Artistic Symbiosis

Every second Friday of the month, Pilsen art galleries keep their doors open till 10, but the balmy, tinged-with-summer air of the most recent Second Friday created an especially jaunty and convivial atmosphere. Art enthusiasts roamed Halsted with bottles of craft beer and cups of sangria, some lounging near doorways, either barefoot or in heels, smoking cigarettes and chatting. At the opening of “Natural Selection,” the new exhibition at Black Cloud Gallery, guests swayed to a live DJ’s mix of vaguely 80s, vaguely disco-esque tunes.

“Natural Selection” features four artists: Jessica Hogberg, Kristen Maniscalco, Grace Scott, and Mark Yee. Although their respective styles vary in medium, texture, and style, all of their works explore ecological themes–a premise powerful enough to make the vibe of the show feel cohesive. Acrylic paintings, ink drawings, and ceramic sculptures create pieces of hazy abstraction and lustrous realism, yet all the works come together under a unifying palette.

The plain white walls and wood floors of the gallery allow colors to shine through the distraction of the evening’s bumping mash-ups and crowd. Shadowy greys, ranging from metallic to clay, merged viscously with feathery greens and blues. Cool shades are so prominent in the works that brighter colors, when they do emerge, are striking. The parallel themes and colors of the artists’ oeuvre are so arresting that it takes a good deal of examination to get to know the character of the individual work of each, to be able to distinguish each artist from another, and to start to understand their distinct purposes and goals.

Hogberg, a young, pretty, tall, and down-to-earth brunette, is concerned with systems–how harmonious, self-contained orders form from the interactions of tiny individual organisms, how even the most minute creature can retain its own unique qualities, but almost become an environment or a landscape when part of a group. This concept of the aggregative clockwork of autonomous living things can be seen throughout her work, in the repetition of donut/bacteria-like shapes in cool greys and teal-greens, each distinctive but contributing to an elegant whole when perusing through her paintings.

Maniscalco is responsible for the exhibition’s intriguing, lifelike, and oft-cryptic ceramic sculptures. She displays bulbous spheres arranged in herd-like formations and a grotesquely realistic and fascinating snake whose head is devouring a human heart and whose body is cut into sections that become maze-like tunnels for mice. Although Maniscalco’s work is perhaps the most impenetrable of the exhibit’s abstract collection, the theme of environmentalism offers a helpful entryway into understanding her pieces. “My work is a reaction to our exponential population increase, and communicates the importance of respectful forethought regarding our natural resources,” she writes in her introduction to her contribution to “Natural Selection.” With this lens, spheres become symbols of subjugated womankind in “Dwindling Matriarchy.” The snake and mice become, perhaps, an emblem of the cyclical and balanced relationships in nature, even between predator and prey.

Scott’s work represents the most diverse and versatile use of media and style of the four artists, with pieces displaying an expertise in both tattoo-style inkings of whales and in glossily surrealistic oil paintings featuring icy landscapes and falling blackbirds. In her introduction to Natural Selection, Scott discusses “integrating the ‘myth’ ” into her work, allowing her to “juxtapose it with the harsh realities of the modern world.” The presence of myth becomes obvious in pieces like “Eden,” an ink print of a female bodied, raven-headed, satyr-footed creature clutching the infamous apple in its beak, a take on the Paradise Lost myth that makes the viewer question the relationship of man and beast and the spiraling after-effects of human nature on nature in general.

Finally, Mark Yee is a stylish and polished ex-financier who makes larger-than-life, cloudy, abstract paintings in mixtures of acrylics, chalk, and oils. His hilly, three-dimensional pieces are reminiscent of landscapes. Like Hogberg, his inspiration comes from the synthesis of “energy and rest, peace and strife, yin and yang.” These notions can coexist “simultaneously in natural phenomena,” he writes on Black Cloud’s website. Simultaneity is visible in works like “Piece 57,” where primordial mists are at the same time flat and highly textured, colorful, and cool–as if each painting coincidentally captures an instant and eon within the borders of its canvas.

Black Cloud Gallery, 1909 S. Halsted St. Through May 30. Monday ,10am-3pm; Wednesday, 11am-6pm. Free. (773) 678 3950.