Installation view of the Wilder Buck show at Zolla-Liberman (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

CHICAGO — I had a strong urge to see some painting last weekend, so I decided to see what was showing at some of the commercial gallery spaces in the River North area of Chicago. With the El tracks running overhead, and the solid red-brick ex-industrial buildings, this district is similar in look and feel to Chelsea in New York City, but with fewer people on the streets, of course. There are about a dozen galleries clustered on the east-west streets branching off from North Franklin Street, about a mile due west of the John Hancock tower, specializing in everything from 20th C. masters to emerging international and American artists. I found three shows that fulfilled what I set out to see.

Glen Wexler, “Night Lights” (nd), photo on acrylic panel

Zolla-Lieberman has a three-person show (through August 25) of works that employ a wide variety of approaches to abstract mark-making: Glen Wexler’s installation of trippy photos of blurred lights taken from night trains, Dan Mills’s paintings of squares of paint on top of maps and Wilder Buck’s overlaid multi-colored scribbles.

I found Buck’s pictures to be the most absorbing. Most of the works are on paper, with a few acrylic or oil on canvas. Stylistically, they alternate between geometric shapes that interlock like parts of a jigsaw, and then swirling loops that are reminiscent of the gestures of Jackson Pollock or Cy Twombly. He may still be developing his visual language, but what each of his pictures had in common was a fine touch, a play with contrasts of colors and an all-over energy that fills the picture surface right up to the edges.

Martina Nehrling, “Rabble and Rant” (2012), acrylic on canvas

Zg Gallery (pronounced Zee-Gee, not Zug or Zig, as the gallery’s co-owner Meg Sheehy told me) is hosting a 10th anniversary summer show, running until September 1, comprising an eclectic set of paintings. Martina Nehrling makes bright impasto acrylic paintings of concentric circles, that mesmerize you with their vibrancy and hypnotic patterns.

Molly Briggs, “Painted-Way-US-45-#1” (2012), flashe tempera and acrylic on panel

Gregory Jacobsen, “Oozing Embankment” (2009), oil on panel (click to enlarge)

There is a weird painting by Gregory Jacobsen, “Oozing Embankment” (2009), that looks like a pile of fruit, olives and the insides of things, heaped against a grey sky and painted with a hyper-realist attention to the surface. The effect is like looking at a mountain of shiny and repulsive jello beans. There is a similarly whimsical air to Amy Casey’s etchings of houses on stilts.

But then the mood switches again to the rhythms of abstract art with a painter like Molly Briggs, whose “Painted Way (US 45 #1)” was the best thing in this show to my eye: a beautiful and simple combination of two marks on a gray background, painted in a loose application of flashe, acrylic and tempera.

Installation view of Marco Casentini at Roy Boyd Gallery.

Over at Roy Boyd Gallery, Italian painter Marco Casentini’s paintings are in the vein of classic geometric abstraction: squares upon squares, some large and some small, combined with squares of colored Perspex. Sometimes the balance is weighted towards larger forms, sometimes smaller. The color palette of some leans towards hues of one color (red, or variations of Klein blue), and in others there are lots of pastel colors jostling against each other.

Marco Casentini, “Swimming-Pool” (2011), acrylic and perspex on canvas

The titles provide clues to the paintings’ specific inspiration: “Landscape in Red,” “Swimming Pool” and “Night in Blue.” Mostly I was just reminded about the apparently inexhaustible capacity of grid patterns to produce analogues for states of feeling, sensuous response and a state of completeness and calm.

This part of the Chicago art world, believe it or not, tends to be overlooked sometimes due to the vibrancy of the not-for-profit spaces, and the real originality of programming shown by the big museum spaces here. But overall, I was pleased to see that these galleries were serious about including painters in their stable, and that the painting on show was varied, never less than interesting and occasionally very good indeed.

A three-person show featuring the work of Wilder Buck, Dan Mills and Glenn Wexler continues at Zolla-Lieberman (325 West Huron, River North, Chicago) until August 25.

Zg Gallery‘s (300 West Superior Street, River North, Chicago) 10th Anniversary Summer Group Show continues until September 1.

Marco Casentini: New Work at Roy Boyd Gallery (739 North Wells Street, River North, Chicago) continues until September 1.

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)...