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Kevin Gruye: Clank, Boom, Steam...

at Carl Hammer, through January 6

Lisa Erf: Heads

at Byron Roche, through December 30

By Fred Camper

Some of the freshest art achieves its originality using previous work as a reference point: by altering conventions, artists can create images quite unlike anything seen before. I first thought Kevin Gruyé's 12 black-and-white pictures at Carl Hammer--desolate landscapes often peopled with grotesque figures--might be charcoals. Then I wondered about pencil or paint, and finally realized only close-up that they were digital prints.

But they're quite different from most computer-based images. There are no software-generated shapes or textures (easily recognized by experts, who can often tell which program produced them), and there's none of the sterile, mass-produced feel of much digital work. These subtly textured and dynamically composed pieces have an almost handmade look; I thought of Goya's bleakest prints or imagined some hybrid of Rembrandt, Delacroix, and Claude Lorrain--with a touch of surrealism and German expressionism. But the closer you look at a Rembrandt, the more evidence you see of a humanizing hand, while here the imagery that seemed so inviting grows peculiarly distant from an inch or two away. Gruyé's work is a bit like a flirt who pulls back, becoming oddly vacant, when someone responds.

Gruye, a 30-year-old Chicagoan who recently received an MFA from the School of the Art Institute, told me that he became interested in photography in his early 20s when he took a course while in art school at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. At first he made portraits focused on the relationship between figures and their settings; later he added elaborate sculptural elements to his studio shots. Four years ago he realized that with digital photography he could collage many different elements into a single scene; each image here is a composite of several dozen photos at least.

Gruye's interest in portraiture is evident: figures, even when small, are often his focus. Lone Star shows what seems to be a family group, nude, in a landscape that looks rather like a battlefield. The father gazes forward determinedly, but presumably his stride is impeded by legs that morph into twisted ladders. Behind him, the mother appears happy while the child seems puzzled; the mother's rounded belly suggests pregnancy. Behind them what looks like a dwarf right out of Hieronymous Bosch is perched on some sort of tower. The figures appear to be enacting some unspoken drama: where is the father going, and why? Whatever he's looking at is outside the frame.

There's another drama going on in this picture, a drama of textures. The man's face is rough and unshaven, the woman's body smooth and rounded. No other elements cast shadows as strongly as the three figures, and the combination of shadows and their precisely differentiated facial expressions gives the three a physical and psychic reality that separates them from the rest of the scene. Peculiarly alienated from their stark surroundings, they seem survivors of some unknown holocaust.

Gruye's working methods suggest one reason for the difference in feeling between his figures and landscapes: he poses models in the studio but makes composites of photos taken throughout the midwest for their surroundings. Some images show no figures at all yet imply a human presence. Charred House gives us only the barest remains of a home--twisted, blackened wood barely supported on stilts. Gnarled dead trees on either side present even more contorted forms. The house is in effect a surrogate portrait of the humans who built it, evidence not only of their efforts to order the world but of the natural decay that undermines those efforts. While the building was an attempt to wall off a bit of space from nature, the open sides show nature reclaiming it. The rest of the landscape is even wilder than the gnarled trees.

Gruye's mastery of high-quality ink-jet prints also plays a key role in Charred House. Flowing water under the structure is not as sharp as it would be in a photochemical print, but its very blurriness suggests dynamic movement, adding to the image's expressionistic feel. The texture of a grassy field to the right offers a powerful contrast to the water. To the left the land is dark and chaotic; indistinct forms seem to be struggling into being or on the point of dissolution. Using Photoshop tools expertly, Gruye alters sharpness, brightness, and contrast in ways that make the limitations of ink-jet printing seem part of his intention. Like Leonardo da Vinci's great "deluge" drawings, this piece suggests a tenuous human presence in a world falling apart.

In his statement Gruye writes of humanity's "ominous machine" paving "a path of destruction." And the contrast he draws between humans and landscapes confirms a sense of ecological ruin. Discourse shows a boy and a man laboring over a sunken cart, perhaps trying to get it out of the mud. But why does the boy have three legs, at least one of them animalistic, and what's that foot doing hanging on another cart nearby? An old R. Crumb comic came to mind, showing the survivors of some catastrophe as mutants barely able to count. Gruyé's figures are better off than that, but he often suggests reversion to an animal state: some figures display no animal parts but have arms a bit too hairy or bellies a little too distended.

All 12 of Gruye's pieces are alive with a peculiar energy, with dark forms and varied textures somehow congealing, turning into something hard as granite or sticky as tar. Sometimes different areas of his pictures collide, like the bursts of light amid darkness in his perpetually stormy skies. Yet even the most precise shapes, on close inspection, lack the precision of a photochemical print. Like the flirt, Gruye's images withdraw--but with reason. Because he depicts the edge of humanity's end, both human efforts at precision and the artist's humanizing variations are missing. Just as music CDs lack the warmth of recordings on vinyl, so digital prints--even Gruye's--are oddly distanced. By making prints that don't have a digital look, he ultimately enhances that distance, making the point that digital coldness here is due not to a failure of artistic imagination but to the fundamental limitations of the medium. Digital images become a metaphor for apocalypse, and all technology a denial of the human spirit. If Ted Kaczynski were a similarly gifted artist rather than a murderer, he might have made images such as these.

Lisa Erf's seven paintings at Byron Roche couldn't feel more different from Gruye's apocalyptic Sturm und Drang prints. Her bland, quiet head-and-shoulders portraits of women, placed in orderly three-by-three grids, are in the style of 1950s magazine illustrations. Their very presence in an art gallery is a bit strange for that reason alone.

Yet Erf relies on the tradition of gridded imagery, and especially grids of portraits. Andy Warhol, perhaps this form's best known exponent, often silk-screened the same photo many times; any variations in such portraits resulted from imperfections in the process or different colors of paint. Other portrait grids, like Warhol's famous Ethel Scull Thirty-six Times, use different poses for each representation. Erf's grids fit into neither of those two modes: while the nine portraits in each multipanel painting are very similar to one another, a quick glance reveals that these obviously handpainted pictures are in no way identical.

I found these portraits oddly fascinating, noticing small differences in eyes, mouths, even hair from one picture in the grid to the next. Each tiny variation seems to produce a big difference in the subject's implied personality. This raises two questions. How reliable is our perception of the human personality if a tiny change in appearance can change it? And how truthful is any painted likeness? Some of the changes here are not subtle shifts in a smile that might indicate a change of mood but lips that grow thicker or eyes that grow bigger, variations that can only stem from the painter's hand.

Erf--a Chicagoan born in 1962 in Evanston who holds an MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago--explains that she copied her faces from "how to paint" books published by Walter T. Foster. Though she's changed the colors of the backgrounds, everything else, including the vignetting, is the same. Erf's source accounts for the magazine-illustration style and reflects "the paltry range of social roles available to women of that era," as filmmaker Tom Kalin puts it in an excellent short essay printed for the show. Even more important, by trying to make nine identical copies of the same picture without comparing them, Erf ends up documenting her own failings as a copyist. Like Gruye, she pushes the conventions of her medium in order to reveal more clearly its limitations.

She also documents how the variability of her hand can utterly change the implications of a portrait. The woman in Head No. 1 might be on the verge of smiling--or is this a dour look? Our interpretation of her mood varies from picture to picture, affected by tiny variations in the edges of her mouth. In Head No. 2, the meaning of the subject's faint smile seems to depend as much on subtleties in the curve of her eyes and eyebrows as on her lips. And the woman's skin color in Head No. 3 is darker in some panels than others, suggesting perhaps that racial classifications are weirdly accidental, a result of the observer's perception rather than any objective "reality."

This fundamentally conceptual work can be frustrating to look at: ultimately Erf's tiny variations don't produce any profound aesthetic effect. But that's precisely the point. If Gruye presumes to offer a vision of the whole world, Erf makes no such pretense. Instead she questions our ability to represent, and ultimately know, even the smallest truths, such as whether someone we're looking at is happy or sad.

Erf told me that one of her concerns is to make relevant paintings in an age when much of the representational function of painting has been usurped by other media. But she seeks neither to reproduce reality nor to evoke the cosmos, instead turning what might be called accidents or mistakes into her subject. In the great tradition of artists from John Cage to Robert Rauschenberg, from Richard Tuttle to Agnes Martin, she works with details that had been previously regarded as random, uninteresting, and outside of art's ambit; these paintings are not only original but call into question what painting can accomplish. Although Erf acknowledges a few important teachers, Phyllis Bramson among them, she names Gerhard Richter as her earliest influence--not surprisingly, since his work too explores the relationship between painterly representation and "truth."

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