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CHARLES MUNCH: FEAR & DESIRE

at the Chicago Cultural Center

"Storm clouds spiraling over a new moon. The earth jerks twice to the right. Your throat rasps for air. Can I drown on solid land . . . ?" So begins the prose painted in monochromatic tones on the wall that greets us at the entrance to "Fear & Desire," Charles Munch's intriguing installation at the Chicago Cultural Center. Munch has taken one of the gallery spaces and transformed it into a personalized environment for viewing his paintings and painted cutouts. Walking through the room he's painted a gray green with various areas of white, one confronts an imagined world that both illustrates the rural Wisconsin artist's preoccupation with natural forces and comments on the institutional world in which the painted images reside.

Upon entering, one passes two paintings on opposite walls: Man Flowering and Woman Rising. Like the work of the late Keith Haring, Munch's paintings have a cartoonlike quality; they are linear, patterned, and graphic. Many of the colors are bold, and the paint is applied flatly. But the modulations within his palette are subtle, and the works' overall message is obscure. The nude male in Man Flowering, supine in a forest as flowers spring from his body, is painted sparingly, with little detail. The female nude reclining in a forest glade in Woman Rising appears withdrawn and skeptical. Above and below both paintings Munch has painted strips of white directly on the wall, using perspective and shading to suggest shelves. The juxtaposition of painting with painted wall challenges the status of paintings as separate entities existing on their own. The paintings' placement opposite each other and their integration with an architectural scheme make them an inseparable part of a continuum.

Down the wall from Woman Rising is a painting called Fear & Desire, in which a couple viewed from a distance embrace, lodged in some hills by the sea. Munch handles the imagery--which could read as sophomoric--with grace; his cartoony approach, which combines pattern with sublimely sophisticated color, keeps it from looking cliched. At the left and right of this painting are the white painted areas; the spatial area seemingly defined by their perspective could be a room, and the painting's placement at the middle gives the impression that together the painting and room constitute a sort of destination.

This integration of painted wall with painting is repeated in all but one of the works, River Mountain River, which is placed between two windows. Munch's approach to nature is personal, even eccentric; yet his use of natural forms is formulaic, similar to the work of American icons such as Grant Wood. But because his colors are so rich and his brushwork is so consistent, Munch's imagery never feels thin. And while his manner is in a way contrived, the position of River Mountain River between two windows that look out on an urban landscape captures the poignancy of experiencing "nature" in a painted form.

Munch's strategy in this installation is to play on the conflict between natural, primal desires, which exist idyllically inside the enclosed paintings, and the fear of nature that drives the systematically ordered world outside the paintings. Within their enclosed worlds Man Flowering and Woman Rising await assured destinies. Outside this idyllic space, within the realm of architecture, nothing is so obvious.

Munch also employs two life-size freestanding figurative cutouts, positioned independently of each other, to represent a detached viewing public. Art Man is a standing figure in a brightly colored jumpsuit facing an abstract group of paintings; Shoe Lacer is a woman in shorts bent over tying her shoe. She's positioned to the left of a large canvas, Fire on the Mountain--the most complex painting of the group, depicting a man and various forest animals running toward flames that shoot from a mountain summit. Though Shoe Lacer is close to Fire on the Mountain, it has a kind of privacy; it's both painting and object. Set off in a corner with an area of white painted around it on the wall, it suggests separateness. And its physical detachment creates a sense of psychological detachment in this "viewer." Juxtaposed with the urgency depicted in Fire on the Mountain, Shoe Lacer's dispassionate attitude creates a curious dichotomy. The male figure in Fire running toward impending doom on the mountain acts within the realm of perceived "art," while the Shoe Lacer cutout, the pseudoviewer, is remote and unresponsive to the urgency of natural forces. Yet Shoe Lacer is also an art object.

The way Munch's cutouts interact with the wall paintings seems to indicate he's poking fun at art and its implications once it's left the artist's studio. Art's not fully realized, he seems to say, until a "public" mediates: the viewer's individual perspective brings the art experience to fruition.

The painted spaces jutting out from Fire extend onto the adjoining wall, creating several illusionistic "rooms" within which Munch's abstract paintings reside. Facing them is the cutout Art Man. Again Munch uses space to create contradictions. The abstract works are two Large Windows, one Small Window, and four Wings paintings set on the "walls" of Munch's faux rooms. The apparent perspective of the wall painting is opposed to the "perspective" of the trapezoidal canvases. We'd like to see the Wings paintings hanging flat against the "walls" of the rooms Munch has created, but the artist thwarts that expectation.

Within this group of abstract paintings the imagery is simple. Small Window and the Large Windows are luminous canvases that vibrate with wavy bands of prismatic color suggesting light. In the four Wings paintings subtle abstract patterns made up of fluid lines, dashes, and dots float against fading surfaces of graduated color. The abstract images of the Wings and Window paintings offer an interesting counterpoint to the figurative works, showing aspects of the physical world that are elusive. Science and metaphysics are the constructs with which humankind has tried to forge control over nature, impose an unseen order. At the end of this grouping are two paintings titled Logs, long horizontal paintings consisting of patterned lines. Their placement against Munch's vertical corridors painted on the wall suggests an impasse. And this is the final wall of the installation.

The brilliant yellow jumpsuit Art Man wears is adorned with an emblem that echoes the patterns in the Window paintings--perhaps Munch's wry way of equating the "self" and "art." Art Man could be artist or viewer--it's not clear which, nor should it be. Munch creates no hierarchy between Art Man and the work he views, showing the irony behind the pretense of distinguishing life from art.

A peculiar afterthought to the show are the two small groupings of comfortable, dated furniture placed in the room. In addition to providing a place to sit and view the work, they throw the viewer off balance, removing the space from the institutional art realm. On a nightstand by a grouping of chairs is a small painted cutout, Animal God, a cartoonish version of idols found in primitive cultures. Half man, half animal, it wears a humorous expression, encouraging us to consider another realm of nature: the relationship between earth and spirit and the enigma of our innermost longings.

"Fear & Desire" is a complex work yielding a multitude of interpretations. It's also a deeply satisfying visual experience, one that should not be missed.

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

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