Plain Air the contemporary artists group exhibition at Carrie Secrist

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Carrie Secrist Gallery holds their first in-person opening reception of 2021 for Plain Air, a group exhibition featuring nine artists exploring the traditional genre of landscape

Plain Air the current group exhibition at Carrie Secrist consists of over 40 artworks by 9 artists: Leslie Baum, Deborah Brown, Tanya Brodsky, Spencer Carmona, Andrew Holmquist, Mike Howat, Oliva Schreiner, Sophie Treppendahl and Emma White. The show is on view at their new exhibition space, a 10th story penthouse at 900 W. Washington Boulevard in the West Loop neighborhood of Chicago only a few steps from their previous locale. 


Photos courtesy of Carrie Secrist and Installation images by Nathan Keay
Installation image: Plain Air, Carrie Secrist Gallery, June 2021. Photo by Nathan Keay.

The title Plain Air is an obvious riff on the French term ‘plein air’ which refers to the practice of painting out of doors and brings to mind John Constable’s cloud studies and their contemplation of movement and structure, Cézanne’s phenomenological relationship with the contours of the mountain Sainte-Victoire and Monet’s painterly translations of light and water. A more idiosyncratic reading of the title Plain Air brings up the idea of a change in atmosphere brought on by the pandemic,   as the gallery website states, "As we are finally returning to a time when the atmosphere around us was composed of plain air pre-pandemic, we communally can breathe in and let out a huge sigh of relief." Perhaps vaccinated and armed with sanitizer, this lament for plain old air, air that we can ignore and even take for granted might be on the near horizon? Nothing since early 2020 has been ordinary, simple or plain, but time has passed without a hitch. We have learned to kill the time in a myriad of new ways and painters of course have spent the time painting, as always mark by mark, making time visible. 


Andrew Holmquist , Backyard Hammock, 2021, Oil on four canvases, 18 x 60 inches overall, 18 x 15 inches each.

Entering the first room of many (Gallery 1), the paintings of Deborah Brown and Andrew Holmquist share with us what was visible in their respective environs during the past year and a half in Brooklyn, New York and Los Angeles, California.  Both painters remind us just how much remained the same throughout this un-plain time. How full of routine our routine shaken days still harbored. Day after day shadows grew long, short and then long again. The light and air never rested but the stuff around us stood still and ready to be sensed and received, if we took the time to experience it, photograph it or paint it. 

Holmquist’s plein air paintings are beautiful in color palette and touch. The palette has a soft technicolor feel. Each of their paintings have a huge variety of inventive marks that are made with poise and made to be seen. Their exploration of what is before them, earth, foliage, wood, rock is unburdened and free. The three works I felt most drawn to were Elysian Park 1, Russian Gulch 1 and the multi-panel painting Backyard Hammock. Elysian Park 1 is a modest sized painting that feels bigger than it is. I think it is because it wrangles deep space in a bold way and it has playful shifts in visual weight throughout its composition. The way the painter grapples with the how; how to represent the infinity of nature, is like leaning into an awkward kiss, lots of searching, correcting and letting go. Until that sloppy, wet and toothy mess stumbles on a state of reciprocity, collaboration and pleasure. When I stand back and take in the whole image, it feels to me like an ah-ha moment, a reason found, a strategy in hand. Also, if you get close to the painting there is even a little dirt trapped in the paint to be discovered. Russian Gulch 1, is a little windswept painting. It’s one of those paintings that activate the other senses beyond sight. Looking upon it I feel wind and hear the air. I also appreciate this painting’s linear moments: they are so inorganic and interruptive but somehow intrinsic to the image. When I walked up to Backyard Hammock, I let out a little laugh. I didn't mean to. It just happened when I saw the two hammocks poking out on either side of the view down to the pink porch down below. The distant mountains, the California light- it’s all so idyllic and sweet, representing  everything that Chicago cannot provide. After a year and a half grounded in Chicago, I can easily fall into the setting of this painting. It is a pastoral for urbanites without cars in 2020. The painting’s format and swiftness of touch is perhaps a nod to David Hockney. I also see Cézanne’s influence in Holmquist’s in-flux landscapes and maybe something of Albert York in their gentleness.  


Deborah Brown, Signs of Spring, 2021, Oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches.

Deborah Brown’s Shadow Paintings feel a bit closer to home in their urban-ness, ambulatory nature and depiction of a routine of care. The projected shadow’s anonymity allows me to take up the position of the absent figure and see the world from their point of view. The world depicted is bright and shadowy. The shadows are long, harsh, edgy and contend with the solid stuff around them. I tend to think of shadows as weightless and fugitive, forever shifting but these shadows are practically breathing, tangible. The dog is their counterpoint, it is grounded paws to the earth, an old friend patiently waiting for their guardian to finish taking the photo. In the dog’s waiting- I wait too. After the immediate comfort of familiarity passes, there is a loneliness to these images. There is an absence present among the saturated colors and bold negative space shapes. It was quite unnerving to walk in the city without passersby wasn’t it? The repetition of elements in the paintings: shadow figure, dog, red leash, receding space, etc. create a rhythm in the gallery, which is echoed by the floor to ceiling windows and the shadows created by their frames. The vertical and horizontal nature of a city is enunciated by the way the painter pushes the paint around on the canvases. Lots of long marks pulled across the entire length of the canvas and shorter parallel marks rhythmically fill in spaces with only an occasional whorl to depict graffiti or another urban artifact. The longer I look at these paintings the more the patience in the dog becomes more like hesitancy.  


Mike Howat , Racing Thoughts and Satellites, 2021, Acrylic on panel, 24 x 15 inches.

Remember this gallery is a luxury apartment, in the kitchen area I encountered two of Mike Howat’s contemplative paintings Someday Afternoon and Racing Thoughts and Satellites. Both paintings display the artist’s view through the same window at different times of day and presumably on different days based on the differing still life on each of the window sills. Both paintings are quintessentially 2020, because looking out of our windows became  a daily event, a safe view of life beyond our own semi-confinement. They also  provided the comforting evidence that the evenings continued to draw in and the dawns out. These paintings are slower paced in comparison to the more gestural paintings in the previous room, these two seem to have been made with no time restrictions but instead with access to all the time in the world. I would like to spend more time looking but the setting in which they are hung is a sort of in-between space and feel propelled forward. Although, if this were my kitchen, I would sit on the countertop legs dangling and think more about those tiny marks, the brushes that made them, racing thoughts and sleepless nights. 


Spencer Carmona, Nocturne, 2019, Oil on canvas, 30 x 50 inches.

The room off the kitchen (Gallery 2) is where I found the dreamy, otherworldly moonscape paintings of Spencer Carmona. The first few paintings struck me as lovely abstractions. I've been incredibly taken by the color purple and purply blues for the last few years, but it wasn't until I saw Nocturne that I started to read these as sky-scapes. The horizontal plane, paired with circular forms, creates recognizable landscape passages, nameable relationships between earth and air, water and sky etc. The surface of this painting is intriguing and gets me to look more closely at the physical materials, the paint itself, with  wonderment. Nocturne’s velvety background has strange finger-width ripples beneath its surface, I can’t stop looking at them like they are ghostly tracings or a map of licks of an ice cream cone. They look like areas of resistance that are behaving differently when painted over, and they fascinate me. By the time I get to examining the wall of nine canvases all 10 x 8 inches, I am hooked, dazzled by these multi-moon lunar-scapes and surrogate sunsets. The radiant Green Gold Sun and elusive Purple Twilight are both incredible little big worlds; I’d like to take both home with me. 


Sophie Treppendahl, Neon Window, 2020, Oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches.

On the second floor of this art labyrinth, I find Gallery 4, 5, 6 & 7. At the top of the stairs are two eye-catching Sophie Treppendahl paintings. DJ’s Collaging Desk and Neon Window, both containing a luminous salmon-y pink orange that is unignorable. I enjoy seeing these in-person as I had only previously seen them on Instagram. The paint is much gnarlier and tactile than I had imagined, and I appreciate that as a painter who also leans that way myself. Again we see the use of windows as both a companion and a view to another world outside of an insular, domestic world. 

Guillaume Apollinaire, who first coined the term surrealism in reference to Giorgio de Chirico work put it this way “{surrealism is}… realism so charged with a metaphysical awareness of being that it is a revelation”. This definition is a useful entrance for both Emma White and Olivia Schreiner’s artworks  in Gallery 5. In White’s oil paint on paper series, we are made hyper aware of the edges of the view we are given. These paintings are like windows into unstable natural worlds, where the seemingly familiar becomes topsy-turvy, obscured and unhinged, candles dance in midair and apparitions block our view. In Schreiner’s work, which is also a sort of magic realism, her revelations are found in painting the intangible: light and air.


Leslie Baum, Plein Air Watercolors 1-50, 2018-2021, Watercolor on arches cold pressed paper, 7 x 10 inches and 10 x 7 inches.

In Simon Schama’s book Landscape and Memory, he says, “Landscapes are culture before they are nature, constructs of the imagination projected onto wood, water, and rock”. Leslie Baum’s untitled watercolors on paper in Gallery 6 are studies in the appearance of things. The images are made in-situ, following the tradition of the plein air painters, observing and painting the view in one go or alla prima. This ongoing painting project is also a psychological collaboration in that the artist creates these accompanied by another person, whom she may or may not know well but has invited to a particular place to paint. Painting is usually a solitary affair. Unless you are a student or at your local sip and paint, painting together is rare. The togetherness provided by the collaboration brings vulnerability and present-ness through conversation and intimacy, says the artist. You can easily lose yourself in the 50 paintings on the wall, examining each picture’s approach in technique, mode of abstraction and color palette. The sheer number of images is dizzying. I would imagine that Baum’s acrylic paintings on canvas in Gallery 7 are informed by the experience of the “come paint with me” paintings. Perhaps even parts of them are redrawn or mimicked on the larger scale canvas. The acrylic paintings seem to have a plan and a strategy, they are sometimes collage like in their divisions or passages and layering of forms and techniques. Decorative borders, become frames within frames, optical tears or openings often revealing a new touch of the brush or a glimpse into another foliate realm. Baum’s work on canvas is joined by the work of Tanya Brodsky. Brodsky’s two works A wide view of a dense forest in British Columbia/Carne mista assortita and A wide view of a dense forest in British Columbia/Fresh raw meat make for an odd pairing. It was quite jarring to have spent nearly an hour with idiosyncratic painted images to then be confronted by giant stock photos printed on salvaged vertical blinds suspended from the ceiling. What an eyesore stock images are in general and especially out of the context of the advertising world. I understand the intentions and conceptual interests of the artist and look forward to seeing more of her work, but I cannot be convinced of the necessity of the work in this particular show.

Plain Air is an exhibition not to be missed and be sure to give yourself enough time to explore the space as it contains a lot of work that demands close looking. The paintings in this show are proof that the immediate world around you can become a revelation if you take the time to look. If you haven’t had a moment to experience the splendor in the everyday or you need a new view you can try stepping into the shoes of the artists on view now through July 17th at Carrie Secrist. 

"PLAIN AIR" Exhibition Info

DateMay 29th- July 17th
Address900 W. Washington, Chicago, IL 60607
HoursTuesday to Saturday 11am – 5pm
Phone312 491 0917