Artists and critics are often a bit in awe of the work of Chicago-based artist Richard Rezac. His sculptures are minimal and abstracted but always familiar, seemingly effortless yet meticulously crafted, able to embody the vernacular and the ordinary as well as the sublime. And, a little like the artist himself, they exude a quiet intensity. Influential as both a maker and an educator, Rezac has spent nearly 30 years living and working in Chicago, though he counts his early years in the Pacific Northwest as particularly formative.
Born and raised in a suburb outside of Lincoln, Nebraska, Rezac followed his early propensity for drawing and painting, enrolling in the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon. His youthful commitment to two-dimensional realism quickly gave way to an embracing of abstraction. “To me, abstraction felt like more of a challenge than drawing from observation,” Rezac says. “I saw composing abstract sculpture or painting as a wide-open field. It was quite exhilarating.” The artist credits this realization to his instructors, and their use of the works in the nearby Portland Art Museum, which was strong in Northwest Coast American Indian art and Asian art-the latter an influence that has stayed with the artist throughout his career. “My mind was opened by that collection,” Rezac explains. “The immediacy and the contact with the surface and materials of those objects was striking.”
Rezac’s time in Portland in the 1970s coincided with the opening of the now defunct Portland Center for the Visual Arts, which brought contemporary art from around the country including the stable of Leo Castelli Gallery, and artists like Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt, and Richard Tuttle. “During my time in Portland, I volunteered and hung those shows, and I heard the artists speak,” he recalls. While exposure to the Minimalist canon contributed to the formation of the young Rezac’s aesthetic, he also cites early institutional support as crucial to the evolution of his own visual language. At just 25 years old, Rezac received his first NEA grant. “It was 1975, and $2,000 allowed me to not work a day job for nine months,” he says. “It was an enormous gift. That allowed me to dwell in my own head and work out within myself the next step of my development. The work became more my own.”
After graduate school at The Maryland Institute College of Art, Rezac and his wife, Julia Fish (also a prominent visual artist), returned to Portland, and by 1985, relocated to Chicago. Rezac found early commercial support for his work from the newly founded Chicago art gallery, Feature, and landed a teaching gig with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Several decades of museum exhibitions and acquisitions, public art commissions and major surveys later, Rezac is now Adjunct Full Professor of Painting/Drawing and Sculpture at SAIC, and is currently featured at Rhona Hoffman in his fourth solo exhibition with the Chicago gallery.
These days, Rezac’s drawings and sculptures retain a formal connection to his early Minimalist influences, though the artist’s visual language eschews the rather muscled aesthetics of that canon. His newer works are more visually complex than in his early practice, with subtle elements of pattern punctuating his architectural compositions. Nemaha (2010), a nickel-plated bronze relief, distorts reflections in its glossy surface with a diamond motif of sunken lines and raised triangles; an untitled floor sculpture of painted wood and metal features a repetition of elongated, rectangular blocks and slender arches.
Although still certainly abstract, Rezac’s sculptures often flirt with the forms and objects by which they were inspired: “I’m intrigued by the challenge of answering a literal experience and manifesting that in a sculpture,” he says. And while his works necessitate pre-planning and careful engineering in their making, intuition still plays a large role.
One of the works in his latest exhibition, an untitled, wall-bound bronze, resembles the surface of glazed ceramic, though the metal is practically untouched from the way it emerged from the foundry-somewhat unusual for an artist known for his painstaking finish work. “The pooling and separation of the alloy of the bronze makes it quite rich, and it complicates and argues with the compositional element in the casting of the sculpture,” Rezac explains. “That was just by accident but it seemed to be exactly right.”
”Richard Rezac: Signal” is on view at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, in Chicago, from June 6 – July 25, 2014. www.rhoffmangallery.com