Corbett vs. Dempsey gallery, a member of the sprawling West Town Gallery Network (which also includes 65GRAND and Roots and Culture) is focused on promoting the paintings, work on paper, and “uncommon objects” of mid-20th century art, chiefly focused on Chicago’s art production from the 1940’s to the 1970’s.
Their current exhibition, just about midway through its run, is a prime example of their gallery’s scope, with the main show, "Frank Vavruska: The Horizon is a Circle, Paintings 1942-1956" and the companion exhibition 'Nineteen Sixty-Six" creating a chronologically correct, and contentedly jarring combination. The mid-century paintings and prints by Chicago transplant Frank Vavruska represent the first one-person exhibition given him in forty years, which merits a visit in itself-- but since the reproductions of his paintings in the lavish eighty page exhibition catalog don’t do their heavy impasto surfaces justice, seeing them in person is a must.
Born into a Czech family in Wisconsin, Vavruska relocated to Chicago to attend The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1938, graduating with a BFA in 1941. As a Ryerson traveling fellowship recipient, he visited Mexico after graduation, and the effects of social realists and magical realists, which Corbett identifies as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, exert a recognizable influence over the content and color palette of his work from that period (1941-42, and 1945-6, when he again traveled to Mexico on a fellowship). He would go on to secure a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1945, and, ever on the go, the restless Vavruska would travel everywhere from the Yucatan Peninsula, to Europe, where he lived for six years, and from where he visited and lived in North Africa, Italy, Paris, London and eventually New York.
The show is comprised of scores of work that, to his credit, read more like a group show, for their variation in style, then a retrospective. The three main types of work shown can be broken down into the period of the early 1940’s, when Vavruska’s Latin American experiences come to the fore, influencing the subject matter he depicted (Untitled, Mexican Scene, 1942). In his second period, the mid to late 1940’s, children’s art and the art of the insane, which similarly inspired other European Modernists such as Joan Miró and Paul Klee, are felt in the flat pictorial spaces inscribed by dark outlines, not unlike stained glass, and the portrait busts cloaked in a patchwork of decorative patterning (Untitled, figure with light bulb, 1944). His late 1940’s to early and mid 1950’s work, which take on the characteristics of more purely geometric abstractions, are painted in a somber palette of ochre’s, umbers and auburns, sometimes laced with ribbons of yolky yellow and patches of peach lying under scumbled slices of titanium white (Moon Venus, 1951). Interestingly, even as his imagery became increasingly abstract, Vavruska’s titles grew exceedingly poetic and mythical (Horoscope for a Carnation, 1949, and Venus Reborn II, 1955). These later paintings found an audience in an abundance of shows, including one held at the Metropolitan in 1950, and one at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from 1957. Sadly, at only 56, in 1974, Vavruska died.
Although mutually exclusive from the Vavruska exhibition, Corbett vs. Dempsey’s trifecta of signature paintings by three Chicago artists is grouped thematically by the date nineteen sixty-six, the title of the exhibition and the year each painting in the show is dated. A large, realistically rendered Jack Beal, a small but exquisitely wonky Jim Nutt, and a sketchy, haunting Seymour Rosofsky, make for a memorable start, or finish, to the Vavruska show.
Corbett vs. Dempsey. Photo courtesy of the gallery
Four years strong as of September 2008, Corbett vs. Dempsey, run with TLC by John and Jim, will undoubtedly come to be thought of as the gallery that ushered in a renaissance of interest in and support for the art and artists of Chicago.
(Inset photo: Frank Vavruska, Untitled, 1949, oil on canvas, 25" x 19")