Interpretive Dances | Art Review | Chicago Reader

Interpretive Dances 

Jim Shrosbree

at I Space, through November 29

Shen Fan

at Walsh, through November 29

Bold forms and unusual colors seem to declare "look at me!" suggesting the uniqueness of a painting or sculpture. "Buy me!" is the not-so-hidden subtext. But Jim Shrosbree's eight sculptures at I Space (there are also seven drawings) implicitly critique such art. Small and initially modest, these lyrically hermetic works reward repeated viewing.

Even the titles are a bit mysterious, and Shrosbree's explanations aren't necessarily illuminating. ODB stands for "orange double bump," he told me, which does little to explain this small wall-mounted work with one bulbous shape at the top and another at the bottom. Though the piece is orange and juts into the space, other elements undercut its assertiveness: it's mottled in a way that suggests natural patterns, the bumps blend in with the overall curved form, and the two bulbs divide one's attention between them. Neither is perfectly rounded, and their irregularities deny artistic "perfection," conveying instead the contingencies of a single moment, the vagaries of a handmade creation or of natural processes.

(EPD), mounted parallel to the wall, offers a wavy surface with small hills and valleys. The title is a "reminder" of the word "epidermis," Shrosbree says, and the piece does recall human skin. Even less imposing than ODB, (EPD) is more complex when viewed from the side. A bulbous bright blue shape accompanied by several blue wires fastens the "skin" to the wall, while the piece's shadow has been doubled by a "shadow" Shrosbree painted on the wall. The differences between the relatively straight wires, the bulbous blue form, and the gently curving surface hint at deeper mysteries. Part of Shrosbree's intent is to deny obvious meaning--and even the stability of objects. As he writes in his statement: "I hope that references and associations which may be found in my work will not hold the mind to a particular emotion or thought, but rather allow the memory to resonate."

Born in Elmhurst in 1947, Shrosbree moved to California in early childhood and to Idaho at age nine; he lives in Iowa today. As an undergrad major in painting and drawing, he grew interested in ceramics, in part because he loved touching clay, and ceramics became his grad-school major. ODB is a ceramic piece covered with painted nylon, and the wavy surface of (EPD) is a sheet of plastic that Shrosbree warped in an oven and covered with painted nylon. He says that a turning point occurred in his work around 1990, when he became interested in the "dichotomy" of an object both seeming to float in space and revealing its attachment to a wall. In fact each of the three elements in (EPD) has a different relationship to the wall: the wavy surface both parallels and contrasts with its flatness, the bulbous shape connects with it while differing from it, and the straight wires mirror the wall's geometry yet remain mysteriously nonfunctional, suggesting a cluster of trees or stalactites seen sideways.

There's a bit of humor too in Shrosbree's little enigmas. BiiBii(oo) looks like a bent blue Q-tip. Mounting it on a white shelf implies that it's important, but its bent shaft and irregularly shaped and sized globular ends remove it from the realm of the universal. Instead BiiBii(oo) seems accidental and unique to its time and place--its shape has no larger significance. If there's a "message" to Shrosbree's art, it's that the viewer should direct attention away from the search for truth and toward observation of the particular--offering a statement, really, about how one might live.

Like Shrosbree's sculptures, Shen Fan's 13 paintings (some with multiple panels) at Walsh abjure obvious meaning, and to similar ends. At first his thick, swirling bands of paint seem merely pleasant, not overly demanding. The five vertical panels of Love - C - 29 resemble one another, with curved patterns that might look at home alongside white lace. But when the eye actually travels these mazelike bands of paint, the effect is more interesting. White curving pathways lead to little circular dead ends, but following their curves one resumes one's journey. The patterns are so similar they seem to deny customary Western notions of meaning: we're far from the realm of the affections or of self-expression. But the patterns don't repeat exactly, so we're always confronted by the handmade, drawn into an engagingly lyrical experience reminiscent of music or dance.

Born in China in 1952 and a Shanghai resident today, Fan lived in the country as a child, where "the only things to do" by candlelight were "paper cutting and drawing." Gallery materials cite blues and jazz as his inspiration, but he told me that while he "gathers influences from a lot of people, my thinking is still Chinese." Traditional calligraphy, historically connected to the art of painting in China, seems an obvious influence, though no one mentions it. A less obvious inspiration might be the free sense of space in traditional Chinese landscapes, where the lines also create a variety of interconnected movements.

Other works in the show differ from one another but evoke the same meditative feel. The nine-panel Love - C - 2 uses similar patterns in yellow, but its size--more than nine by nine feet--creates a much more imposing effect. Once again, however, following the curves of paint creates a different impression: here it undercuts the work's grandeur. Love - C - 2 seems more an accretion of details than an overall design. In River - C - 25, a single panel divided into quadrants, the bands of paint are red, discontinuous, and densely packed--this painting looks like hundreds of worms crammed together. Moving among these shapes, which differ from those in other works, one's mind is still suspended, freed of quotidian details and desires as if engaged in an eternal dance.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Fred Camper.

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