From the Archives
Today from the archives we bring you Steve Ruiz’s review of Evan Gruzis’s Shell Game at the Suburban, Michelle Grabner and husband Brad Killam’s backyard gallery in Oak Park that pioneered the suburb’s role as a hub of Chicago alternative art spaces. Grabner’s gingham soccer ball, currently Issue 27 of THE THING Quarterly, offers up a playful rejoinder to Ken Johnson’s famous criticism of Grabner’s work as “soccer mom” art. The second Terrain Biennial in Oak Park closed last month, yet another answer to snobbery against art created and shown in the suburbs. This review was originally published on March 29, 2012.
Located more than nine miles west of Chicago’s city center, the Suburban is one of a number of alternative spaces that have caught on in the bordering village of Oak Park. It’s quiet, affluent, and easily accessed by public transit, yet Oak Park is an unlikely host to such alternative spaces as Terrain Exhibitions, the Franklin, and the Suburban, all of which locate innovative art within domestic settings. Terrain Exhibitions hosts its installations on artist Sabina Ott’s front porch and yard, while artists Dan Sullivan and Edra Soto present the Franklin in a backyard gallery. Pioneering this microscene since its founding in 1997, the Suburban currently occupies two outbuildings in the backyard of artist, educator, and curator Michelle Grabner, with her husband, the artist Brad Killam.
This month’s trio of exhibitions at the Suburban includes an inaugural exhibition of art guest-curated by Green Gallery directors Richard Galling and John Riepenhoff (of Milwaukee, Wisconsin), along with a performative/restorative work by Seth Hunter (who is repairing structural damage done to the Suburban’s main gallery in an earlier performative car wreck). At the Suburban’s second space, Grabner presents an exhibition of new works by painter Evan Gruzis.
Despite a broad and international career, Gruzis fits well into this midwestern family. He exhibited at The Green Gallery in 2012 and belongs to their roster of represented artists, he also exhibited with Riepenhoff at the Hyde Park Art Center’s 2013 A Study in Midwestern Appropriation (curated by Grabner), and is currently an instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s painting department along with Grabner (and, formerly, Galling). One of the benefits of alternative spaces, and the Suburban in particular, is its inversion of the usual anxiety about exhibiting one’s friends and colleagues, making the Sunday afternoon exhibition (and accompanying barbeque) feel light for an opening: intimate and even celebratory.
The title of Gruzis’s exhibition is drawn from the name of the show’s only sculptural piece, Shell Game (2014), which greets visitors with a faux-rock shelf, a painted shell, and the smallest of the show’s paintings, cracked and purple. Like the paintings, these objects present a cool and wavering psychedelic color spectrum, at once intense and ice-cold.
The works in Shell Game represent a major departure for Gruzis, whose earlier work used intensive ink washed to create hazy, funky riffs on the objects and places that make up a kind of pop-culture landscape by way of Los Angeles. These new paintings not only feel different—more sober, more serious, more contemplative—but look dramatically different as well. Using fabric-dying techniques rather than brushed paint, Gruzis has layered these medium-sized paintings with nesting frame shapes, or splayed radiating lines across the paintings’ surfaces against tie-dye patterns in smoky purples, blues, and icy grays. The effect is mesmerizing, and while dealing less in signification than visual intensity, Gruzis’s new body of work describes a double movement. In one direction, the paintings reintroduce the fades and drop shadows typical of post-internet aesthetics into the familiar tensions in optical abstraction; while at the same time, the works seem to be abstractions of earlier paintings by Gruzis, selecting from his own history and giving former stylistic effects—such as the fade behind a landscape in silhouette, the splash of color across sunglasses—room to operate on their own.
The illusive representations—a print of a pattern, a floating rectangle, a drop-shadow frame—play gentle tricks on the eye, simultaneously creating and flattening visual space in a familiar friction, yet they do so in a freshly retro and very slick way, as if Gruzis has channeled Modernism by way of Spencer’s Gifts. One imagines a plasma ball would accent the paintings nicely, but without any overt wink or nod to push the exhibition toward either riffing humor or meditative engagement, Shell Game hovers in multiple states.
Evan Gruzis’ Shell Game was on view at the Suburban through May 15, 2014.