Exquisite Corpse: Chamber Music for the Eyes
To celebrate the 35th anniversary of Printworks Gallery, directors Bob Hiebert and Sidney Block asked 105 Chicago artists spanning three generations to participate in creating 35 exquisite corpses (the surrealist drawing scheme that assigns head, torso, and legs to a separate artist without the artist seeing what the others have done), one for each year the gallery has been in business. Sadly, the show also became a memorial to Sidney who passed away at the age of 91 shortly before it opened.
On first scanning this exhibition, one is struck by its musical quality; the works resonate like intricate chords of a fine piece of chamber music. Then they begin to separate into three categories.
About a third of the corpses are especially harmonious. Number 24 by Jeanine Coupe Ryding, Judith Geichman, and Eleanor Spiess-Ferris is so stylistically coherent that, at first glance, it looks as if it might be by a single artist. In number 26 abstract painter Roland Ginzel’s head, sporting bright red glasses, sits atop Pamela Barrie’s playing card torso and Fred Wessell’s ornately skirted legs, strongly evoking the feeling of a Lewis Carroll character.
Another third of the pieces can be described as fugal. They incorporate contrasting themes or styles that seem to play against each other and yet ultimately come together. The best example in this group is number 11: John Rush’s open-jawed alligator head surmounts a swirling torso with clapping hands by Barbara Cooper and a pair of gambolling legs by Heather Becker. Even though the drawing styles are dramatically different, the unifying rhythm of the three segments marries them into a coherent whole. Number 13 has a dance-like quality. Alexandra Kowerko’s animated bright orange feet are contrasted by L.J. Douglas’ calm, static, female torso, which is surmounted by Gladys Nilsson’s multiple heads that appear to sway to the rhythm of the feet.
The last third are largely dissonant in tone and evoke grating harmonies like those of Arnold Schoenberg. The most striking of these is number 25, Diane Simpson’s finely drawn feet (in ballet’s third position) are topped by Kate McQuillen’s smudged torso with burning hands, which in turn is topped by Nancy Barnes’ threatening wolf’s head of Little Red Riding Hood fame, making it a truly frightening piece. In number 12, Bruce Thayer’s grimacing head sits on Winifred Godfrey’s submerged torso partially enveloped by a floating floral cloth. They are all supported by Paula Campbell’s crossed legs surrounded by attacking fish — another equally disturbing image.
The animated discourse among the exquisite corpses, and their individual segments, create a salon-like atmosphere of congenial interplay. And although a few of the pieces fail to coalesce in any meaningful way, overall, the exhibition resonates with a civilized charm seldom encountered in today’s harried world.
Michel Ségard is a past reviewer for the New Art Examiner and a freelance author and designer of exhibition catalogs. He taught desktop publishing at the School of the Art Institute for 11 years.
Volume 30 number 4 March / April 2016 p 37