It isn't often a painting makes you want to bounce against it. Or crawl under it, swing it over your shoulder, parade around with it, hug and squeeze it tight, or lay your head to rest on it.
This isn't akin to wanting to enter the seamy, tinted world of a Toulouse-Lautrec cabaret, or feeling haunted by the stunning, lonely expanse of a Caspar David Friedrich mountaintop. It has nothing to do with the representation of places and persons or the evocation of feelings, to name just a few of the things that painting has been very good at doing for at least the past millennium or so.
For the latter experience, it suffices to walk through the elegant halls of the Art Institute's permanent collection, where paintings more or less behave as expected, and mostly agree to do so from the confines of heavy frames hung vertically from neutral walls.
For the former escapade, saunter a few blocks north of the Art Institute, then cross
Ashley is ostensibly a painter. She's taught in the painting and drawing department of the
To explain: Like any proper painter, Ashley does indeed affix pigment to canvas. That her pigment is sprayed on and day-glo is no great shakes; urban graffiti infiltrated the world of fine art in the 1980s and never really left. That her canvas is tarpaulin alternately coated with PVC or plastic is neither here nor there; artists paint on what's serviceable to them, be it printed bed sheets or wooden boards. That the finished works plug into the wall and inflate into ceiling-scraping figures resembling most closely a giant cow, a floppy star, a beached whale and a Totoro (an enormous rabbit-eared troll who stars in one of the most popular Japanimes of all time) is, however, unusual. That one of these, the bovine "RUD," also gets to leave the gallery and hoof it up in a verdant pasture to the honky-tonk tune of Alan Jackson's "Good Time" is nothing short of awesome. It's quite possible that no painting has ever had more fun. Certainly none have ever gotten so much fresh country air.
If you enter the galleries from Randolph Street, on the Cultural Center's north side, "RUD" and a monitor playing her plein-air line dance will greet you. In that video, 12 scruffy human sidekicks stick the upper parts of their bodies into 12 teats hollowed into "RUD's" underside, becoming the legs in a twangy cancan as hilarious as it is uncoordinated.
Having enjoyed this lighthearted absurdity first, you will be forgiven for thinking that "frizzflopsqueezepop" is going to be a crazy house party of a show, a raucous good time where painting, at long last, gets to have a
But don't be fooled by the frenzied colors, catchy soundtrack and cheery playfulness.
Enter "frizzflopsqueezepop" from the Cultural Center's Washington Street doors, and Ashley's pumped-up paintings begin to show signs of collapse and fatigue only hinted at by their weird, cruel monikers: "limes and bricks suck pink you tasteless hunk" and "another tasteless hunk" are so bloated and formless they can barely wedge into the space between ceiling, floor and wall. They're impassable, immovable and indistinguishable from one another. "Thing three (neon fever)," a kind of subhuman with arms, legs, chunky elephantine ears and a robotic face, slumps pathetically in a corner. A series of small, stuffed scraps tied to wooden stakes, left on the floor and jammed into a hole in the wall, seem to warn, like body parts left to rot on the enemy's fence posts or from a tree in the public square, of dangers lurking out there.
Poor painting. Just when it seemed like it was finally going to cut loose, dance a jig and breathe some fresh air, in sputters the slow death the medium's been suffering since at least 1921. In that fateful year the constructivist artist Aleksandr Rodchenko showed a triptych of rectangular monochromes in Moscow, later recalling: "I reduced painting to its logical conclusion and exhibited three canvases: red, blue and yellow. I affirmed: It's all over."
"Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962," which opens on Saturday at the Museum of Contemporary Art, promises to fill in some of the rest of this history.
Meanwhile, at the Cultural Center, Claire Ashley and her inflated, psychedelic partygoers confirm: The party's over before it has barely even begun.
"Claire Ashley: frizzflopsqueezepop" runs through March 31 at the
Lori Waxman is a special contributor to the Tribune and an instructor at the School of the Art Institute.