Water Street Studios in Batavia, Illinois (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

CHICAGO — I recently visited an exhibition at Water Street Studios in Batavia, about 40 miles West from the center of Chicago — the equivalent, say, of driving halfway across Long Island from Hyperallergic’s Brooklyn office. In other words, a little off the beaten path.

What I found when I got there was a thriving community of a couple dozen artists who work in a renovated limestone building close to the banks of the Fox River. The gallery on the first floor seems to display the usual eclectic mix of crafts, jewelry, and locally themed art that you often find in small towns, but currently it is also hosting a strong show of paintings and mixed media work by four artists, organized by artist-curator Rita Grendze.

Installation view

“There was a fashion show here just before we installed the paintings, so the title of the show [Avenue and Passage] actually relates more to that,” Grendze explains. “But I interpreted it in the sense of 2D work that suggests rites of passage through our country and culture, things that we might perceive in our peripheral vision as we travel, fragments of pop culture, or the bits and pieces you find in old drawers.”

Steve Banks, “Domain,” oil on canvas with carved frame

The pieces by three of the artists (Steve Banks, Lisa Limas, and Dawn Tutt) fit Grendze’s description most closely. Their work consists of fragments of images, gathered from personal or public sources, that are painted onto wood, placed inside boxes, or incorporate carved wood, a coincidence of material that carries associations of the homemade or the discarded object, as well as folk art and the found object. Tutt’s door panel works are the slightest pieces in the show. Limas’s “Winding Roar” is a collection of things related to birds and seeds and flowers placed inside a shadow box à la Joseph Cornell. Banks’s oil paintings inside carved wooden frames are striking pieces that are the clearest fulfillment of the curator’s intention. “Domain,” for example, is packed with references to small town maps, road signs, fast food, Mississippi river boats, dime store slogans, and more, depicted in comic book style imagery and encased in an ornately carved frame that continues the trash-culture theme. They’re kind of ugly, but in a good way.

Jen Evans, “I Wish I Could Still Breathe Underwater,” mixed media on panel

The mixed media paintings by Jen Evans are related to the other works in the show in the sense that her work is kind of a collage of mark making. Also, she titles her paintings with phrases drawn from the dialogue in her favorite Wes Anderson films. Using acrylic, oil, automobile paint, powdered graphite, resin, and other stuff, she builds up the surfaces of her paintings using overlapping circular shapes that billow all over the canvas before being temporarily engulfed in poured paint. She repeats this process again and again, sometimes taking up to a year to complete a set of works, resulting in an engrossing tension between suggestions of seascapes or flora, and an abstractionist’s interest in the patterning of one mark or shape next to another. Their sophistication rewards careful looking, and these pictures alone made the long drive out of Chicago worthwhile.

Lisa Limas, “Winding Roar,” box, glass, seeds, collage

On-som’bel 2014: Avenue and Passage continues at Water Street Studios, 160 South Water Street, Batavia, Illinois, through November 1st 2014.

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Philip A Hartigan

Philip Hartigan is a UK-born artist and writer who now lives, works and teaches in Chicago. He also writes occasionally for Time Out-Chicago. Personal narratives (his own, other peoples', and invented)...