CHICAGO — “All art,” Federico Fellini once said, “is autobiographical.” One might go a step further and say that all art is an act of self-portraiture. This certainly seems true of many of the work in the exhibition Leopold Segedin: Retrospective at Rare Nest Gallery. Segedin appears in so many of his artworks that he’s developed a handy quip for those who ask him about the phenomena: “I’m a cheap model.” Yet his obsession with, and exploration of the self go far beyond mere expedience.
The show begins with two small self-portraits, establishing self-examination as a theme that the artist develops early, and which deepens in his later years. of them, a pencil sketch from 1944, shows the youthful Segedin confronting us with an expression of wariness and defiance. Above it hangs “Mortality,” another self-portrait — the same size, but utterly different. Here we see the artist in 1998, still still warily looking at us. But now he holds the portrait of his younger self, displaying it to us, while a third self-portrait from his middle years rests on the table beneath a magnifying glass. A small, round mirror, also on the table, reflects an image of an eye from yet another of Segedin’s self-portraits. As such, we, the viewers, continuously inhabit Segedin’s subjectivity at another point in his life. Past and present seem contained in one another, and the continuum of time is present simultaneously, even as the exchange between artist and viewer is transformed into a kind of funhouse mirror of infinite reflexivity.
The images that follow these seem, at first, both disparate and unconnected to the theme of self-examination that the show so boldly announces. We find palette paintings of boxers lounging in poses that indicate great power held in reserve; impressionistic images of Maine’s rough coastal landscape; thick impasto paintings of iconic Jewish figures and themes; and precisely rendered images of Chicago architecture. Due to their framing and careful arrangement of angular details and rectangular planes the latter paintings appear nearly abstract when viewed in a certain way. Nonetheless, they remain thoroughly local in their frame of reference. As the journalist Richard Cahan writes in the introduction to Leopold Segedin: A Habit of Art (published to coincide with the Rare Nest retrospective) “Chicago is in Leo Segedin’s blood. The city’s common brick. Its streetlights. The el. Even its unique color palette.” Segedin himself has said, “my sense of space was established by looking out el windows.” (In this, Chicago has a distinct advantage over subway-bound New York.)
Perhaps the most haunting images from this section of the retrospective come from a series in which Segedin obliquely approaches the event that could not but dominate the imagination of a Jewish artist of his generation: the Holocaust, with its carefully administered, bureaucratically directed massacres. The ink drawing “Compartments I” (1976), for example, consists of three bands of imagery. In the topmost, several abstracted, mangled bodies rest atop two rows of compartments, each holding another pile of mangled flesh. In the lower left, yet another abused, pulverized body seems to rest on the floor, discarded.
As his self-portrait “Sisyphus” (2017) makes clear, Segedin is the sort of artist who, at 91, walks up the stairs to his studio to work every day. One reason for his relative obscurity, after close to 80 years of such diligence, is surely this diversity of subjects and techniques. While the art market thrives on brands and art history on signature styles, and the artist spent much of his career avoiding both. Living in the Midwest didn’t help, of course, nor did teaching for some three decades at an institution — Northeastern Illinois University — better known for serving a blue-collar student body than for its connections with an artistic or social elite.
In the late 1980s, though, a new style emerged in Segedin’s work that seems aptly described as his “mature style,” not only because he has continued to work in this idiom, but because it coalesces all of the themes of his earlier work. These later paintings — often large in scale — bring together all of the elements that, separately, obsessed Segedin at earlier points in his career. Landscapes are no longer of Maine, but of Chicago’s open urban landscapes beneath the broad prairie sky. Violence that lurked in the form of the lounging boxers now appears in groups of people gathered in parks or at the el stop, striking poses that could be playful or animated, but project an unmistakable sense of underlying menace, suggesting that violence could break out at any time.
We need look no further than “Exodus,” (2017) which depicts a group of people rushing past an old Chicago theater, to sense the Jewish and Holocaust themes returning; the combination of title and image indicate a people in peril and open flight. And everywhere in these works are self-portraits. Sometimes Segadin haunts the corner of a painting, wandering away. Sometimes he’s front and center. And often he appears multiple times in the same painting. In “Red Rover III” (2015) he gazes at us in fear as two boys apprehend him, with a long line of impassive Leopold Segedins in the background. The title tells us this is all fun and games, but the image shows real fear in the eyes of the central figure, and an appeal to us for help. The men behind appear entirely indifferent: the artist makes himself complicit in his own victimization.
In his later works, Segedin increasingly paints himself at different ages, and in different guises. Often he appears in the leather helmet and goggles of a mid-century pilot, or in younger form as a flying boy — a kind of play-pilot, sometimes depicted in flight or clutching a toy airplane, wearing a parti-colored suit similar to the silks of a jockey. These figures, like his groupings of pedestrians and commuters, connect the idea of play with the threat of violence, and grow from an imagination nurtured during a wartime childhood. His pilots appear everywhere, even, anachronistically, in “The Battle of Cassina,” a take on Michelangelo’s painting of the same name. Segedin’s version shows warriors from all conflicts together in the picture plane, presenting a dark view of history as an unchanging record of violent slaughter.
Two striking paintings from the mature period dominate the second half of the show. “L Station (Three Ages)” (2002) is an urban landscape containing multiple self portraits: a young Segedin in the center clutching a toy airplane and looking at us guardedly; a mid-life Segedin in the background to the right, launching a toy airplane into the air; and an elderly Segedin, empty-handed, looking at us in from the left. It is an expansion of the themes in “Mortality.”
“Games” (2015) depicts a gritty Chicago landscape, weeds breaking through the parched earth of a despoiled public square. Dozens of groups of people play various street games, many in blindfolds, including an aged Segedin about to stray out of the frame. As always, the games hint at violence, and the blindfolded figures betray an intense vulnerability.
While the image is strikingly classical, it took a long time before the art historical referent swam up from the depths of my memory. The low-slung architecture in the upper tier of the composition, set against the divided squares of the foreground, which play up the single-point perspective, refer ironically to several “Ideal City” paintings of the Italian Renaissance, dating to the 15th century — notably, one housed in Urbino and formerly attributed to Piero della Francesca (and now, variously to Luciano Laurana, Francesco di Giorgio Martini, or Melozzo da Forlì) and to the Fra Carnevale painting displayed in Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum. The juxtaposition of Segedin’s cityscape with these classical, Platonically ideal images works to underline the stark menace the artist holds just barely in check by the idea of play. It would surprise no one to learn that his old neighborhood was one where gangs of Italian and Jewish kids would compete in games that would often spill over into clannish violence.
Segedin’s is an art of self-examination, but a self-examination that has nothing to do with narcissism. The work opens out onto a real, lived, and in many ways a vanished world — but a world whose simmering threat of violence remains disturbingly contemporary. Through the recurrent representation of the artist’s gaze staring out at us the work also opens onto an examination of spectator. The paintings look back at us as much as we look at them.
Leopold Segedin: Retrospective continues at Rare Nest Gallery (3433 North Kedvale Ave., Chicago, Illinois) through October 21.
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