Recreating Paradise: “South of Eden” at Logsdon 1909 showcases the work of three Kentucky artists

The Pilsen neighborhood sometimes seems like a divine gift to Chicago: full of galleries and a constant supply of fresh, new art. Perhaps this is the artistic “Eden” that the newest exhibit at Logsdon 1909, “South of Eden,” refers to. I’m a little early for my scheduled viewing, so I peer through the glass front of the gallery in the heart of Pilsen’s artiest area. Diane Kahlo, whose work is currently on display at the space, is surprised to see me, and quickly ushers me into the staircase in order to avoid any more surprises: the gallery doubles as a home for the artists, and we wanted to avoid any inadvertent “performance” art.

As the curtain that sections off the main showroom is drawn back, I can see that the artwork extends throughout the space, which is currently occupied by Kahlo and her husband, fellow artist Steve Armstrong. Work from over a dozen Chicago- and Kentucky-based artists covers the walls, even in the kitchen and bedroom. The rooms are brightly colored and diverse–who knew that Kentucky harbored such a vibrant artistic community?

Kahlo and Armstrong, originally from California and Texas, respectively, are aware that Kentucky is the target of many stereotypes. The pieces in their exhibit confront these assumptions head-on: they are not simple examples of folk art, but instead cleverly imagined and executed, expressing a subtle commentary on modern life.

Kahlo’s paintings of 1950s vacation destination postcards show bathing suit-clad women in sunny weather, framed in altar-like hanging shadow boxes. The figures of the women are hand-carved, and pop out like old-fashioned commercial billboards. Their containers can be seen as a display of reverential worship or as cages and boundaries. This series of “Postcard Babes” expertly juxtaposes the saintly and the sexual, and questions the history of that tension in the portrayal of the female form. Referring to a painting in which a smiling woman holds up her skirt, filled with “bountiful fruit,” Kahlo remarks, “I don’t think it’s any accident those oranges are in such a strategic place.”

Armstrong has on display a number of mechanical models which are a delight to see, and even more fun to play with: many have a hand-turned crank that brings the sculpture to life. Whether it is the simple movement of a mouth opening and closing, or the synchronized movements of several figures, each of these wooden wonders is capable of recreating a child-like fascination with the magic of simple mechanics. It is a strange and slightly disconcerting experience to put the work in motion and see your reflection in one of the tiny figures turning his own crank. “Ghosts” is a particularly haunting example. Inspired by the abandoned factories that lie just outside the Loop, bare frames expose the internal machinery of the work. At your touch, ghostly workers can return to life and appear to operate the gears and screws that are actually operating them.

The third artist from Kentucky, Mike Goodlett, has a smaller but equally intense body of work on display. Using paper and cardboard cutouts, cloth and thread, Goodlett creates a chaotic world of ballpoint-pen doodles in “The Visiting Hours,” which evokes memories of childhood arts and crafts. The piece contains a narrative, one of aristocracy and aliens from outer space (among other subjects), but I would encourage the viewer to discover his own story in the scrolls of loose-leaf and construction paper, tightly packed in toppling shelves of cardboard, amongst the beaded pillows and figures with cut-out eyes. Almost every scrap of material has writing on it, even if it is not visible, which creates a sense of mystery and suspicion, as one explores the recesses of what could be the mind of a mad genius, or the cluttered room of a college student.

“South of Eden” is an impressive collection that grows on you as you circle and re-circle the space. The variety and depth of the works shown is only complemented by the consistency in skill of each artist at his or her own craft. This is not an exhibit that screams “contemporary,” but as Armstrong deftly puts it, “Cutting edge is always closer to passé than we realize.” These artists aim for something more eternal. By relying on the traditional values of form, color, and composition, and then adapting these rules to their own ideas, messages, and personalities, a new garden of art is cultivated, one with the potential to grow and change with humanity over time.

“South of Eden: 3 Kentucky Artists,” Logsdon 1909 Gallery, 1909 S. Halsted St. Through June 17. Saturday, 12-5pm, or by appointment. www.logsdon1909.com.