In the 70s, when photo-realism first wowed gallery hoppers in New York's newly vibrant SoHo, the works of Idelle Weber, like those of Richard Estes and Chuck Close, invited such close inspection that people walked up to them with magnifying glasses just to see how something so real could spring from an artist's palette.
Weber, who grew up in Chicago, painted New York scenes then. But unlike other photo-realists, who tended to look out at the city's chromium and neon exteriors, Weber looked down, at its trash. She combed the streets like a mixed-up tourist, scouring the shadows of Harlem and Brooklyn for random collections of debris, soda cans next to packaged goods, or torn boxing posters hyping the next Madison Square Garden wonder. She'd photograph her finds to use as material for her paintings. Oddly enough, Weber lived at the time in Brooklyn Heights, where rows of perennials and the errant branches of a neighbor's pear tree graced her backyard and the jeweled skyline of lower Manhattan loomed beyond the quiet, turn-of-the-century Promenade, just a block away.
At the end of the decade, Weber and her husband renovated a loft in SoHo, moving her closer to the highbrow art crowd. About the same time as the move, she stopped pointing her Nikon F-4 at the city's grunge and started pointing it at gardens in Long Island and at the New York Botanical Society, and later at the royal gardens of France. Six years ago, when the Arts Club of Chicago hung her huge floral canvases, Weber downplayed the flowers as subject matter. She said the works, like her trash paintings, were really about what man had done to the environment--in this case, the structure he'd imposed on it. That's what drew Weber to the gardens at Versailles. Balustrade, a 15-foot-long canvas from 1985, depicts an abundantly gilded stair rail with baroque blooms worked in the metal. In both the painting and real life, the railing rises against a backdrop of dense green foliage. Weber took months to build the image up from a black canvas, and the result looks as bright and deeply sculpted as the real thing. What shines even brighter, though, is the artist's contemplative vision, which removed the balustrade and its green backdrop from the sweep of their architectural environs.
Weber's latest work to arrive in Chicago, all monotype prints, again recasts her subject matter and provides a fresh view of her as a realist. Monotype is an unforgiving medium. The artist paints the image onto a metal or plastic plate in quick-drying ink and makes one impression--which reproduces every stroke, dollop, and dab on the plate, intentional or not. Weber says her print career began as "an accident of access" while she was teaching at Harvard between 1989 and 1991. There, working out of a studio in Le Corbusier's architecture building, she had access to an etching press and began to do monotypes of imaginary landscapes. Weber found the new technique suited her perfectly. Monotypes, which must be done quickly, allowed her the freedom and spontaneity of drawing but also enabled her--by varying the pressure or removing some ink from the plate before printing--to capture nuance she says is beyond the reach of a drawing. At Harvard, Weber produced 300 relatively small landscapes, all paradoxically both haunting and peaceful, where gestural strokes conjure mass, flower, and light. Weber says, speculatively, that her inspiration was pieced together from the view of Cambridge's unobstructed twilight sky.
After Harvard she was invited to the Garner Tullis Press in New York, one of the world's premier print shops and the home of a press that exerts so much pressure per square inch--22,000 pounds' worth--that when the plates lift from the paper they are nearly ink-free. There she produced larger works on handmade paper in which dramatic sweeps of ink make trees and sky look nearly embossed.
Where Weber's paintings were filled all over, her prints are spare--interestingly enough, Weber says her favorite artists are all minimalists--but they have the same structural elegance as her most labor-intensive work. At first look they're ominous, but with study they become pictures of concentration and contemplation. Poet/critic John Yau describes them as "sensuality that is simultaneously solid and elusive, bold and restrained, celebratory and ascetic." After years of spectacular paintings of the found world, whether trash on the street or palace gardens, these most moving images have sprung entirely from Weber's head and hands.
Prints by Idelle Weber are on display at the Jean Albano Gallery, 311 W. Superior, through August 20. The gallery is open Tuesday through Friday 10 to 5 and Saturday 11 to 5. Call 440-0770.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Pat Blaishill.