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focus: Maureen Gallace

May 25 - September 3, 2006

 

As part of its acclaimed and ongoing series of exhibitions of contemporary art, the Art Institute of Chicago presents focus: Maureen Gallace from May 25 to September 3, 2006. This summer offering by Gallace, born and raised in New England, is a trenchant meditation on both the art of painting and the idea of home. Featuring 21 paintings produced in the last five years, focus: Maureen Gallace offers viewers landscapes -- and two portraits -- drawn directly from Gallace's experiences but infused with an elusive, solitary quality. Small and solid, with meticulously worked surfaces, the paintings are both descriptive and highly enigmatic, following in the tradition of Edward Hopper and Giorgio Morandi.  Her treatment of even the most familiar subjects -- herself, her childhood home -- renders them strange and disquieting, creating an intimate sense of the uncanny.

Gallace spent her childhood in Stamford, Connecticut, and, though she now lives and works in New York City, her work is firmly rooted in the New England landscape of her youth, particularly her time spent on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Most of the paintings featured in this focus exhibition depict the quiet, gentle characteristics of the area: isolated houses blanketed in snow, roads that disappear under stone bridges, small buildings perched on the shore. Though many of these settings are easily identifiable by their titles -- Merritt Parkway, Winter (2002); Cape Cod, Winter (2004); Winter, Easton, CT (2006) -- Gallace strips them of specific mood or association, and her scenes take on a timeless quality devoid of the human element one associates with scenes of home. Unpopulated and composed with blocks and planes of color, the paintings are representations of identifiable places that manage to transcend this specificity and make a broader and more complicated statement about the nature of domesticity and community.

Most of Gallace's houses are windowless, the forms reduced to areas of carefully worked surfaces. The features of the New England landscape and architecture are rendered nearly abstract, turning the viewer's attention away from the associations with "home" and instead to the construction of the composition and the treatment of the surface. This subversion of the traditional landscape -- in which scenes are legibly depicted and are designed to evoke identification and instruction -- is a mark of Gallace's sophistication as a painter. The most familiar scenes become uneasy and strange as the comfortable associations with home are here transformed into compositions that evoke solitude and containment.

The same process is at work in the portraits in this exhibition. Though Gallace's subjects are herself and her nephew, these two images are similarly distilled, and shapes and figures function as formal elements rather than as clues to personality. The descriptive attributes of a person one expects to see in portraits are abandoned in favor of composition, color, and surface.

This deliberate rejection of the traditional emotional associations of landscape and portraiture allows Gallace to bring forward the process of painting in her work. In this exhibition, viewers witness Gallace's move from painting on linen to painting on panels. The latter is a far more time-consuming and labor-intensive process, often requiring ten coats of primer and repeated sanding to even render the surface receptive to paint. The result is a smooth finish in which every detail, every stroke, is apparent.

"Gallace's modest objects seem old fashioned and maybe even anachronistic in today's world of contemporary figurative painting," said curator James Rondeau. "But that's exactly what sets her apart. The strength and importance of her work come from its self-conscious simplicity, confident technical discipline, and theoretical orientation. The focus of her subject matter is so narrow because her conceptual contribution is so broad; she is the rare artist who can find infinite creative potential within a restricted idiom."

This limitless treatment of fairly limited subjects put Gallace in conversation with such forebears as Alex Katz and Fairfield Porter, updating some of the oldest genres of painting for a new age.


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