Some of the large oil canvases lying against a wall in the studio Andrew Conklin shares with his wife, Helen Oh, look as if they might have been done by a 17th-century Dutch baroque painter, a contemporary of Vermeer. Others, with their naturalistic poses and perspectives, their figures so precisely drawn they seem to have been caught on camera, resemble the work of Caravaggio. Only the modern haircuts and clothing mark them as the work of the 39-year-old Conklin. Oh’s small still lifes show how much she too admires the 17th-century Dutch painters, though her style is looser.
Conklin and Oh realize that representational art hasn’t commanded respect among critics since the advent of modernism and that it certainly isn’t favored by most of their peers. Even in Chicago, where a lot of painters remain partial to the figure, their art seems to hark back to another period. “When writers profile a painter working in a representational mode,” Conklin says, “they’ll find an expert to say that’s passe.” Yet he and a growing number of others believe the time has come for figurative painting. “There have been cycles in art history, when artists go after new viewers,” he says. “Painting has gone as far as it could in terms of innovation, of pushing the boundary. It’s time for the pendulum to swing the other way, from complete abstraction and minimalism–from white-on-white canvases–to realistic portrayal and evocation of emotions.”
Conklin remembers sketching thousands of athletes and animals when he was a boy living in Norwood Park on the city’s northwest side in the 1960s. His father, an editor for the Cooperative League of America, would bring home office stationery for him and his brother to draw on. After graduating from high school Conklin decided to study at the American Academy of Art in the Loop. “I took advertising courses there too,” he says, “thinking that I’d become a commercial illustrator.” But what he enjoyed most was figure painting and learning the psychological side of portraiture. “It’s always a complicated operation to control the mood,” he says, “to get to the essence and truth of a character while delivering an interpretation that a photographer wouldn’t be able to duplicate.” He spent hours in the Renaissance and impressionist galleries of the Art Institute copying works he thought revealed some emotional truth.
He soon realized he wouldn’t be able to cut it in the advertising world. “I just didn’t have it in me to convey custom-made ideas,” he says. “Besides, the work seemed terribly repetitive.” He began to think about selling portraits to make money.
By the early 1980s the painter Conklin most wanted to emulate was Caravaggio. He’d been ambivalent about the Italian baroque iconoclast’s style when he first saw it. “Over-the-top,” he recalls. “I thought it was easy to manipulate light and color the way he did. I was more impressed with the Ninja Turtles of the Renaissance–Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo–the heroic artists who painted big.” But when he saw more of Caravaggio’s work in museums, particularly during a months-long sojourn in Italy, he began to appreciate more fully the painter’s ability to portray dramatic realism and everyday detail.
He was first exposed to the Dutch baroque in New York, where he’d gone in 1983 to study at the National Academy School. “I’d considered the School of the Art Institute,” he says, “but I was turned off by all that conceptual stuff. Where is the drawing? Where is the art? I asked myself.” The academy had a collection of drawings and paintings by lesser 17th-century Dutch masters, most of them donated by descendants of early Dutch settlers in Manhattan. Conklin was attracted to both their uncanny realism and their practical nature. “Look at a domestic scene, a room in a burgher’s house,” he says. “You get an amalgamation of information and references, from the texture of the fabric to the household objects that help tell a story–all conveyed through such photographic realism.”
Conklin met Oh at the academy, where they were competitors vying for the same prizes and fellowships. Oh and her sisters had been brought up in Seoul “in the proper way,” she says, “so we could marry proper Korean bureaucrats.” She went to an elite school run by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, where she “did a lot of watercolors.” She was enamored of the Western paintings she’d seen in reproductions, but she didn’t see any originals until the mid-1970s, when a touring show of French painters stopped in Seoul. “It was an eye-opener,” she says. “I was able to observe how these painters used the brush stroke and other techniques.”
When Oh was 15 her family moved to Queens, and she began studying at the Art Students League, which was only a few blocks from the Metropolitan Museum. “Imagine how crazy I was,” she says, “commuting 45 minutes from Flushing to Manhattan and staying after school to go to the Met and MoMA.” She became fascinated by the work of Raphael Soyer, David Hockney, and Balthus. When she decided to go to the National Academy School it was because “it simply had the best teachers of representational art, such as Harvey Dinnerstein.”
After four semesters, both Conklin and Oh graduated, though not with MFAs. The academy hands out certificates that Conklin says they would soon find were “nowhere as useful as an MFA,” largely because they don’t allow the holder to teach in mainstream art schools.
Soon after graduating, Conklin and Oh were married, and they began what Oh describes as a “giddy, bohemian existence.” A series of fellowships carried them through a few years, during which Conklin did commissions and painted three or four large-scale canvases. He says he gradually turned from social realism to recasting mythological subjects that “support my dualistic view of the world, of the inevitable gap between man and woman.” One painting, titled Oyster Bar, shows a couple drinking wine and eating oysters–“stoking the heat before sex,” he says–while another woman strums a guitar and a third bends down to get another bottle of wine. “It’s a reference to the mythological Paris too,” he says. “He’s the Trojan prince judging Aphrodite and two other goddesses.” Yet all four figures are contemporary. His latest work shows an artist’s model as illusory muse, in a pose, he says, that pays homage to Modigliani.
Meanwhile, Oh was painting still lifes using an oil technique perfected by 16th-century Flemish painters and studying with art restorers. She was constantly called by auction houses and collectors to do the painstaking chore of stripping dirt from valuable centuries-old paintings, and her exposure to so many 16th- and 17th-century paintings, especially those from northern Europe, persuaded her that this was “the most magical period” for still life. She inspected and even touched several works by Rubens and Franz Hals. “I was able to study at leisure how these masters handled perspective, anatomy, and structure of oil paints.” She still does freelance restoration jobs, a main source of income for the couple.
Oh also became knowledgeable enough about the period to be able to spot forgeries. She remembers that during the market crash of ’97 a well-known multimillionaire decided to sell seven of his prized old master paintings. When Oh dipped solvent onto one, the paint began to dissolve. “I screamed,” she says. “This wasn’t supposed to happen.” But she quickly realized that the paintings were fakes made with modern materials that couldn’t withstand the solvent. “The gentleman’s millions evaporated–just like that.”
About 17 months ago Conklin and Oh moved to Chicago so he could help take care of his gravely ill father. They also hoped to start a family here. “We thought New York was too stressful to bring up kids,” Conklin says. Through a friend, they applied for a place in Tree Studios and were surprised that they got in, though they didn’t know about the uncertain fate of the building. They eased into a daily routine of teaching part-time and painting together. “We’ve gotten to the point now, 12 years into our marriage,” says Oh, “that I can work in one corner and Andy in another, and we can actually bounce ideas off each other.” They usually have the radio on, tuned to classical or jazz. “We use the part of our brain that can listen but not talk,” Conklin says, laughing. “So if you phone us we can’t engage in conversation, but we’d remember what you said.”
Oh grew foxglove, zucchini, and pansies in the compound’s garden last summer so she could paint them, and she painted the view from the top floor, in oil on copper in the Flemish way. Rooftop of the Tree Studios and Conklin’s most recent Artist and Model were part of an exhibit earlier this year at the Terra Museum called “On Process: Studio Themes,” which also included figurative oils by John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase, and George Bellows.
Late last year the Tree Studio residents were told they had to move, perhaps temporarily, during construction in the adjacent Medinah Temple, which will be converted into a shopping arcade anchored by a Bloomingdale’s furniture store. “We’ve been told that some of the artists will be allowed to have their studios back,” says Conklin, “although not as living quarters.” Oh has since rented a studio in the Fine Arts Building. Conklin is still looking for a studio in the South Loop. For the first time since they’ve been married, they won’t be working in the same space.
Both of them want to move back to the Tree Studios, for one simple reason. “The north light–the same light that guided the Dutch,” says Oh. “You just don’t get it in such intensity and clarity anywhere else in the city.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.