Memory and Meaning: William Dolan and Karen Perl in “Chicago Streets and Ways”

By Emily Rapport


“Chicago Streets and Ways,” on view at Hofheimer Gallery through April 25, forms an eerie visual premonition of the current coronavirus pandemic. The streets and alleys we expect to see bustling are still. Buildings are dormant, windows opaque, as if waiting for the vital spark of human life to restart the city's hum of interconnected pathways.

Both Perl and Dolan are from Chicago. In fact, they each grew up in the same West Rogers Park neighborhood and even attended the same elementary school (although separated by about a decade). They share a Chicagoan’s native pride in their city and find touchstones to their personal history in the mutable but familiar urban landscapes they choose to depict. Although architecture is a primary subject, the urban landscape is not only about buildings. As every artist’s work is to some degree a self-portrait, the architecture of the city spans interior and exterior realms of experience. However, where a painter like Edward Hopper may have painted desolation in the separateness of figures from himself, Karen Perl and William Dolan bring us closer to each other through their meditative renderings of solitude and their present observation of the moment.



William Dolan, Alley with Safe Zone,2019,  ink on paper, 15” x 11″. Photo courtesy of the artist.


William Dolan’s ink drawings of Chicago alleys and side streets have the stillness of the morning of a national holiday—or a cataclysmic event. Alley with Safe Zone betrays some recent activity; shallow puddles intimate that it has rained and a car or two has passed this way. A mattress, still white, is propped up against the ubiquitous blue and black bins that line Chicago’s alleys, and a smattering of golden leaves litter the foreground below a bullet ridden “Safety Zone” sign.

Dolan has an affection for the distinct and incongruous details of his native Chicago surroundings. The particular cobalt blue bins of the maligned Chicago recycling program, a down-at-the-heels apartment building with its enclosed porch abutments (always an indefatigable lite margarine yellow), the warm gray lean of weathered phone poles, and the chaotic jumble of wires above are all depicted with the familiarity of a childhood friend.


William Dolan, Alley with Former Loading Dock, 2019, ink on paper, 15” x 22″. Photo courtesy of the artist.


In Alley with Former Loading Dock, long-limbed shadows stretch across cracked pavement, around cars, and up the sides of buildings as if testing the limits of their dominion. If eyes are the windows to the soul, then windows (and reflections) represent an internal world in art. The lack of lights and scant reflections in the windows of Dolan’s buildings do not reveal the life within. Windows, half-lidded with gray shades or colored in with a sketchy black scribble, seem agitated by their vacancy.



William Dolan, Alley from Across the Isle, ink on paper,  2019, 15” x 11″. Photo courtesy of the artist.


Dolan’s few El track drawings offer a different viewpoint. Alley from Across the Isle contains the viewer in an abstract, compressed space rather than letting us roam the streets at will. Here, surrounded by cold but jaunty cerulean and cobalt blues, we are afforded a view of the city through a porthole-like window. Sedate earth tones and blank windows stare back at us, as if the city has grown up around our single car. We had expected a momentary delay—instead we are entombed inside an incandescent box.



Karen Perl, Touhy, Ridge, & Rogers, 2012, oil on wood, 11” x 14″. Photo by Tom Van Eynde.



In contrast to Dolan’s ink drawings, Karen Perl’s moody, desaturated oil paintings depict the less densely constructed Rogers Park and Bronzeville neighborhoods. Wide, empty streets yawn between buildings, their expanse marked by an occasional car or ghost-like figure or animal. Where Dolan’s line drawings form an indelible imprint of a particular space in time, the quiet in Perl’s paintings has a dream-like sensibility. Perl seems to concentrate on the space between things. Her paintings are sparse in subject and material—areas of paint are scraped off and simplified. She provides just enough information to convey mood and a sense of place. The muted palette is nostalgic, intimate, meditative. Street signs and businesses are left unnamed, as if their specificity is no longer required by the ghost-like figures who drift through them. In Touhy, Ridge, and Rogers, two cars come from opposite directions. The street appears wet, and a red stop signal glows, bouncing light across the pavement. Although the streets are quiet and the buildings boarded up, a chance meeting between these vehicles seems possible. The “decisive moment” has yet to occur.


Karen Perl, Gone (Randolph & Peoria), 2005, oil on wood, 7” x 14″. Photo by the artist.


Perl has spent much of her career painting en plein air, and Gone (Randolph & Peoria) benefits from this experience. The heavier application of paint feels built up and alive (reflective also of the industrial scene she is painting). The industrial corridors and factory buildings at the heart of Chicago, rooted in work, find a sympathetic pursuit through the artist as laborer. Both manufacturers and artists share a similarly uncertain fate as development and economics make these spaces untenable. The sweep of clouds across a blue sky, and an impasto passage of pale pinkish tones over a sea of grey-green asphalt is a benediction, the sublime moment of unlikely beauty painted into existence.



Karen Perl, Landlocked (Clark and Rogers), oil on wood, 2015, 20” x 10″. Photo by the artist.


Landlocked (Clark and Rogers) goes to the opposite extreme. Painted in crisp contrasts, sun-warmed brick emerges against a cold, cloudless sky. Signs and windows are bereft of words or interior details—they need only temperature and tone. The stillness of the scene is subtly activated by morning light nudging the shadow of a neighboring building awake. A budded branch peaks at its coral framed reflection, and a seagull coasts past a faded “No Parking” sign, photo-bombing the day.


Karen Perl, Sight Hound (Ridge & Bryn Mawr), oil on wood, 2015, 60” x 30″. Photo by the artist.


Perl’s control in paring down architectural elements to their essential shape and color, and her strategic removal of paint as a technique, add meaning to the occasional appearance of animals. As humans, we seek out faces, gestures, a tone of voice to understand our position in society and to communicate our needs. Buildings also have faces. Windows are eyes, the door a mouth. Where buildings exist in painted and unpainted states, between simultaneous realms of past and present, the human lifespan renders figures nearly invisible. We are impermanent creatures. In contrast, the things we create, remain—at least for a while. Animals are, in a way, omni-present; for humans, they can represent filial connection and even a spiritual guide. In Homer’s story of Odysseus, only his dog Argos recognizes him when he returns home disguised as a beggar. Upon his master’s return, Argos dies having “fulfilled his destiny of faith”.

Evoking this deep symbolic history, a shy dog gazes at the viewer in Lost as an American flag waves in the distance. Sight Hound shows another dog at a crossroads, looking into the distance as the sun sets, a round moon overhead. As representatives of nature and creatures that have been bred by man, these animals provide a vehicle for our faith and perseverance, signaling our inherent responsibilities as caretaker and archivist in the world.


It’s the simple things that each artist chooses to reflect upon in their portraits of Chicago’s urban landscape. “Chicago Streets and Ways” offers a slowed-down, un-peopled opportunity to revisit what makes and keeps us human. This link to both our own history and a shared cultural history is poignant in our current period of social distancing. When normalcy is turned on its head, memory makes meaning. Our connections to place and community are critical. Our responsibility to care for each other (humans and animals), and to see beauty in the everyday, resonate through the artists’ renderings of familiar Chicago vistas. We are the connectors if we are willing to be engaged.


Emily Rapport studied painting at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York and received her BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2005. In 2018, Emily opened Eat Paint Studio, a working studio and gallery in Chicago.


"Chicago Streets & Ways"

William Dolan & Karen Perl

Hofheimer Gallery (by appointment only through April)

4823 N. Damen Ave., Chicago, IL 60625


Exhibition Continues Through April 25


All work can be viewed on the Hofheimer Gallery website at






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