The Enduring Appeal of ED PASCHKE

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Marbleize, 1993, Oil on linen, 24″ x 36″

On the 10th anniversary of the death of Chicago painter Ed Paschke (1939-2004)-which coincides roughly with the 75th anniversary of his birth-and with the heralded opening of a new Ed Paschke Arts Center in Jefferson Park on the Northwest Side of Chicago, the artist’s complex legacy is once more up for public view. Paschke was a leading player in the Chicago scene, who along with Jim Nutt, Barbara Rossi, Philip Hanson, Suellen Rocca, and others put Chicago Imagism on the map in the 1960s and ’70s. A Midwest rendition of New York Pop, Imagism similarly took from vernacular culture: comics, advertising and such, but was closer to Pop on acid-hepped up, dialed up, pumped up with riotous color and all-over pictorial mayhem. The work was primarily figurative, which set it apart from New York, and linked it to a Chicago tradition from Ivan Albright to Leon Golub and the Monster Roster. Paschke would stay with figuration for the entirety of his almost 40-year career-including his series of funkadelic shoes in the ’70s, which were essentially figures without bodies.

Paschke might be considered the Toulouse-Lautrec of Chicago. Both depicted characters of the night: whores, strippers, dancers, tarts, various entertainers, and shady types, those who populated the seedy underbelly of the city after dark. (So close is the comparison that while Lautrec hung out at the Parisian cabaret, the “Moulin Rouge,” Paschke could often be found at the jazz club “The Green Mill,” or in French the “Moulin Vert”-an uptown joint once owned by one of Al Capone’s henchmen). Like moths to a flame, Paschke and Lautrec were drawn to the demi-monde of their urban environment, seeking out the decadent, flamboyant, and theatrical spaces of dance halls, bars, brothels, and strip clubs in turn of the century Paris and 1960s and ’70s Chicago. There was something about the nighttime world that attracted these artists, something about the light that bathed its nocturnal subjects with an eerie sheen turning faces into masks and heightening the carnivalesque atmosphere. For Paschke it was flickering neon light and then the electronic field of the television screen, while for Lautrec it was the fin de siècle gaslights that yielded such haunting tones. The Art Institute of Chicago owns a key Lautrec painting, At the Moulin Rouge (1892-95), depicting the artist and his circle, including the gas-lit, glowing, aqua blue face of chanteuse May Milton at the right of the composition. Milton’s resemblance to any number of Paschke’s incandescent faces is striking. Surely Paschke knew this painting. He earned a BFA in 1961 and an MFA in 1970 at the School of the Art Institute and later taught in the Painting and Drawing department before taking a position north of the city at Northwestern University in 1976.

Now turn to the newly opened Ed Paschke Arts Center with its white cube display, its diorama recreation of Paschke’s Howard Street studio, and its ambitious community outreach agenda. The Center, established in a modestly scaled brick building on a main thoroughfare in the blue collar neighborhood of Jefferson Park, hosts 2,800 square feet of gallery space and 1,700 square feet of space for educational programming. Founded by the Ed Paschke Foundation-an entity created by Paschke’s children, Sharon and Marc, after the artist’s death in 2004-and then taken over by the Rabb Family Foundation, the center came to fruition when the interim director, Vesna Stelcer and her partner Lionel Rabb realized that the many Paschkes sitting in storage at the Paschke Foundation could be made available to the public in a space the foundation already occupied in Jefferson Park. The Rabb Foundation develops programming for underserved communities in the area, and so that mission melded with the idea of exhibiting the stored Paschkes. Vesna Stelcer had grown up with the Paschke kids and had admired the father and his work. What started as a desire of Lionel Rabb to buy Vesna a Paschke for Christmas, turned into retrofitting their space to champion a much larger project.

The Center offers a wonderful occasion to see more of Paschke’s art in the very city that fed his imagination, yet the work’s raucous edge-its “adult content” if you will-makes for strange bedfellows with the community-based practice initiative that is part of the Center’s mission. One hates to critique such a noble attempt to bring high art to a working neighborhood. Art centers are often hugely successful ways of enlivening community, and the Paschke center has already attracted a large audience from the hood (800 visitors on the first day it opened). But there is just something about Ed Paschke as the focus of this educational ambition that seems out of character. Even though Paschke himself was a Northwest Side guy-born in a Polish neighborhood and lived his entire life close by, and even though he moved throughout the rough and tumble city mining vernacular source material-evidently Paschke kept a variety of clothes in the trunk of his car changing costume depending on the scene he was cruising (cited in “Ed Paschke,” Neal Benezra, ed., Hudson Hills and AIC, 1990), there is still something slightly unsettling about using Paschke’s images of the urban underbelly as a resource for social practice. Or, maybe not. Maybe it’s exactly this kind of gritty reality with which more Chicago youth should engage as a means of processing the world around them-a world, of late, riddled with the perversity of gun violence. Indeed, one of the most arresting Paschke images at the Center is on its’ long exterior side wall where a massive mural depicts the profile of a tattooed face, eyes closed, lips parted, a bird symbol emitting from his mouth, and an esoteric insignia floating above. The figure cannot see but his voice carries the bird aloft following a pattern of sonic hues. The ambiguity of the mural-its secreted iconography-resonates in a city of gang signs and brand status.

Whether Paschke is “appropriate for children,” is perhaps a minor point in light of the opportunity to now see a large selection of Ed Paschkes on a permanent basis. And they are remarkable. The space holds about 42 objects, from classics of the 1960s such as Accordion Man (1969) and Faces (1967) through recent work such as the commanding With God on our Side (2003), featuring the cropped face of a smiling Osama bin Laden. There is a fantastic selection of prints and drawings, as well as two PHSColograms, 3-D visualizations (part photography, holography, sculpture, and computer graphics), that Paschke collaborated on with Ellen Sandor, director and founder of (Art)n. Paschke loved the idea of playing with the technological sublime in order to further elicit elegantly bizarre effects. Overall, the Paschke Center boasts a mesmerizing display of characters, a pageantry of known and anonymous icons-the Technicolor everyman with all his many foibles, drawn from popular culture but embellished by the wild imagination and consummate hand of the artist.

And the hand of the artist is given full play here, for beyond the gallery space on the upper balcony is a painstaking recreation of Paschke’s Howard Street studio. Like a natural history museum diorama, every bit and bob of Paschke’s last day in the studio is carefully reconstructed. One almost expects Paschke to walk in and put on the shirt that loosely hangs over the back of his work chair-it is haunting. I envy the first scholar to get access to this rich resource as well as to the other papers and materials preserved in the Center’s archive. Marc Paschke carefully documented his father’s space with hundreds of photographs before boxing up the paraphernalia. And now his efforts have been rewarded with a rare glimpse into the artist’s workspace.

Paschke’s process is made more transparent. The myriad visual media he collected- photographs, magazines, newspapers, and posters-are all about. The overhead projector he used to project the found material sits on a shelf. A painting of a boxer he was working on before his death rests on an easel revealing the early stages of laying in underpainting of black and white and beginning the labor intensive work of oil-paint glazing. Tubes of paint and worn brushes are everywhere. The studio is messy, rich, and redolent of the artist’s tireless pursuit of his craft and his promiscuously inclusive vision.

That sort of playful accessibility seems only appropriate for an artist who cast such a wide net in his lifetime, who never lost his populist appeal despite his art world success. As son Marc Paschke recalls: “I think of my dad and who he was, and how he could communicate with all people. I would see him speak like a professor in a television interview, or at the Green Mill, drinking old styles and talking to the locals, or with his friends who were tradesmen. Everyone liked him.”

As part of their mission, the Center features other artists’ work as well. Currently several photographs of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground by Steve Schapiro are on view and Paul Natkin’s photographs of other music icons are slated for exhibition in 2015. Paschke was a big music fan. Plans on partnering with Luminarts, a Chicago foundation that supports emerging artists, are also in the works. The idea is to support an artist-in-residence program that might intersect with the community work. The curatorial initiative is one of the most unresolved and most promising aspects of the Center. It will be interesting to see how a new director (a search is meant to commence shortly), can continue Paschke’s legacy by showcasing great Chicago art in addition to exhibiting the Paschke oeuvre. With Chicago’s ongoing allegiance to figuration-Jim Lutes, Mary Lou Zelazny, José Lerma, Kerry James Marshall, and Elijah Burgher, to mention only a few, the Center could become nationally known for its figurative program.

In 2010, Paschke’s one-time student, Jeff Koons, curated a major Paschke exhibition at Gagosian and just last month Mary Boone showcased Paschke in her Chelsea gallery; clearly the Chicago demi-monde has found a rapt audience in New York City. But Chicago is poised to take up the Paschke story once again and revel in its own decadent vision of itself. Thanks to the new Ed Paschke Arts Center, this great American artist will reach out to the city that so profoundly reached out to him. This is what’s happening in Jefferson Park.

—LISA WAINWRIGHT