Catching MONO

Courtesy of the Peregrine Program

A sign hangs out over the intersection of Cermak and Lumber, declaring “Self Storage Now Open!” Underneath, a man hops out of a U-Haul with a box and wades through the snow toward the old Thompson & Taylor Spice Warehouse. While he and countless others have brought their things to this storage facility to get them out of their sights, a room up on the seventh floor seeks to do the exact opposite.

That room is host to Peregrine Program, a project of the Singaporean artist and School of the Art Institute instructor Edmund Chia. The name isn’t meant to invoke the bird, Chia explains, but rather an emotion: “The experience of art is peregrine: I like the idea of the fleeting moment when people realize something is art.” Since opening in 2009, the Peregrine Program has hosted such Chicago luminaries as Susanna Coffey and Michelle Grabner. Though regular viewing is by appointment, Chia is holding public openings for all of his shows, during which anyone is free to stop in, grab something to drink, and discuss the art with the artists themselves.

While the smell of spices is long gone from the gallery, the worn floorboards and rough-cut timber spans across the ceiling of the 20 by 30 foot room still hark back to the building’s industrial heritage. Through the open windows, a drawbridge over the Chicago River gives way to the snow-covered roofs and spires of Chinatown. Sitting directly opposite the windows is quite a different scene.

A large canvas rests casually on the floor in the corner. In the center,  a Caribbean paradise is depicted: a man and woman in swimwear stand on a beach amongst a collection of beach furniture. The sky behind them is set afire by the evening sun. Surrounding this idyllic scene are what appear to be the walls and floor of an artist’s studio, with a paint palate and water bottle visible in the corner. This is the gallery’s latest show, a John Riepenhoff piece entitled MONO. Bringing in the Milwaukee—based artist marks the first time Chia has gone outside the confines of the Chicago art scene.

The painting is a pleasant relief, at least metaphorically, from the cold outside. But Riepenhoff set out with larger goals than merely reproducing a glimpse of paradise. As he puts it, “I wanted to make a painting that sat in its own shadow.” He meant this quite literally: hidden behind the painting, fluorescent tubes emanate a sterile light. The deepest corners of the room are filled with the dilute glow, but the canvas remains dark.

The beach scene is based off a painting from Haiti, bought by filmmaker Xav Leplea during his trip to support local artists following the earthquake last year. Riepenhoff came across the painting in an auction at his own Green Gallery in Milwaukee, a gallery he opened as an undergrad at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. After purchasing the piece, Riepenhoff set off on an ambitious plan: he would repaint it on a larger scale and in the pointillist style evocative of Georges Seurat, enlisting the help of seven friends along the way.

Somewhere in that complex web of ownership and authorship, the painting becomes about more than just the image. This is exactly as Riepenhoff intended: “I try to evade subject matter in a way… my tendency is to consider the structures and framework that surround an art piece rather than the art piece itself.” Though it may sound convoluted and abstract, Riepenhoff is speaking quite literally. As he explains, “the painting is a funny art piece because it relies on so many support systems: of the wall, of a gallery, of a community.” And there his painting sits, obscured in shadows, as evasive as anything in plain sight can be.

Peregrine Program, 500 W Cermak Rd #727. Through February 26. Viewing by appointment.