The New Chicago Imagist

John Henley courtesy of Slow

A conversation with Paul Hopkin about the Chicago art and gallery scene can sometimes sound like locavore prattle. The words he uses would fit in any conversation about food sustainability: organic, local, slow. But the former School of the Art Institute professor is more comfortable in the studio than  the kitchen, and is an artist and curator in love with the Chicago way.

“In LA and New York, when people try to get attention, they have it in their head that they have to do this to get famous,” he says. Rolling his eyes and fluttering his hands, Hopkin dismisses the huge commercial galleries filled with high-strung conceptual art that he claims dominate the bi-coastal art scene. What Chicago has, he says, is a cultivated authenticity. And that requires a gradual simmer.

Hopkin says that someone who’s been doing something for a long time develops a special complexity. His exhibition space (and apartment), fittingly named Slow, stands on 21st Street. Its intention: to defend what he calls “normal” local artists–the people who are happy to do what they love without concern for fame.

John Henley is one such artist: a Chicago painter, professor at the School of the Art Institute, and an old friend of Hopkin’s. Henley is very much aligned with the Chicago Imagists, a ’60s representational art movement that isolated itself from the influences of the concurrent New York scene. His is the first-ever solo exhibit in Slow’s two-year history, though Hopkin swore never to promote a show with just one artist. The change of heart may mean that Hopkin has found in Henley a timely response to a movement that has perhaps been overlooked by a younger generation of local artists.

Henley’s work is influenced by the Hairy Who, a subset of the Imagists who were based in the School of the Art Institute and the Hyde Park Art Center. His work especially invokes the paintings of Karl Wirsum. Both he and Wirsum use cartoon-like figures in explicit depictions, often recalling the scatological absurdity of “Ren & Stimpy.”

Historical progression is important for Hopkin, and it may be what made him decide on a Henley-only show. The exhibit consists of two flipbooks, three large posters made of spliced paintings, and around a dozen other smaller drawings and paintings.

Henley’s paintings visibly emphasize the additive and subtractive process he undertakes to achieve a distinct pixelation. He starts with drawings on several sheets of paper that he then divides into squares or rectangles the size of a standard piece of paper. After he arranges the new picture, he puts it all together with strips of electrical tape. On this new surface, he is able to add more illustrations, prints, and sketches. By layering and manipulating his sketches, Henley creates an ordered chaos made up of raw pencil drawings, stamped prints, and heavy paint strokes. The success of his work relies on this transparency in medium and technique.

All of the pieces contain easily recognizable forms–fish, boys, trees, a man’s face–but  the stratification creates a compelling modern narrative. Take “Tsunami,” one of the larger pieces. Recurring motifs of technological diagrams, à la IKEA assembly instructions, are intermixed with censored sketches of naked men and women flipping the viewer off. Black prints of fir trees sit on top of the scene, suggesting that no matter how advanced the technology mankind creates, society retains an irrepressible urge to return to primitive disorder. The resulting paintings manage to be both disturbing and lighthearted.

Hopkin will continue to showcase the works of friends and of under-represented artists, and he doesn’t plan to move or expand. The showings are free and officially open to the public on Saturdays from noon to five, but Hopkin lets people in whenever he’s home–he is the space’s sole curator, publicist, and promoter. It’s all homegrown.

Slow, 2153 W. 21st St. Through October 29. Saturdays, noon-5pm. (773)645-8803