Training Grounds

Pablo Picasso once said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” The real challenge for an artist, he seemed to say, is not necessarily painting like a master, but finding a truly expressive and honest style in  one’s medium. Picasso ended up finding his place far away from his Renaissance-level technique in a different realm of abstraction. “Pushing Boundaries” and “Ground Floor,” the two student art exhibitions currently running at the Hyde Park Arts Center (HPAC), are living examples of Picasso’s problem.

“Ground Floor,” true to its name, currently occupies the first floor of HPAC, but walking into the show doesn’t feel like walking into a gallery. The show is a collection of diverse works rather than a focused exhibition. Your eyes wander the room and you see an array of works in paint, photography, sculpture, and television installation. On your left the work is happy and on your right it’s morose, and there’s nothing definite to feel except curiosity.

The first paintings you see are by Adam Grosse, a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His painting entitled “Play Thing” is an abstract image of a cup; its dark center draws you in as you try and make sense of the broad strokes of the geometric figures that make up the foreground. This combination of the large, fairly concrete image of a cup and the abstractions that fill the rest of the painting make the experience slightly disorienting. The soft pink and white background has a surreal, dreamlike quality that contrasts with the sharp central figure, and this effect of uncertainty is characteristic of the show as a whole.

Other paintings by Jesse Mot, a Northwestern student, depict a series of forest animals. It’s silly imagery, and the animal shapes could have been taken from coloring books. The colors are bright and fill the borders almost like watercolors. On first glance the work could be called cute, but the animals stare directly back at the viewer, daring you to call them sweet and fuzzy. The paintings become dialogues with the animals, who seemingly ask us to take them seriously.

Upstairs in the “Pushing Boundaries” exhibition, the work gives off similar movement, but to a greater degree and from a different place. The artists come from a variety of backgrounds, from the best art schools in the country to muralists with the Chicago Public Art Group. They all enrolled in a class at HPAC to explore large format canvases, and the paintings on view are the products of their studies.

These paintings are about process, and when you look at them you can feel the movement of the painters across the canvases; there seems to be limitless space on these surfaces. The works by Barbette Loevy are particularly striking–her expressive, abstract surfaces are covered in layers of blue, green, and violet. The colors don’t vibrate off each other–they blend, moving your eye gracefully over the painting as a whole. It brings serenity out of its own disarray. You feel something specific, and you think it is what the artist must have felt, but it’s hard to give it a name.

“Pushing Boundaries” has a powerful sense of experimentation and discovery. Next to many of the paintings is a paragraph about the painting and what it was like to work on large canvases. Student artist Jam Lindell wrote, “Painting with a large canvas offers a greater sense of freedom,” and most of the artists’ statements included a similar sentiment. You can feel this sense freedom when standing in front of the paintings. The works are the representation of a process, defined by nothing but their lack of fixed boundaries.

The artists in “Ground Floor” and “Pushing Boundaries” are still developing and learning, and maybe have yet to find their niche. But it’s a beautiful thing to witness. On the whole the pieces in the show are raw, genuine, and unafraid, and many can throw you into places that more professional work might have polished away.

5020 S. Cornell Ave. “Ground Floor” runs through October 31; “Pushing Boundaries” runs through January 23. Monday-Thursday, 9am-8pm; Friday-Saturday, 9am-5pm; Sunday, noon-5pm. (773)324-5520.