Obsession and Compulsion

photo by Jon Brozdowski

photo by Jon Brozdowski

Nat Soti’s Instagram photos have never before been presented in printed form. “I did it for like three months, and then for whatever reason, I just stopped doing it,” he tells me, squinting at the charming 144-photo display across the room. It’s easy to imagine him experimenting with photo filter apps on his iPhone, dressed as he is with large glasses and a calm grey scarf over a simple suit.

“Lost interest?” I ask.

He switches to that higher pitched, defensive voice out of reflex: “Not that I lost–yeah, yeah, I lost interest.” Most artists on display don’t come back down to earth quite so quickly. “I think real life…started to come back.”

He has, along with five other artists, come for an “Obsessive Compulsive Drive,” a new exhibition at the Chicago Art Department that explores “the question of what drives the artist to create.” With Lauren Feece’s 50 painted bamboo panels, Chuck Przybyl’s 1000 ambiguous photographs, Nat Soti’s 144 Instagram photos, and Edyta Stepien’s mad paper and ink drawings, it’s easy to see that the line between artistic focus and mania runs thin.

On opening night the gallery space feels open and cellular, with guests circling around the walls like a dynamic membrane surrounding a core of artists and their friends. But unlike most exhibitions, these artists aren’t quite as noticeable as nuclei. So I saunter over to Lauren Feece’s exhibition of bad Puerto Rico days.

Apparently, Feece felt quite lonely on the island after living in a city, so she collected pieces of bamboo that washed up on shore and started painting the faces of friends. They have expressions like those of people you would see on the street, multi-racial faces looking unfocused, slightly above the natural line of sight. I’m perplexed.

“Do you think these like good company?” I ask a shorter lady in yellow.

photo by Jon Brozdowski

photo by Jon Brozdowski

“Well to me that’s happy, with the bright colors.” She refers to the variegated halos on half of them. “There’s a real balance between the face, its expression, and the focus of energy they have.” Satisfied, I turn to Przybyl’s “Random Life Images.” One photograph catches my attention–a two-year-old just tall enough to see over a table eyes the last piece of sushi and the trainer chopsticks that would help her eat it.

Chuck Przybyl, a father, likes to keep a camera in his pocket. He takes nice photos, to be sure, of tree branches, a corndog, street signs, Mickey Mouse, cars, or anything ambiguous, laid bare without context. Taken together, the photographs offer “a direct line into [his] psyche, personality, history, sense of humor, and passions,” nicely displayed. Personally averse to such amalgamation, I ask a kinder looking guest what she thinks.

“Oh I like it,” she smiles, tipsy and friendly. “He shows his life. Our life is like nothingness, you know?” True enough, but I find the work of Przybyl’s wife, Edyta Stepien, more interesting.

Stepien usually creates video installations, but also enjoys working with a calligraphy pen and large sheets of paper. She explores line and shape, with exploding large wisps coming off a heart-shaped center, or meticulous meandering fingerprints around a circle. I gaze on with a new friend, Dustin. We treat the ink and paper like Rorschach tests, seeing a rose bouquet, a man riding a six-legged horse, planetary movement, and jumping dolphins in a rainstorm. We agree she’s “real crafty.”

I chat with her. She is young and lighthearted, with short brown hair and an accent I can’t place.

“It’s really a very free process. I don’t think about it conceptually. It’s about the drive, what makes you create.…There is this ingrained composition, so I don’t think about it. I kind of don’t want to say it on tape, but it is very relaxing and meditative.” She laughs lightly.

“Why wouldn’t you want to say that on tape?”

“Because I don’t want to sound pretentious, like I’m meditating!” So I tell her she’s describing the psychological phenomenon called “flow,” and that she doesn’t have to be embarrassed. In this mental state, artists can get completely absorbed in their task, happily productive and totally focused. Otherwise, there would only be obsessive-compulsive disorder, not an “obsessive compulsive drive.”

Chicago Art Department, 1932 S. Halsted #100. Through February 15. Closing reception February 15, 6pm-9pm. Hours by appointment. (312)725-4223. chicagoartdepartment.org