Powers of Perception
Christopher Miles ’90 examines the visual impact
of works by faculty of the School of Art.
Miles Bair guides students through the Faculty Exhibition, which was used as a teaching
Essay by Christopher Miles ’90, Introduction by Tim Obermiller
|Christopher Miles '90
Artists like to explore perspective — how looking at something from a different angle
or medium can lead the viewer into an entirely different relationship with that object.
This fall’s Faculty Biennial Exhibition at Illinois Wesleyan’s School of Art yielded
a similar shift of perspective, as students accustomed to having their work evaluated
by professors were invited to take a close and critical look at those same professors’
own creative endeavors.
Miles Bair, director of the School of Art, says that the tradition of showing works
by art faculty every other year began more than three decades ago. The shows — including
this year’s exhibit at the University’s Merwin and Wakeley Galleries — are open to
the public. But they are “really more for the students than for anyone else,” says
“Because they study with us, we like to let them know that we’re making work and we’re
struggling right along with them and having a lot of the same problems and concerns
that they’re dealing with,” Bair adds. “So I think it makes us more of a community
of learners together when they see our work, and know what our aesthetic concerns
and issues are.”
This year’s show added another layer to this sharing process. Art critic Christopher
Miles reviewed the exhibit, which included work by many of the same professors who
taught him when he was a School of Art student from 1986 to 1988. Now an associate
professor of art theory and criticism at California State University, Long Beach,
Miles received the 2004 Penny McCall Award for his work as a writer/curator, and presently
writes for Artforum, Art in America, Flash Art, Flaunt, Frieze, and the Los Angeles Times.
Miles’ review, which begins below, reflects a keen appreciation for the kind of personal
creative vision that Bair says the School of Art has long encouraged. “We let them
do their own thing,” Bair says of the art faculty’s attitude toward its students.
“We just help them to do it better.” — Tim Obermiller, Editor
I count many experiences in different places, and a long list of individuals I’ve
been fortunate to have as mentors, as having been formative, but among the most significant
coalescences of circumstances and personalities are the two years I spent as a student
at Illinois Wesleyan University from 1986 to 1988.
I still remember my favorite seat in the periodicals section of the old Sheean Library,
where I grazed art magazines cover to cover; I was often the last out the door at
closing time, like a barfly lingering after last call until the lights went out. I
wanted to know as much as I could about what was happening in the world of contemporary
art, but I also found much of what I saw in those pages lacking. Having grown up in
Southern California, and fond of a handful of oddballs who had helped define the Los
Angeles art scene of the ’60s and ’70s, I found a lot of what was fashionable in the
art of the 1980s disappointing. Even that which was promoted as raw seemed too cool,
too well packaged, and that positioned as critical or subversive often seemed formulaic
I couldn’t have picked a better time to be at IWU, where I gained much greater awareness
of, and in many case first exposures to, the work of a collection of Chicago-area
artists who had been variously grouped under the monikers of the “Monster Roster,”
the “Hairy Who,” and, more generally, the “Imagists.” I was turned onto these artists
by a cadre of IWU faculty (including Miles Bair, Timothy Garvey, and Kevin Strandberg,
who are included in this exhibition) who shared with the Imagists what seemed an underlying
conviction that intensely personal, idiosyncratic imagery could form the base of an
art that was neither cryptic nor self-indulgent, but surprisingly accessible and resonant.
Though quite varied, the works by the artists included in this exhibition seem clearly
to continue to embody that core idea.
Laurel Gate | 48"x 60" | acrylic and silver leaf on canvas | 2007
Miles Bair’s recent works are the latest in the artist’s long preoccupation with matters
of how we consider nature through and within the frameworks provided by multiple forms
of cultural edifice. Styles and imagery derived from and inspired by multiple sources
rub against one another as areas of Bair’s paintings literally frame, corral, crop,
anchor, obscure, and reveal one another, resulting in a kind of endless cultural relativity
surrounding nature and landscape. Romantic and astute, Bair’s works are sly with regard
to their multiple engagements of culture(s) — eschewing familiar critiques of the
mediation of nature, and instead embracing mediation as a starting point for works
as evocative as they are quietly provocative.
Blue Tick Healer | monoprint |24” x 17.5” | 2007
Behind the Hedges | monoprint |24” x 17.5” | 2007
Constance Estep’s works appear welcoming, decorative, and even rich, but they are
also uncomfortable, barnacled, and burdened. The wealth of information and ornament,
and the evident care in these works, give way to implications of residue and baggage,
habit and compulsion, as the works begin to exude and elicit an anxiety of accumulation.
Collage becomes both mode and metaphor in Estep’s works, resulting in and referring
to the creation of scenarios in which a kind of space — pictorial, psychological,
or situational — is derived from layering and grafting.
Tessie | Archival Inkjet Print | 40” x 51.5” | 2006
Marie-Susanne Langille’s photographs are reminders of the ability of a photographer
with a careful eye to see and record what the rest of us might not notice while looking
right at it. Langille’s photographs insist on the possibility of locating beauty,
wonder, and poignancy in the momentary alignments of subtleties within scenes that
might otherwise be viewed as commonplace, incidental, or even marginal. And in the
evident care of her photographs she further reminds of the great difference between
looking at one moment from the next, or in shifting your point of view as little as
a tilt of the head or a step to the side — of becoming an active viewer, and thus
Accordionists |wood and acrylic paint |24.5”h x 22”w x 48”d | 2007
As an art historian, Timothy Garvey devotes himself to unraveling the implications
of art objects within context; as an artist Garvey produces unassuming, hand-carved
objects that, approachable and enjoyable, begin to solicit and elicit implication
and association until one finds oneself tangled.
Garvey’s recent work titled Accordionists, for example, reaches out to kindred imagery and themes ranging from the archetypal
ship of fools, to pilgrims landing at Plymouth to Washington crossing the Delaware,
and becomes a kind of open metaphor for any number of embarkations, quests, ventures,
or crusades — from the noble, to the daft, to the dubious — of shared purpose, groupthink,
communal identity, and pursuit of destiny.
Crocodile Tears |flameworked glass, kiln cast glass, and mixed media |10”h x 10”w
x 8”d | 2007
From cast and flame-worked glass, Carmen Lozar conjures and teases the players and
props of a dream theater into our world. Storybooks, wind-up toys, dolls, and functional
objects all serve as reminders of the possibility of becoming in these works, which,
the more you look at them, become more wonderful, yet less fantastic. In fact, the
more far out they seem, the more familiar one realizes they are. Like the allegorists,
mythmakers, and fairytale tellers whose imaginings we so often make the mistake of
believing too concretely or dismissing too readily, Lozar reminds that one can get
at truths by spinning yarns.
Tenderness & Stillness | archival digital print | 15”h x 20”w | 2007
Sherri McElroy’s works pay homage to the prairie that is part of her life, and engage
the very broad human tradition — known variously to romantics, naturalists, and scientists
— of attempting to give image and apply word to human experience with the landscape
and its life. An artist/designer immersed in the practice of embodying ideas in textual
fusions of image and word, McElroy incorporates the Illustrative, literary, textual,
and graphic attempts of others to relate to the landscape of her affection by layering
fragments of found texts with her own photographs of the prairie as well as photographs
of assemblages and other elements of her own hand. Digitally collapsed and then printed,
these layers fuse into an honoring of the landscape, as well as a poetic query into
our odd attempts to know it.
#1 ceramic and porcelain 7”h x 12”w x 6”d | 2007
Therese O'Halloran’s work long has been concerned with the body, using various ceramic
materials and forms to allude to issues of fragmentation and wholeness, connection
and disconnection, but her recent work, while among her most simple, is also perhaps
the most poignant. Fusing the long traditions of the functional ceramic vessel and
the vessel as metaphor or stand-in for the body, O’Halloran’s #1 is surprising in
its capacity to stir a kind of comedic, social and bodily sense of self.
A riff on the long tradition of the teapot, or the more vaguely termed “spouted vessel,”
as a staple of the studio potter, it is suggestive of both a teapot and other containers
deemed more suitable for liquid output than intake, leaving the question of use not
only a matter of if, but how. Meanwhile, one is left wondering if one shouldn’t be
contemplating it or relating to it (not to mention the question of whether to address
it as madam or sir) instead.
Unsafe – A Hobo’s Warning | Pachinko game, fused, cast, & flameworked glass |36”h
x 24”w x 5”d | 2007
Kevin Strandberg’s sculptures have always dealt in a mix — of media and technique,
with found objects and common materials alongside hand-crafted elements in a variety
of materials, integrated into elaborate assemblage sculptures; a mix of imagery ranging
from the familiar to the fantastic and culled from any manner of cultural sources
and periods; and a mix of emotions. Strandberg’s works are consistently playful, but
fear and dread are perpetually present, whether looming like the mushroom and funnel
clouds that were the specters of his Cold-War-era Midwestern youth, peering from odd
openings, or cloaking themselves in disguises of beauty. Friend fades into foe, and
folksy and familiar become untrustworthy and uncomforting in Strandberg’s works, which
deal most wonderfully and woefully in a mix of meaning and metaphor that can be a
I have no doubt that it was my exposure to the creative practices of my teachers at
IWU, as well as the work of other artists they shared with me, that prepared me to
engage a strain of Los Angeles art, similarly inclined toward finding resonance and
relevance within the intensely personal, beginning to make itself known just as I
was returning to Southern California in the late 1980s, and that helped cement many
of my own enthusiasms since. This opportunity to revisit the department, the faculty
I knew then, and the new faculty they have brought in to join them has reminded me
of what a rich and rare experience this faculty provided me, and continues to provide
for other students. — Christopher Miles, October 2007
to learn more about the School of Art at Illinois Wesleyan.