Arts & Entertainment

Rockford Art Museum Fall Exhibit Explores City Spaces

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Find urban landscapes and their “Spaces Within,” at Rockford Art Museum’s newest exhibition.

Richard Hull, "Halls"

What Chicago lacks in open spaces, it makes up for in diverse architectural details and interesting living spaces, of all shapes and sizes. Artist Richard Hull explores these complex, dynamic spaces that are so different from the landscape of his native Oklahoma.

Examples of Hull’s work, from various points in his 30-year career, are part of “Spaces Within,” the fall show at the Rockford Art Museum, Rockford, Ill., which runs through Jan. 9. It brings together works from several Chicago-area artists who present a fresh vision of the city landscape.

Nicholas Sistler, "Deposition"

“My early paintings were related to my early exploration of Chicago,” says Hull. “I was amazed by how close all the homes were, right in a line. It had lots of twists and turns, and facades with sloping roofs that all varied, and gangways where there was just a ladder leading up the building.” Whereas Hull once explored specific locations in straight, geometric shapes, he now paints those scenes fluidly, capturing the rhythm of a city in constant motion. He likens it to illustrating the random, yet organized, movements found in jazz and improvisational music.

“I think it’s just looking at space in a new way,” says Patty Rhea, museum curator. “Art should be able to encourage you to view it in a different way, and I think there’s a lot of color and energy that people respond to.”

Artist Nicholas Sistler similarly uses space to create movement; his images exaggerate the space inside a city dwelling. He adds his own twist in colorful detail and dramatic perspective.

Rhea built the show as a compilation of about 20 of Hull’s and Sistler’s works, which portray space through opposite uses of color, shape and movement. Where one overindulges use of color, the other remains subdued. Where one forces perspective through exaggerated scenery, the other plays with geometric and organic, flowing shapes.

Hull and Sistler are joined by Gordon Dorn, David Kotker and Michiko Itatani, all from the Chicago area. Dorn’s featured pieces show geometric shapes, and he’s known for his encaustic paintings, a technique in which beeswax is used to layer paint and visually age a work. Itatani’s single piece was chosen because it naturally explores space on an irregularly-shaped canvas.

“We haven’t had a show like this before,” says Rhea. “I think everyone has something to say about architecture, because it’s all around them.”

Along with interpreting spaces, the artists also play with their own spaces, adding various materials to an otherwise flat surface. Hull adds visual and actual depth in many of his paintings, by drawing in crayon (of the Crayola variety) and scratching into it.

Nicholas Sistler, "Green Television"

The art instructor sees space in every image, whether his or someone else’s. “The overall running thought that I have is that all paintings are about space,” says Hull. “I think even in the flattest painting, we read some three-dimensional quality into it – you really get the sensation of space and physical movement.”

Through a forced perspective, Sistler creates depth and magnitude on paper barely the size of a postcard. His small gouache paintings create the sensation of being small inside a domestic interior. From an almost childlike perspective, he combines a sherbet-colored setting with dramatic photos, captured from film noir and old photographs and painted into the scenery, commonly on a door or a wall. Everything seems bigger than normal. In Sistler’s mind, everything about his works creates an illusion of space.

“The small scale and meticulous detail pulls someone in to see the painting,” says Sistler. “By then, they’ve created this closeness, because they’re standing only a few inches away, and they can lose sight of the space they’re standing in. I think scale has always been the key element to my works.”

That exaggerated scale, says Sistler, allows him to explore human power: the kind found in relationships; between viewer and artist; between camera and reality. Whether or not the viewer realizes it, he says, it’s easy to get lost in the monumental feeling of these small works.

Rhea chose Sistler’s work because of that contrast of small canvas and big space, which makes the viewer feel powerful and yet overpowered. The imposed images add an almost scandalous touch.

“Sistler’s works are kind of voyeuristic in nature,” says Rhea. “It’s like you’re looking through a keyhole.”

Any good artwork can explore space and movement, says Rhea, but this show combines it with visual movement. Whether by a voyeuristic peephole image or a complex kidney bean of swirls, it evokes curiosity.

“This show just invites you in,” says Rhea. “You can easily get lost in the space within these works. A good work of art instinctively does that.” ❚

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