Why Paint?

Joe Scanlan, 1992

The Society continues its investigation of painting with a spring exhibition of four Chicago artists, each of whom address the tradition of painting from different perspectives and places. Of equal interest, and what compels this exhibition, are those aspects of painting that these artists share, the most general being a continued interest in the communicative abilities of paint. As an exhibition, Why Paint? will pose a late-twentieth century rhetorical question at the same time that it will offer four similar yet divergent responses. Why Paint? will provide opportunities to cross-reference painterly figuration, abstraction, expression, and conceptualism—all of which appear, in varying degrees, in these artists’ works.

Judy Ledgerwood’s large, brooding, romantic abstractions are not painted from her observations of the landscape directly so much as they are based on the tradition of landscape painting. Ledgerwood’s references to swirling clouds, penetrating horizons, and evanescent light champion the painterly techniques of Turner, Corot, or Bierstadt in the same breath that they undermine the idea that a painting can “capture” a scene. Ledgerwood physically and conceptually massages her paintings so that they hover between recognizable subject matter and ambiguous, slow-moving moods, focusing her activity on what paint can express within itself as opposed to picture of the outside world. Rather than seek new territory within “the authoritative signature of the brush”, an endeavor which dominates the history of painting from Manet to Franz Klein, Ledgerwood often caresses her paintings directly with her hands to induce desired—and different—effects.

Jim Lutes’ work maintains a similarly engaging and delicate balance; where Ledgerwood’s strike a balance between herself, painting, and its gender-coded territory, Lutes’ balance is between himself, painting, and the larger world. Where Ledgerwood strives to “rub out” the brush as emotive tool and foreground her “hand”—in a literal sense—in her work, Lutes uses his mind and body as a filter or interpreting tool in his paintings. Simultaneously plugged into his psyche, his neighborhood dramas, and the history of art, Lutes variously tiptoes around, prods, and attacks his paintings with the information of each day. Assured, tentative, searching, and aggressive, Lutes straight-forwardness more than makes up for his sometimes “ugly” results.

For Lutes the process of painting is one in which he regards—has a dialogue with—the painted canvas as it develops; each new mark of the hand adds or responds to previous marks. In Kevin Wolff’s paintings a much more detached, eerie, and perceptually complex dialogue occurs within the picture: paintings of anonymous yet animated hands regarding themselves in mirrors, with Wolff himself regarding this reflection and triangulating the depiction of reality. Of these four artists, the visual pleasure and complexity of Wolff’s paintings is probably the hardest to explain.

In the most intuitive or calculating sense, as both a sexual and intellectual material and act, painting continues to evolve and provide information that is relevant to human life.