In the richly red and beautiful Sidney R. Yates gallery of the Chicago Cultural Center, two modern art exhibits are just coming to the end of their run.
One is called "Expect the Unexpected," and is a collection of paintings -- plus one delightful set piece that the viewer walks into as if he were entering a painting -- by Hollis Sigler (1948-2001). These paintings first caught my eye from outside the gallery's glass doors because they looked so pretty and colorful, so unlike modern art. I walked in.
The paintings are pretty and colorful, and they have interesting and poetic titles. Some Days You Feel So Alive. One of the best is It keeps her going, a beautiful imaginary scene of a table set for two on what seems a tropic beach, under an incongruously huge splashing fountain, all seen through a curtained window. Before the window lies assembled all the accoutrements of daily life: stove, washing machine, a little electric mixer here, an ironing board there. It's all done in a childlike, firm, skewed-perspective style called "faux naive" I gather, and this one especially is witty, light, and if not profound, at least pleasing.
It didn't take too long, however, to figure out that all the paintings in Expect the Unexpected, scores of them in total, are about breast cancer. Hollis Sigler suffered it and died of it while just in her early fifties. Her mother and great-grandmother had also had it, and knowing this from the accompanying brochure helped lay the foundations of a foreboding which otherwise the gallery patron might not have looked for in any Sigler works before 1985 (the year of diagnosis).
As I walked about looking at all the paintings, and reading the descriptions beside them -- she wrote long explanations of cancer research, or of her own treatment at the time of a particular work, on the frames, explanations which are hard to read and whose prose has therefore had to be posted neatly under plexiglass alongside -- it struck me that this isn't so much an art exhibit as it is a voyeuristic plunge into Everywoman's nightmare. After a while, the motifs of little birds, chairs, skewed-perspective rooms, dead trees, cracked mirrors, and bloodstained women's clothing become emptied. As art, it's not much beyond the level of greeting cards. The heavy reliance on text seems almost a cheat, or for a painter a crutch at any rate.
But as chilling, vicarious descent into illness and death, woman's death, the exhibit is fascinating, the moreso to women. Brochure in hand and plexiglass addenda well digested, I found myself looking for signs that the sufferer's, the patient's, painting changed in 1985. I found them. Her paintings turned red. Just before the fateful year, she could still paint a bright picture of a woman in the shower, her bathroom filled little hairdryers and stockings and lots of other stuff pertaining to beauty and grooming. There is still foreboding here, because we know that many women inadvertently find the lump in their breast while showering. But the picture itself is still a picture filled with normalcy and a future, and all the colors of a spring garden.
Then, 1985. Lump. Family fate. Diagnosis. Change Doesn't Come Easy for Her shows a volcano spewing rocks, snakes, birds, and lizards into a room; a television set is cracked and a chair and coffee cup bounce and spill. Yes, that is illness: what was normal yesterday, and what you felt you were entitled to because of course everybody lives normally and you are normal just like everybody, is no longer yours. (A later work in fact is titled something like "This is no longer yours," and copes with another effect of illness. No, you can't walk, run, or garden now. My lord Sickness has shaken His royal Head, and said you are unable.) Another red 1985 painting, another grappling with "it's happened it's happened," shows a Greek statue (the famed bronze Poseidon Soter, I think) with broken arms in a little shrine on a hill, and a river of lava flowing down from it to busy, bright, modern Everywoman's world. There are chairs and wine bottles and clothes and green trees and shoes. It's More Than the Loss of My Breast shows another skewed-perspective room, full of womanly things, a pretty dress, high heeled shoes, a broken pearl necklace, a chair and a vanity with a broken mirror. All the things that don't matter anymore when you've had your mastectomy.
Or maybe they can still matter. Some women survive breast cancer. Maybe a lot of women do, which is why we hear so much about it. I recall reading this once -- it was the opinion of a doctor I think -- who also pointed out that there's a painful reason why society bothers to designate a color "for" breast cancer ribbons, but not, say, for pancreatic cancer ribbons. (Gray? Black?) Not too many survivors to hold fundraisers for there.
But is Hollis Sigler's breast cancer journal art? We read the frames: "now the cancer is in my bones, my pelvis, and my spine." We shudder vicariously. In small later paintings, she raised up, in thick applications of paint the same color as the scene, single words that physically loom: Heredity, or Organochlorides. We shudder again: imagine having to come to terms with sheer stupid bad luck. Why did it have to be me, and my great grandmothers? But at last, that raising up of paint, a physical sensuous thing -- not prose, not explanations -- struck me as art. Art: communicate something to me in some other way than explanatory prose and illustrations. Make me "see" in some other way (which is a gift that explanatory art gallery brochures are always claiming artists have), a way I also can't necessarily put into explanatory prose.
Seeing so little of that in Expect the Unexpected is why I could turn to the neighboring, much smaller exhibit and learn with surprise that even though it didn't look nearly as colorful or pretty, it showed the work of a far better artist. Angel Ortero (Touch with Your Eyes) lays on to canvas or wood little squares of gold paint, silicone, and what looks like mesh and foil, and creates an elegant, monochrome mosaic picture of a vase of flowers on a tabletop covered by a carelessly flowing cloth -- or is it a woman holding the flowers in her lap, and is that perfectly molded gold mosaic shape her breast in profile? He puts up a piece of gorgeous stuffed, ripped purple floral upholstery, and a mess of more thick paint, mesh, and silicone, calls it My Grandmother's Couch -- and makes you laugh. One of my favorites was a piece called Untitled -- dear me, when will artists stop indulging themselves? -- in which a beautiful lump of blue and white porcelain drips off a table and lands and rolls to a stop on the floor. The table is spattered with another mess of colorful paint, mesh, and twists of foil and silicone. It was simply lovely, refreshing, and interesting to look at. Words and explanations would be beside the point. The artist has communicated something pleasurable in some other way.
Downstairs, in the Cultural Center's Michigan Avenue galleries, was another exhibit, this one of photographs of the interiors of some mausoleums in the Midwest. The photographer is John Allan Faier, the collection Queen of Heaven. The photographs were beautiful, they could almost have been "interior design porn" except of course that they had a posed, spotlit stillness that no art editor for Southern Living or Real Simple wants to see. Looking at them, I was struck by the effort that mausoleum designers must put into making these places as sumptuous and vibrantly colored as possible. Clearly, the object here is comfort, not mourning. Hospitals, where there is still hope of life, are dismal prisons of white and olive in comparison. Here in these photos, chairs, carpets, walls, and stained glass all shone in jewel tones of red, fuschia, purple, raspberry, green, and blue; lamps and lampshades were tasteful old gold. Everything was spotless; there were simple, sleek wooden statues of obscure saints (Elizabeth of Hungary) standing in quiet corners amid the walls of names on black-gray marble.
Alas, I seem to have taken all the wrong lessons from this exhibit. Would you like to bet a nickel that the explanatory brochure accompanying Queen of Heaven included the words "loneliness," "alienation" and "kitsch"? How about "suburban entrapment" and "rage at society's treatment of"? Oh wait -- that was the breast cancer collection.
Have you laid your nickel down? Good show. You win.