Circle in the Fire

It’s Friday night, and a decidedly eclectic assortment of Chicagoans gather in the evening hours to traverse the Zhou B Art Center, sip beer, and mingle with fellow attendees. They have come to see the work of fellow Chicagoan Linc Thelen, in his show “Adversity.” Their conversations are loud and jovial, as they struggle to be heard over the thumping reggae-techno fusion beats that spill out from the gallery’s adjacent bar and reverberate through the cavernous viewing area.

The space is stark, even industrial, offering cement-clad floors and bare white walls. This minimalist aesthetic complements the drama of the artwork displayed. Massive canvasses swathed in sinister shades of paint punctuate the brightness of the walls, heightening the sense of angst present throughout the exhibition.

Thelen’s works are abstract, relying on thick, ragged brush strokes that interplay with circles of various colors and sizes. Circles hold symbolic significance for Thelen, and they are a unifying theme in the show. In “Adversity,” Thelen attempts to shed the constraints of classical painting in order to access the fundamental essence of art, which he defines as self-exploration. For Thelen, the rudimentary form of a circle epitomizes this endeavor in its simplicity.

Through the circle motif and beyond, the paintings in “Adversity” capture Thelen’s quest for the essence of artistic expression by reimagining classical paintings through the lens of contemporary abstraction. The prominently featured “Raft of the Medusa,” for example, echoes Theodore Géricault’s 1819 painting of the same name, but obscures the details of the scene in order to convey its fundamental spirit. The painting depicts a shipwrecked vessel and its anguished crew, but Thelen forgoes minutiae such as facial expressions or bodily articulations to convey the pain of the sailors. Instead, he displays their struggle through more visceral abstract techniques. Violent brush strokes in shades of red and black convey the agony and frustration of the men still fighting to survive. Sickly tones of bluish white drip languidly down the canvas, harkening the looming specter of mortality and the men who no longer have the will to resist its call.

The works in “Adversity” also provide a window into Thelen’s seemingly tormented psyche. One painting, “Madonna and Child,” suggests a Renaissance era portrait of the Madonna cradling her infant son, but the details are obfuscated by broad, violent strokes of color and streaks of dripping paint, leaving only traces of the woman’s seated form. It is as if the figure has been filtered through Thelen’s soul, emerging as the distorted shadow of her former self.

“Painting,” Thelen writes in his exhibit statement, “forces you to be honest with yourself. It is a pure reflection of who you are and where you are in the present moment. I battle myself, my subconscious, my paints, brushes and the canvas, in an effort to create something that examines the perfectly imperfect adventure of human life.”

While the idea that art need not conform to a traditional aesthetic in order to accomplish its goals is hardly revolutionary, Thelen’s choice to apply abstract techniques to well-known classical paintings emphasizes this idea in a singularly vivid and thought-provoking manner. By applying expressive abstract techniques to canonical works of art such as the “Raft of the Medusa,” Thelen preserves and even heightens the emotion and intensity the originals convey. Thelen is a poet in oil paint. His carefully selected color schemes and bold brushstrokes reach beyond the physical reality of the images, accessing the fervor beneath the form.

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