked at each other and said, This is so fun and so inspiring–maybe we should go into business together.”
Both Dempsey and Corbett already have several jobs: Dempsey’s the house manager of the Gene Siskel Film Center, where he also programs the “Music Movies” series, and Corbett is also a jazz programmer and critic, the cocurator of the Empty Bottle Jazz Series, and an occasional Reader contributor. When they first set themselves up as art dealers, they were working out of an old plumbing supply warehouse on the north side, selling pieces by artists like Robert Amft, Kenneth Nack, Robert Bruce Tague, and Philip Hanson. Pretty soon, says Corbett, “we realized that we wanted a space that would do justice to the work.” This spring they were talking about their dilemma with Dusty Groove owner Rick Wojcik when he suggested they take a look at the 2,400-square-foot loft above his Wicker Park record store. “We were like, This is nice and all but we’re just two guys who are trying to put together a gallery,” says Dempsey. “But Rick said he liked the karma of the project and asked how we make this happen.” They won’t discuss the deal Wojcik cut them but, says Corbett, “He made what seemed like an impossibility possible.”
They took up residence in May, dubbing the space Corbett vs. Dempsey: Modern Art & Uncommon Objects. Their primary focus is Chicago-area artists from the middle of the 20th century. “We started stumbling over some of these old guys who’d been chugging away, busting their asses making work in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, and we all knew that time was dominated by New York,” says Dempsey. “So we started to realize that there was a little bit of a gap. We’re trying to reconstruct a little bit of what was going on here between the early 1950s and 1970s.”
“Something Jim and I ponder is how do you get from Grant Wood to Ed Paschke?” says Corbett. “There’s a puzzle there. We started asking ourselves, Why do we know so little about our own city’s artistic heritage?”
On a tip from Meinecke (who died in February), Corbett set out to discover what had happened to Eve Garrison, who graduated from SAIC in 1930 and painted until she was 98 years old. “Tristan said she was the greatest painter in Chicago, the greatest figure painter he knew,” says Corbett. He found her family in May 2003. “They told me she had died in April, but that I should come down anyway.”
Corbett has traveled to Florida twice to help the family catalog Garrison’s 3,000 paintings, which explore a variety of styles–including something Garrison called sculptural relief oil. “In the late 1940s she began doing things with peach pits, bottle tops, and pieces of rope that would later be called assemblage,” says Corbett. “We’re really looking forward to gradually showing her work as it’s developed. We have 100 years of a person’s life to piece together.”
Thirty of her early realistic paintings go on display this weekend in the gallery’s debut show, “Eve Garrison: Chicago WPA Cityscapes, 1932 to 1940.” “She’s incredibly original,” says Corbett, who has also collected a trove of newspaper articles on Garrison’s work. “All of the pictures have that kind of beautiful toughness that we kind of adore. A lot of her work was acquired by public institutions in that period, and a lot of the pieces were cityscapes of Chicago.” But these days, he points out, few have heard of her.
“It shows how fickle the fate of an artist in Chicago is, that you can go from being a highly regarded major figure to being largely unknown in such a short time,” he continues. “If her work were more actively collected here in Chicago it wouldn’t be the case, but people were buying work from New York and Europe. I’m feeling more like I know what the second-city syndrome means now.”
Garrison’s daughter, grandson, and great-granddaughter (all artists) will attend a free opening reception Friday, September 10, from 5 to 9 PM at Corbett vs. Dempsey, 1120 N. Ashland, third floor. The exhibit’s up through October 3; hours are Saturdays from noon to 3 and by appointment, but the gallery will also be open from noon to 3 on Sunday, September 12. Corbett and Dempsey are also curating exhibits of small work for the record store downstairs. The current show, “Tone Color,” features work by SAIC professor Thomas Kapsalis. Call 773-278-1664 or see www.corbettvsdempsey.com for more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.