THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
“Down by Line,” an exhibition of four Chicago-based artists at West Town’s One After 909 gallery, drops its viewers into a twenty-first century reflection on an American cultural moment through figurative drawing. Mixed media works on paper by Tom Torluemke, Tony Davis, and father and son Paul and Jason Lamantia are filled with ornately drawn images that are sometimes dire in narrative and often obsessive in execution.
Curator and owner of One After 909 Stano Grezdo has a keen interest in artists working outside a contemporary art world that has only recently begun to re-embrace figurative work. In the past few years, we have seen the canonization of Kerry James Marshall’s masterful paintings and 2019’s Whitney Biennial showcasing an array of figurative paintings, sculptures, and photographs, often at monumental scale, by many artists, including Jennifer Packer, Nicole Eisenman, and Paul Mpagi Sepuya, to name a few. “Down by Line” offers something distinctly different and distinctly Chicago.
The city’s history appears in the work of these four artists in a variety of ways, but the thread that ties them together is the aesthetics of self-taught outsider artists. Tony Davis’s drawings catch the eye with vibrantly colored scenes of 1970s-era pimps and prostitutes. At first glance, the images led me to believe they were made by a young artist, maybe a teenager. But upon looking more closely, I saw a sophistication in the level of detail of both the scenery and the figures. The faces specifically are emotionally expressive and imbue the images with narrative potency, alluding to power, class, sexuality, and exploitation. The figures in Davis’s work crowd the scene like revelers in a James Ensor painting. But they are handled like comic illustrations. This serves Davis well in his production of images, grim in their subject matter while simultaneously filled with warmth and sentiment; this may be a tough pill to swallow for a contemporary art audience.
Tom Torluemke has images in “Down by Line” that also embrace familiar, even classical figurative motifs fused with techniques from the world of illustration. A staple of Chicago’s public art scene, Torluemke is a prolific maker working in painting, drawing, and printmaking. The pieces included in “Down by Line” are highly political or deeply personal. Central to this exhibition is Torluemke’s Shame from 2019. As if creating a figure study from an academic drawing class, he uses black and white charcoal pencils on paper tinted with a middle ground of blue. But veering from the traditions of the academy, he draws an elaborate scene of old-world public shaming in a contemporary setting. A community of grotesques from across the age spectrum hurl fruits and vegetables at a naked man who is standing on a stump. The man holds himself, looking down in sadness while the townsfolk rage at him or applaud his misery. All of the figures are cartoonish caricatures that seem to exist in an Alfred E. Neuman fever dream.
Shame and another large drawing, Painting the Elephants, share a quality with Davis’s. At first, they appear cartoonish and humorous, but upon closer examination, they portray a grim reality from everyday life. But Torluemke’s work is heavier on metaphor than Davis’s. Also in two colors only, Painting the Elephants depicts a scene where suited men, presumably politicians, paint the bodies of elephants from buckets filled with red. In the background, naked bodies hang from a tree dripping blood into buckets below and provide a medium for these rabid men in suits. Shame is less heavy-handed when it comes to metaphor yet manages to breathe life into what is constantly happening out of sight: the online public shaming that occurs on social media. Instead of alluding to the technology itself, Torluemke provides an image of what this behavior might look like in the physical public square as opposed to the digital one.
The thematic connections among these four artists’ works are uncanny. The convergence of the personal and the political is ever present. Davis harks back to his time on the streets of Chicago, while Torluemke memorializes his political and cultural outrage but also processes personal trauma in a series of pencil drawings that read like storyboards for a film.
Jason Lamantia also engages in figurative introspection with five colorful and obsessively drawn ink and marker pieces that depict the horrors of war, militarism, and the capitalistic fetishization of violence. Lamantia’s images are filled with human-weapon hybrids and explosion-filled battles (as well as a psychedelic version of the Chicago Air and Water Show). The most strikingly stark and personal is Rampage. Like so many Americans, Lamantia grew up watching television and playing video games, both of which have been filled with violence since their invention. Rampage is set in a living room where a once-human figure is bursting open, a bloody mess of biomechanical weapons and gory appendages. This gruesome being walks away from a television as though about to go out into the world, reborn as a violent machine ready to wreak havoc on the society that has transformed it.
Jason’s father Paul, a fringe peer of the Harry Who, has the most abstract pieces in “Down by Line,” including one dating back to 1971 titled Liquid Love and the Geek. But his more recent pieces contain figurative elements that further emphasize the re-emergence of figuration. In Tick-Tock, we see a psychic space that feels like an apocalyptic nightmare version of a political convention. Conversation alludes to the mortifying nature of our social existence, in which personal interactions are buried in coded messages driven by a capitalistic cultism. The wonderfully chaotic Bone Daddy is filled with monsters but somehow feels like a breath of fresh air for its painterly looseness and playful ambiguity.
Metaphor, deceptive humor, the convergence of personal and political narratives, and illustrative techniques: these are all hallmarks of the figurative world of art, which was once dismissed but which seems to be returning with a new edge. Here in the U.S., we live in a contentious cultural and political moment that has been on a slow boil for decades and has finally overflowed. Now we have a mess to clean up. The trouble is that we are the mess. The artists of “Down By Line” are not merely representing this circumstance—they are processing it themselves, creating documents of a conflicted sense of self that feels ever more pervasive in our society.
There is a hideous kind of truth in this work, the kind of truth people tend not to face out of either fear, discomfort, or ambivalence. There should be a greater fear that we face this kind of truth less and less as a collective society. In not facing the horror of our own humanity, we risk sinking deeper into it.
Evan Carter is an assistant editor of the New Art Examiner. He earned his MFA degree in 2017 from the University of Chicago and wrote about documenta 14 in a prior issue of the Examiner.
Tony Davis, Hell Cats (2010). Ink and marker on paper, 16" x 20". Image: One After 909.
Top: Tom Torluemke, Shame, 2019. Graphite, charcoal, and acrylic on paper, 32" x 48". Image: One After 909.
Bottom: Tom Torluemke, Painting the Elephants, 2019. Graphite and watercolor on paper. Image: One After 909.
Jason Lamantia, Rampage, nd. Image: One After 909.
Paul Lamantia, Tick-Tock, nd. Image: One After 909.
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