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The Fine Arts Building Open Studios
Fine Arts Building
"All Passes - Art Alone Endures." The inscription drawn from Dobson's poem Ars Victrix greets artists and visitors passing through the entrance hall of the Fine Arts Building, a reminder, as one enters, of life's fleetingness, art's timelessness. With so many 'art walks' springing up around Chicago, one is at times hard pressed to sift the sand for the gems. But the Fine Arts Building has a special legacy, that of 100 years of artistic endeavor, and the studios of its resident artists reflect that dedication with much that is worth seeing, predominantly figurative, and often with a classical note. The Fine Arts Building Open Studios on June 4-5, 2004 was the first such event opening this thriving artist's colony to the general public, featuring thirty individual venues in a 10-story building that is a hidden gem of Chicago's downtown, as well as a National Landmark Building.
Among the many residents here are numerous established Chicago artists whose studios continue to provide delights and pleasures. The studio of Roland Kulla is one such place. Kulla's work finds weighty grace and thoughtful meaning in the artifacts of turn-of-the-century machinery, particularly in the now-defunct railway bridges which mark Chicago's industrial landscape. "Built to last forever," as the artist notes, they have long since been superceded, abandoned to inertia, rust and decay, often prey to graffiti. Far removed from our era of microchip technology and space-age plastics, they are relics of an age of infinite steel and weighty natural resources. Rust (acrylic on canvas: 33"x42":2003) highlights the massive, swaying chains of the railway bridge, bringing out a surprising elegance of formal composition in the heavy machinery. Offering a sense of suspended heaviness, and overtones of abandonment and rough beauty both, Rust is a memento morii of an era when Chicago's steel was king. More of Roland Kulla's work may be seen at http://fabgallery.com/kulla.html.
Perhaps it is the vintage halls, the resonance of century of artistic tradition, that make the Fine Arts Building attract (delightfully) more than its share of artists rooted in classicism. The studio of Grace Cole displayed the wide variety of her works, including commissioned formal portraits, still lifes, drawings, and selections from Old Masters/New Visions, one of several of the artist's exploration of themes of the Old Masters as reinterpreted through her own vision. In Old Masters/New Visions Cole explores the compelling fascination with face and character found in artists such as Rembrandt and Vermeer, coupling her own renderings of these portraits with vintage postcards, small photos and other mementos. The works bring a more modern reference to the classical works, underscoring the continuing flow of human vitality and vulnerability from centuries-ago to the present day. Grace Cole's work may be seen at http://www.gracecole.com/index.html.
One of the advantages of an open studio event is the opportunity to meet the artist in an informal setting. Visitors may view completed works, works in progress, preparatory materials, sketches, and more personal works that might not necessarily make it to a formal exhibition. Andrew Conklin's large narrative paintings in oil, inspired by the artists of the Italian Baroque, explore human interaction and human psychology. Alluding to themes from Greek mythology they present an elegant, orderly world of rich color, opulent fruits and flowers, and graceful composition. Conklin's works are complemented by the paintings of his studio-mate, Helen Oh, whose still lifes are a panoply of richly evocative color and subtle explorations of the shape and order of arranged objects. At the Open Studios, Conklin and Oh faced the 'definition of a good problem' for any artist, explaining that their current works had already been shipped out for an upcoming exhibition at Chicago's Lora D. Gallery, scheduled to open later this June. In the meantime they welcomed visitors into their working space, replete with several individual works in varying stages of completion and the tools of their art, including a silk-robed mannequin with a grotesque Venetian mask, and displayed some of their more informal compositions, small on-location paintings done while on vacation in Italy. The work of Andrew Conklin and Helen Oh may be seen at http://www.ohandconklin.com/.
The Fine Arts Building is also home to several galleries, among them the Fine Arts Building Gallery (or FAB Gallery). Located on the fourth floor, the FAB Gallery (http://www.fabgallery.com) hosts monthly exhibitions of its member artists as well as periodic invitationals and group shows. At the time of the Fine Arts Building Open Studios it presented two one-person exhibitions. Liz McKay: Defining Women offered eighteen portraits of women, young and old, at defining moments in their lives -- some straightforward, some allegorical, as in Maid of Orleans (oil on linen: 20"x16": 2003), which presents its subject in the rough armor of Joan of Arc. Blair Trueblood: Land presented eleven pastels, abstractions of landscape into a Zen-like, minimal geometry, with one or two evincing a Miro-like surrealism. In Cascading (pastel and gouache: 21"x25") the blur of an icy wash of frothing water contrasts the sharp-edged stillness of the river rock that cleaves it. The dual exhibition of Liz McKay: Defining Women and Blair Trueblood: Land will run from June 2-26, 2004, and more works may be seen at the Fine Arts Building Gallery web site (linked above). A permanent exhibition of works by Fine Arts Building Gallery member artists is also on display in the gallery's side room.
LIPA Gallery (http://www.lipaart.org/) is the newest gallery arrival. Just moved from its prior 160 N. Illinois St. location, LIPA (Links for International Promotion for Arts; the word is also Slavic for 'linden tree') promotes international dialogue with a focus on Slavic art. At the time of the Open Studios the gallery's exhibition space was still in the preparatory stages of painting and setup. LIPA's first exhibition in its new space, Summer Summit, is scheduled to open July 9, 2004 and is paired with a sister event in Poetovio, Slovenia.
Other participating artists and venues for the June 2004 Fine Arts Building Open Studios included Tom and Mary Graham, Beth Leahy, Ron Berman, Chris Basick, Leah Ferrara, Catherine Keebler, Jaquelyn Zevin, Judy Trombley, Jim Tansley, Lou Ann Burkhardt, Liz McKay (also exhibiting at the FAB Gallery, as noted above), Claudia Anderson, Alice McMahon White, Kathleen Newman, Lynda Glyman, Mary Dritschel, Peter Cramblit, Barbara Noonan, Serene Wise, Elaine Pizza, Vanessa Smith, Robert Lease, Anita Miller, John Stolfo, Richard Laurent, Deb Doering, Frances Luehrs, Carol Dolan and Finestra Gallery.
The Fine Arts Building itself is worthy of notice, a building that could intrigue the visitor almost as much as the art. It retains most of the original architectural features from its 19th-century construction, including a cast-iron stairwell and rheostat-operated, hand-gated elevators. An example of the Chicago Style of architecture, it was designed by Solon S. Beman, whose architectural credits also include the Pullman company town built for George Pullman in 1879, the Kimball mansion in Chicago's Prairie Avenue District, and the Blackstone Public Library in Hyde Park. The building was erected in 1885 as a Studebaker showroom. In 1898 it was rechristened the Fine Arts Building during a restoration which converted it to its present-day configuration of artists' studios, theatrical space, and offices. In addition to the galleries and artists' studios the building houses a music hall, a theatre, a ballet school, fine violin makers, rare book dealers, and several architectural firms. As a further hearkening to the building's artistic roots, several murals in the Art Nouveau style, done by early resident artists, may be seen on the tenth floor. Art Nouveau itself with its romantic scenes and sensual, organic curves was a conscious reaction against the machine age, and these knights and queens, sylphs and sprites are a graceful and unexpected counterpoint to the antiquarian appeal of the interior. These particular murals have been darkened somewhat by time and age; try a glimpse upward through the ninth-floor stairwell for a better impression.
Friday's attendance was light, but it was yet early in the evening; one hopes for a more thriving flow of visitors, for there are many artists here worthy of attention. The next Fine Arts Building Open Studios is scheduled for October 2004, in conjunction with Chicago Artists' Month. If it is anything like the first, the studios nestled in this elegant turn-of-the-century venue will again offer a round of serious, dedicated, engaging art, and visitors will find much to enjoy.
To keep advised of dates, one may wish to join the Fine Arts Building Gallery's mailing list (firstname.lastname@example.org).
--Katherine Rook Lieber
Editorial Note: ArtScope.net's reviews of Art Scene Chicago 2000 (http://www.artscope.net/VAREVIEWS/FineArtsBldg0201-I.shtml, February 2001) and SPECTRUM: Contemporary Art of Chicago (http://www.artscope.net/VAREVIEWS/ChicagoAthenaeumI-052502.shtml, May 2002) include reviews of the work of Grace Cole, Andrew Conklin, Roland Kulla, Helen Oh, and other artists mentioned above.
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