Related Species: Sculpture by Jim Rittimann

at the Chicago Cultural Center, through August 25

Pancho Quilici: New Works

at Maya Polsky Gallery, through August 31

By Fred Camper

There are two major strains of representational artists: those who try to deepen our perception of what is, and those who use recognizable forms to create alternative fantasy universes. But whereas Pancho Quilici’s 21 mixed-media paintings at Maya Polsky are elaborately geometrical utopian structures, Jim Rittimann’s 16 sculptures at the Chicago Cultural Center evoke dystopia, a world gone awry. Both are “fantasy artists,” but Rittimann’s creations are made out of animal bones and insect parts; his “sculptures” depict creatures who never existed and who probably never could. Mounted in glass bells or glass cases, these specimens recall the natural history museum, but like Quilici’s pictures they come from the artist’s imagined world. I myself imagined some final phase of life on earth in which environmental toxins had caused mutations so severe that the evolved organisms could barely function–Rittimann’s museum would be on another planet, the specimens collected by aliens who visited ours and found a lifeless wasteland.

Untitled No. 10 is the skeleton of a four-legged critter whose jaws seem to be located in the back of its head, which would likely be inconvenient for catching prey. It has two froglike hind legs and two impossibly long front legs–this thing could never walk. Untitled No. 9 includes a spinal column, rib cage, and two long, bony arms stretched out to either side. I imagined these to be the skeletal structure of a bird’s or bat’s wings, but the wings would be so huge that it’s hard to imagine this torso could provide the energy necessary to flap them. If it could, they would appear to provide far more lift than needed.

At first I wasn’t sure why these constructions looked so creepy, but as the obvious anomalies led to other, subtler ones, I understood that most natural creatures display a harmonious balance of parts. Rarely does one element seem grotesquely long or large in relation to another–and usually such imbalances couldn’t exist because all an animal’s parts must work together efficiently to produce locomotion. Perhaps gross mutations have occasionally produced creatures like Rittimann’s, but they wouldn’t have survived to reproductive maturity.

Rittimann, 45, who lives in rural Washington near Seattle, grew up in San Antonio. Always interested in art, he recalls he was the only male in his high school art classes. “What you did in San Antonio, you did rodeo. I rodeoed for a living.” Rittimann began in youth rodeos when he was about 14; when he turned 18 and no longer needed permission from his strict Catholic parents to participate, he entered the professional circuit, riding bulls for prize money. Meanwhile he continued his interest in art: “I used to make paintings for cowboys–they would give me photographs of themselves, I would make portraits for them. It actually funded part of my rodeo career.” Retiring after the usual multiple injuries at 27, “old for rodeoing,” Rittimann eventually enrolled in art school.

There he found his way to Bosch and Brueghel and to modernists like Alexander Calder, Joseph Cornell, and David Smith. In grad school he was an installer at the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington, where he still works; he recalls meeting Ann Hamilton, James Turrell, and Chris Burden and acknowledges that having to attend carefully to the way objects are presented has inflected his own art. He traces his current direction to the mid-80s, when he was shocked to find a pressed insect in an old insect book belonging to his wife’s grandmother: “It was removed from its context, so static, stopped in time. I’d seen a lot of art, but this insect really charged me up in a different way–a flood of ideas came into my head.” He had already begun to observe “all these little carcasses that the cat was depositing on the porch. Their decay revealed these little skeletons.” Now Rittimann collects animal and fish bones and insect parts, cleaning the flesh off them with the same kind of beetles that natural history museums use, and combines many species in a single work.

When I asked Rittimann if rodeoing had influenced his art, he spoke of the will and independence that both pursuits require; I also thought that perhaps the experience of riding animals, if not exactly dominating them (a bull rider’s goal is to last eight seconds) might have affected his attitude toward the natural world. His sculptures have a kind of arrogance that’s simultaneously appealing and unpleasant. Some of these creatures look nasty–would you really want to live in their world?–and part of their emotional impact derives from their distortions.

Some of Rittimann’s strongest pieces are the ones that diverge most markedly from nature. The imaginary insect of Oar Head–one in a series that juxtaposes Rittimann’s large color drawings of his sculptures with the three-dimensional works–has fairly normal-sized tail wings, but horizontal wings extending to either side of its head are like an impractical version of canoe outriggers, forming oar-shaped blades too far away from the body to be useful. A lined brown pattern on them suggesting wood grain makes the construction seem even more man-made. Here, as in the skeletons in which Rittimann has placed glass eyes, he diverges from works distinctly rooted in nature to create even more warped, fanciful aesthetic statements that might be at home in the surrealist tradition.

At first Pancho Quilici’s Intuition de raison looks like a painting of a giant open-air stadium hovering above a somewhat abstract landscape of trees, a river, and sky. But where the seats might be is a labyrinth, and the whole is too schematic to be an actual building. It could represent a flying saucer, except that the profusion of circles and lines and other geometric patterns seems at once too baroque and too precise for fantasy illustration. It could be a scientific or architectural drawing, but not all the geometric shapes seem architecturally justifiable.

Like most of the other works in the show, this one has an inscrutable grandiosity that could easily come across as pretentious, but I found the work’s grace and complexity appealing, somewhere between the doodlings of an “outsider” artist–perhaps a mental patient–and the work of a trained architect. Quilici, 42, a Venezuelan who lives in Paris, acknowledges the influence of the 18th-century architect-artist Giambattista Piranesi, who not only documented actual Roman buildings in his etchings but made prints of structures far too elaborate to be real. But there’s an un-Piranesian lightness to many of Quilici’s designs: structures on and around his “stadium” lead the eye upward–a giant tower with a ball on top, a curvy cylinder, some pillars that grow dimmer as they grow higher. One wonders if the entire structure might be ascending: is this a fantasy palace, a vision of paradise? The picture doesn’t explain itself–nor do the words printed on the structure, which include those of the title and others meaning “ideas” and “movement.” Quilici says that his works’ meaning is “universal,” and that “they work as archetypes.”

Intuition de raison is in fact a diptych; a smaller canvas to the right has no landscape but combines a black-and-white continuation of the stadium shape with other geometrical patterns. The designs on the second canvas, at once speculative and precise, recall the scientific drawings of another of Quilici’s acknowledged influences–Leonardo da Vinci.

But besides drawing his machines, Leonardo also precisely documented nature; Quilici’s elimination of the fuzzy landscape in the smaller picture heightens the sense of separation between nature and structure. The building seems drawn from a mental world more perfect than nature–and indeed Quilici writes that the circle is “the principle of existence” and that he seeks an “ideal plane” in which “the present world fades away.”

Quilici divides nature and structure most clearly in a series of four small mixed-media works. Inexplicite, They Change, Not Here, and Mecanica celeste (con permiso de fina) consist of drawings of complex geometries in white lines on sheets of Plexiglas mounted in front of painted aerial landscapes. Around these squares are two large concentric circles filled with smaller circles, geometrical blocks, and lattices of straight lines. These varied shapes recall a long tradition of architectural utopianism, in which architects supposedly discover a language of ideal forms fundamental to nature or geometry. Out of such forms they construct their buildings–which, if we would only consent to live in them, would make the world a much better place. Quilici’s circles, curves, cylinders, and spirals seem to hover above the land like images of a paradisial structure far more perfect than anyone could ever build. But by giving his shapes form only as line drawings on Plexiglas, Quilici acknowledges that these are simply his visions–unlike Frank Lloyd Wright, whose Marin County Civic Center cuts a straight line across northern California’s gently rolling hills. Rather than remake the world in his own image, Quilici locates his work in the realm of ideas.

At the same time, in various subtle ways, Quilici suggests that his architectural fantasies aren’t merely imagined buildings but structures fundamental to the physical world: the landscape paintings begin to seem like special cases of a more universal geometric language. Two small drawings, It’s the Game and Division as a Solution, help make this clear. Black-and-white landscapes are surrounded by two concentric circles; the space between the circles is a lattice of lines. Looking closely, one notices that the inner circle is itself made entirely of straight lines meeting at very slight angles. Seeing that straight edges can seemingly make a circle, it’s easy to imagine that a hidden geometric order underlies the irregular grays of the landscapes.

A viewer may be able to imagine Quilici’s forms concealed within nature, but Rittimann’s sculptures–even though they use pieces of animals–are nothing like the nature we know. Indeed, Rittimann acknowledges that his creation of new species is like “playing God.” Yet this also links him with Quilici, whose structures can seem a cross between kitschy paintings of paradise and representations of the Tower of Babel. By making work apparently contrary to nature, both artists deepen our perception of it: Quilici’s geometries are ultimately closer to his landscapes than they appear, and Rittimann’s forms, which couldn’t survive natural selection, offer a kind of counterexample to nature, giving the viewer a better appreciation of the balanced proportions of living beings.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photographs of “Untitled No. 2A” by Jim Rittermann, and “Division As A Solution” by Pancho Quilici (uncredited).