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Sierra by Sunlight 

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PAUL SIERRA

at Gwenda Klein, Ltd.

Cuban-born Paul Sierra, a mild-mannered adman by day and a relentless, somewhat obsessed artist by night, has long been known for his colorful, almost neonlike depictions of nocturnal street life, especially in the tropics.

With a striking similarity in style and posture to the post-World War I work of George Grosz, Sierra has exploited the false nostalgia of the pimps, hucksters, and decadence of his childhood Havana; he has slashed women red with a lurid misogyny and tempted the gods with grotesque, often sensational treatments of Cuba's santeria practices.

There has never been anything but passion in Sierra's work, but his anger and alienation have led mostly to bursts of raw emotion. That his scenes almost always occurred at night is no coincidence: his paintings have often seemed like foreign fantasies, a rebellion against his placid daytime American life as a family man and a creative director for supermarket chains and utility companies. Once, while sitting in his Wilmette studio looking at a blue-black canvas of a man in a business suit howling at the moon with a pack of dogs, Sierra confided he often felt that trapped, that mad.

But in "Past, Present, Future," a group show that Sierra's work literally dominates, his brooding vertigo is enriched by an aching personal vision that, while still tense, is much more sober and complex.

In the five new pieces he shows here--all completed in the last year and all products of a change in direction begun in 1985--Sierra does not exactly embrace domesticity, but he hurdles his own misgivings and fears to explore it and perhaps accommodate it, even if making peace with it is still too much to ask.

This is probably best exemplified in On the Edge, where a collection of cozy, dissimilar houses rests on a ledge of some sort: perhaps a bed. Behind the ledge is darkness, the floorboards are black. From it tumbles a little red house. The wall to the side is brilliant with sunlight.

Light is present throughout this new work--not the icy moonlight of before, but a glowing daylight. It is not necessarily warm--in fact it might be ironic--but there is often a sympathetic element that is new and quietly daring. In Fragmented Reality, the light streams through the door; in Parallelogram, house windows burn; both In Slumber and At Dawn use an early morning glow.

Sierra has changed the landscape of his painting dramatically in the last two years. Instead of the urban and outsized naturalistic scenes of before, he has come indoors, tackling the nuance of the ordinary universe, with its failures, complacencies, and pleasures.

He has also altered his portrayal of women. While somewhat voyeuristic in tone, these paintings show women more humanely, more capable of pain and dreams. Both In Slumber and At Dawn feature women sleeping, on their stomachs, naked and barely covered. But there is nothing provocative or cynical about these scenes. In fact, the woman in At Dawn lies comfortably and completely in the middle of a double bed; she waits for nothing but morning. The only disturbing portrayal here occurs in Fragmented Reality, where the full-frontal nude is frighteningly vulnerable, caught off guard against the brass bed; the movement of the arms and hands toward the corner of the bed makes it appear at first as if she's tied to the post.

In Sierra's interiors, the rooms are often weary, musty. There are dark, grandmotherly bureaus and vases filled with flowers, hazy mirrors, and frayed oriental rugs hinting of a grander, more colorful, if not a better endowed past. There are family photographs, old lamps, windows with wooden shutters.

All of these strive for order within the canvas, but their struggle is a kind of tidy, private purgatory, an almost uniquely Latin American poignancy that becomes clear only in the details: The furniture, no matter its legacy, is from a world cut off from ours by economic embargo; the wooden shutters lack metallic American screens to back them up; the vases are corpulent, ceramic, and traditional. Every window at least hints at a lush tropical green.

These are bold, luxurious paintings, employing hot, tempestuous colors that challenge the more cerebral surrealism of their subjects. They're rich, shiny, and tactile. They are indelibly tropical, innately Latin--the work of an Americanized man coming to grips and trying to live with his third world roots. These are brave outings by Sierra; they showcase not only his ever-growing talent, but step after step of his journey to emotional resolution.

Also featured in the exhibition is Margeaux Klein, a Californian with a background in sculpture, here exhibiting mixed-media work with an earthy, funny touch. Klein's most successful pieces are Messenger II, The Cache as Self, and Messenger III, all framed and on paper. There is a peaceful, organic quality to this work that contrasts nicely with the more humorous, if obvious, Well, It Sort of Goes Like This . . . and the rest of her pieces.

The group show also includes work by Scott Davis and Lauren Ewing, who, in different ways, tackle color theory as subject; Julie Lichtenberg, a student at the School of the Art Institute who produces large mixed-media pieces often resembling topographical aerials; and drawings and a smug, somewhat trying installation by Mary Anne Davis.

"Past, Present, Future" runs through October 10 at Gwenda Klein, Ltd., which is temporarily located at 341 W. Superior, third floor.

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