Bill Gross: Monochrome

at Aron Packer, through July 10

Bill Gross gives the most ordinary fragments of Chicago’s cityscape emotional weight in his ten paintings at Aron Packer. The small differences in an untitled six-panel work suggest that the artist is collecting details normally disregarded as we travel about the city in search of restaurants or galleries. One panel shows a single letter, C, another an ampersand, and three show brick walls, one of them with the word “diamonds” below the bricks.

Born in Omaha in 1955, Gross was hooked by reproductions of Cezanne in high school and has since painted in a variety of modes, from Stuart Davis-inspired abstractions to the Hairy Who style to still lifes to abstractions “leaning toward surrealism.” But since 1993, inspired by the Chicago skyline seen from the roof of his building, he’s painted cityscapes. Feeling “a need to get outside and walk the streets a little bit more,” he found he had a particular interest in signs and brick walls. “I’ve always been sort of fascinated by weird architectural details in Chicago,” he says. Since such ornamentation is often destroyed in condo conversions or demolitions to make way for condos, Gross has been photographing these details–and also painting them, giving them the time and care that will “memorialize” them.

Gross’s work made me think of mid-90s pieces by former Chicagoan Walter Andersons, whose trompe l’oeil paintings of handwritten notes use no expressionistic devices yet are full of feeling. Gross, who says he’s a good friend of Andersons’s, acknowledges the influence of Andersons’s realistic paintings of text fragments. In Gross’s work, horizontal or vertical brushstrokes make a kind of patchwork that evokes hand weaving. Often mixing powdered pigment into his oil paint to create “a much drier look,” he creates a flat, nonglossy surface that encourages an almost tactile contact.

Sign Fragment (Arrow) gathers many details in a single canvas: bits and pieces of letters, areas with horizontal lines suggesting grates, and a large, curved white arrow. This fragmented study in shades of gray focuses attention on shapes and tonal values. Still, Gross’s subject is also significant. The arrow presumably signals something important, yet we see nothing of the expected advertisement or object–Gross has eliminated the parking garage entrance on Wabash the arrow points to. Instead it’s aimed at an abstract gridded area, as if to say one should look carefully at all urban surfaces, no matter how uncommercial.

Gross writes in his statement that an earlier group of paintings expressed “a longing for a less ironic past when cities seemed to be a place of optimism and opportunity as well as a time when artists still believed in progress and a utopian future.” The same longing can be seen here, but it’s deeply qualified: isolated fragments rather than the city as a whole are what now offer a glimpse of utopia. Everything (Homage to Ellsworth Kelly) refers to the utopian dream explicitly with the grandiose word “everything” painted in light, luminous grays. But since Gross divides the word into four panels (the dimensions of which are the same as an early Kelly four-panel abstraction), it seems both bigger and less whole.

The original word appears on a sign at the Central Furniture Company on Milwaukee Avenue: Everything for the Home. Some of the same sign can be seen in Sign Fragment (Everything), in which “everything” is rendered in much darker grays and accompanied by abstract rectangles and fragments of brick walls. Above the word is part of “Central,” rendered in a dated balloony script, underlining the archaic nature of Gross’s subject. Despite its many details, this somewhat abstract composition lacks the coherence and completeness of Stuart Davis’s rhythmic sign-filled cityscapes, and that’s the point: Gross both aspires to a poetic view of ordinary urban sights and intentionally fails to transform any significant portion of the city. Perhaps reflecting on recent demolitions and renovations, he constructs a loving inventory of architectural fragments that no longer pretend to be part of a whole, like museum displays of bits of demolished buildings.

The very titles of the show’s two most austere pieces, Black Brick Wall Section and White Brick Wall Section, indicate their incompleteness. Each painting shows only a wall about seven bricks wide, each brick revealing slight variations of tone. While the varnished surface of the black painting is reflective, and thus less tactile but more romantic, the white one is the flattest work in the exhibit. Its brushstrokes are among the least visible, but the texture of the linen shows through in a way that suggests the roughness of brick, and there’s an odd beauty to the dark lines of mortar, with their slight, imprecise indication of depth. Like John Cage, who argued that an attentive listener can hear music in any collection of random sounds, Gross’s work suggests that any urban design can be beautiful–as long as it’s not a new concrete-and-glass high-rise.