2015 – Meditations on a Crisis

Jennifer Cronin is a Chicago based artist who’s practice utilizes psychologically charged and uncanny images. Her latest series continues to laden realistic imagery with hidden potentiality with portraits of foreclosed homes on Chicago’s south side. While the post 2008 foreclosure crisis seems to have slowed and even reversed in certain parts of the city, some areas such as the far west and south sides, still maintain high foreclosure rates. For many residents this crisis still exists. The image of the decaying buildings reflect the wreckage of personal lives disrupted, as well as the degraded social and economic conditions which brought them about. Below is an interview with the artist about the work:

Many of your past works involve encounters with the surreal, how do you see that impacting this new body of work about foreclosed homes? Do you see the homes as encounters with the surreal?

In my past work, I used surreal, somewhat abstract elements to play with the idea of the unknown.  I was always interested in creating a psychological space that was some mixture of wonder and fear.  I enjoyed using the ambiguity of abstraction to draw the viewer in, bringing about a sense of wonder and encouraging people to consider multiple possibilities.  While I don’t see the homes literally as encounters with the surreal, I think I’m interested in creating a similar space of wonder.  One that is filled with untold stories, struggles, accomplishments, and disappointments.

How did you go about picking the particular buildings that you drew? 

When traveling to areas of Chicago that have been hit the hardest by the foreclosure crisis, it seems like there is sadly no end of boarded up houses in sight.  I came from these trips with many images to choose from, each just as interesting as the last.  I think what I was most drawn to in these images was the details.  The icicle Christmas light that were still left on the porch, the peeling paint, or official documents taped to the front door—each detail told a story, so I was looking for houses with the most interesting details.  I also chose some houses that were surrounded by empty lots, since the empty lots tell just as stark and powerful a tale.

Did you actually visit the sights? Did you do the drawings plein air?

I did visit the sites, but did not do the drawings en plein air just for practical reasons.  Particularly, the amount of time spent on each piece would make that a difficult feat.  But visiting the sites and photographing these houses was a very poignant and meaningful process for me.  On my first excursion to photograph houses in Englewood, I traveled with the help of JR Fleming, the founder of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign.  This noble, grass-roots organization helps victims of foreclosure in any way possible.  Sometimes they take back and fix up abandoned houses and move homeless families back into them.  Sometimes they stage protests at eviction sites.  They help to rebuild communities and give some power back to the people.  I felt truly humbled and awed by the greatness of JR and his movement, and it really helped me to see the larger picture.

All of these buildings are on the far south side of Chicago, correct? Is this particular location important to you or the work in any way, or do you see it as expressive of something more general?


Most of the drawings in this series are from the south side of Chicago, except for one.  When I began the series, I ventured close to where I was living at the time to Humboldt Park to take my first set of photos.  So, the first drawing in the series was from Humboldt Park.  After that, all of the other houses were from the south side, particularly Englewood and south Back of the Yards.  These neighborhoods, along with several others, have been hit hard by the foreclosure crisis.  There are some blocks that are nearly empty because of all of the houses that have been torn down.  When people think about the foreclosure crisis and abandoned buildings, many times they think about other cities such as Detroit, and might not necessarily realize the scar left on neighborhoods right here in Chicago.   And I do think that is expressive larger issues relating to race and socioeconomic status.  What does it mean that we live in a society where the people who need help the most are forced out of their homes and onto the streets?  And that those who have taken advantage and trapped many of these people with ballooning mortgages and other deceitful practices are completely unpunished.  These questions are at the heart of these works, along with all of the untold stories and individual lives surrounding these houses.

“Shuttered” (above) features this new body of work by Jennifer Cronin and will be on exhibition at Elephant Room Gallery located at 704 S Wabash Ave. in Chicago’s South Loop November 13th, 2015 through January 2nd, 2016. An opening reception will be on Friday the 13th from 6:30 to 9:00pm.

2014 – Christie Chew-Wallace Paints Tough

fuzz.jpgChristie Chew-Wallace says of oil paint, “It is a tough paint, and I like to paint tough.” Her unabashed tenacity in personality translates through her work into starkly raw, vibrant abstraction that speaks to the unapologetic strength of the human spirit. Pieces like Anthropological Red reveal a complexity of content in the array of thickly layered jewel-toned hues.  Celebratory and calamitous, alluring yet slightly pandemoniac, the work relays an uncompromising vivacity that urges authentic feeling in the viewer.

In contrast to Red‘s robust color scheme,  The Dull Flame of Desire utilizes soft flesh tones and textured punctuations of red-orange, deep purple and sky blue brushstrokes. The warm beige color that engulfs the majority of the canvas may articulate the landscape of a soft beach or a warm body. A rust-colored, abstracted flame form is present, illustrated with expressive and mysterious sensitivity.  It is obscured and softened, though its strength is evident with burning embers.

Chew-Wallace’s Blood Alcohol Limit in Three Fingers marries alluring romanticism with a threat of risk. The piece is geometrically and texturally engaging with monochromatic finger forms harmoniously interrupting the richly vibrant ruby tones of the background. Are these fingers fondling a cocktail or do they grasp something more sinister? Is this a splattering of cranberry juice from a spilled drink or a menacing image of spilled blood from a late night gone awry? Chew-Wallace plays with these tensions between desire and danger, the atmosphere of lustful and chic nightlife versus the potential debauchery of inebriated mistakes.

At the essence of these works is a raw honesty and strength of the human condition. Living in Chicago requires a tenacity against brutal cold winters and a durability of spirit amidst urban dangers and desires.

Fortunately, Chew-Wallace paints tough.

See Chew-Wallace’s work at her studio in C.C.’s Art Garage, 2727 S Mary St. in Bridgeport.
-written by Emily Alessandrini

2014 – Jason Karolak’s Neon Grids and the Chemistry of Opposites

bluebox.jpgJason Karolak’s layered neon grids in aqua and fuchsia float in a stark, cosmic darkness, the artist exploring a tension between the containment of the form and the expanse of the subject’s atmosphere. Aside from the aesthetic engagement these pieces require of their reader, they inspire reflection on structure as a concept. Chemistry of opposites is visually engendered between vibrant color and darkness, connection and disconnection, transparency and visual weight, empty and structured space, organic and artificial creation, growth and stagnation. I find myself reflecting on the structure and limitation of existence and the chemistry between yet to be understood life forces.Pretentious philosophical bologna? Perhaps. But Karolak achieves what few painters can—he engages the viewer’s mind as successfully as he engages the eye. He pushes the limitations of connection in opposites and, if you don’t buy the intention, his work is still damn original.

-written by Emily Alesandrini


“I am invested in the fundamental materials and languages of painting, and take very seriously the process of building form and space. Largely my studio days are spent thinking about the formal elements of the paintings—line, geometry, space, and color. But this is a starting point, not a reductive location at which to arrive. I am more interested in abstraction as a porous language, one that has the ability to gather and absorb. I want to tweak or bend the geometric so that it feels organic. More malleable and relaxed. And I want the architectonic framework to feel more lightweight. I consider what I can bring into the work implicitly, such as light, heat, weight, even sound—elements from my experience. So the painting, and by extension the studio, becomes this place of filtering, or distilling.”
Above is his artist statement posted the blog, “Painter’s Process” in May of 2013.
-written by Emily Alessandrini


2014 – Interview with “Use Your Seaside Voices” Artist, Lindsey Claire Newman

Join the Elephant Room, Inc. gallery for Chicago-based visual artist Lindsey Claire Newman’s mixed media show, “Use Your Seaside Voices!” exhibiting August 22nd through September 20th, 2014. Enjoy wine and rumination at the opening reception on Friday, August 22nd from 5 to 8pm. Chat with Newman at her artist’s talk on Thursday, September 18th at 6pm. Elephant Room is located at 704 S Wabash Avenue in the South Loop neighborhood of Chicago.

You’ve mentioned Kurt Vonnegut’s writing and observing sea life on its “personal journey of dying.” Can you elaborate on these thoughts as they relate to the tone and content of your paintings?

Literature has always been a large piece of the conversation that happens during my creation process. I often talk about the world that my paintings are drawn from, which is very real as well as fantastical. I think I could describe it best as a world perceived with a completely open mind. Vonnegut, Haruki Murakami, as well as others, have had a part in my defining and confirming this world. I am constantly elaborating on this mental image of this existence, and I find it absolutely amazing when I find this place being described to me, in accurate detail, in a novel, or as with the Blue Footed Boobies, I find myself literally standing in the midst of a story I’ve read. These writer’s are just writing about their experience in the world. I just want to paint mine.


Can you talk a bit about your series of artfully altered books and your inspiration from literature?

The books relate more to my appreciation for beauty, even when it isn’t fully understood, than my love for literature. Directly, the idea comes from my experiences in bookshops around the world. Often, there was nothing in them in a language I could understand. I found myself pouring through these foreign books anyways. There is so much I love about books aside from the words, or the stories. I love their weight, their smell, their wear from being read over and over and over. I also had a lot of fun messing around with dictionaries while traveling. You’d think a dictionary definition is a pretty standardized thing, but they’re not. They change in the language you read them in, they change from book to book, even in English. I started writing down words I meant to look up and over time just started making up the definitions on my own. I got home and had all of these pages of conflicting and poetic definitions and I kind of lost track of which ones were real. My favorite was climacteric: the heart rate of fruit just before full ripening. I’m pretty sure that was from an actual dictionary too. In the Oxford book climacteric is way less exciting : ) The whole situation kind of ended up being a comment on everything in the world just being someone’s interpretation anyways. That makes me feel more confident in my own interpretation of things. I wrote this poem a day or two after I got back home, while sitting at my parents house. I feel like it really encompassed the surrealism of my adventure around the world while still being an honest account.

The piece “My other-world counterpart” depicts a young girl holding hearts on a kabob amidst dangling apple cores and compass-like geometrical forms. Can you explain some of this context?

Ha, I didn’t read these ahead of time : ) Like that poem, this really happened! My paintings are, in my eyes, an unchronological series of events and experiences that shape themselves, much like my human brain. It’s funny, the things that stick in the forefront of your brain. You can’t possibly remember everything, but somehow it all integrates itself into your personality. I prefer not to give a direct explanation of my paintings, because for me, the painting is the explanation. I know a painting is done when all the colors are balanced out and I really feel like it solves some part of myself.I will say, that this painting is the truest self portrait I’ve accomplished thus far. And, that the compass forms are a reference to the fact that we (humans) have absolutely zero grasp on what this existence entails. There were a few days in Turkey, where I was sitting in trees picking olives and listening to podcasts all day, where I came across a podcast about Brian Greene’s multi-universe theory. It ends discussing that it is more possible than not that we exist in a synthetic universe. I didn’t believe in anything for days and I actually despised looking at the stars. It wasn’t just this podcast but I  feel like some reset button got pressed and after that I really stopped believing in the things I had taken for granted. That was pretty monumental for me.

You’ve talked about a desire to forge a feeling of connectedness between viewers through your mixed-media pieces. How do you hope to achieve this goal?

I’m not interested in actually forging this feeling of connectedness. I believe the question that that was the answer to was ‘what do I want viewers to get out of my work.’ I have a hard time with that question because my work is very personal. It is ultimately my expression and my way of going through life. My mom is an artist. This is how I grew up. I was taught to sort things out through art and journaling. The fact that people enjoy looking at my work, and have their own reactions to it, is absolutely thrilling and insanely humbling. I brought up the feeling of connectedness because when I see art out there that blows my mind, it’s that feeling that I love. Like, you can see someone’s art and completely relate to their expression of something without ever knowing the person or even how they felt about anything. Even if the artist and I are not even close to talking about the same thing, something got zapped in me. The passing along of information, no matter how accurately translated, is really important in my eyes. That’s how a culture grows. I think the best part about making and showing art is that I’m doing what I do and throwing it out on the table. It’s everyone else that comes around and has their own experience with it. I absolutely love that.

A sincere thank you for sharing such personal memory and reflection with your visual audience.

-written by Emily Alessandrini


2014 – Follow-Up Conversation with Artist Hillary Miles

-You mentioned an interest in children’s books and sci-fi stories.  What particular fantasy characters and tales have inspired your work?

There’s a beautiful economy of structure and wealth of symbolism in children’s stories and old myths that I find completely appealing.  And while I love the range of possibility that science fiction and fantasy stories have to offer, I am especially compelled by the way their boundarylessness is always tethered by a camouflaged truth—I try to evoke that tension in my characters.

Three great female characters that I admired growing up were cartoon “Princess of Power”, She-Ra, the neutrally-aligned witch character of Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” played by Bernadette Peters, and Sarah from Jim Henson’s “The Labyrinth”.  I also adore Jim Henson’s proclivity for making friendly monsters, and other unconventional creatures that are never quite what they seem to be.  Though I read and was read to a lot as a kid, many of my favorite stories are actually movies, and I think I’m especially drawn to the coming-of-age tale and the emphasis on duality and transition.  The characters in these stories have an inherent liminal quality to them that feels kind of mystical to me.  Most of my female characters are young women who are inhabiting two, or multiple, realms of possibility at once.

-Can you talk a little about the special bundles your monsters carry?

I started giving the monsters their bundles after reading the Popol Vuh, a Quiche Maya origin text that mentions sacred bundles in several of its stories.  There was this vague implied association between the bundle and the (Jungian) Self that really interested me, but also, I responded to the gesture of carefully wrapping and protecting your most sacred and treasured objects, thereby fortifying their power.  The beautiful thing about painting these bundles is that the viewer gets to breathe a whole complex narrative into the monsters by imaging their very own sacred objects and ideas inside of the bundles, reinforcing the power of their own personal myth.

-What can you tell us about the diverse, emotional expressions of your “Grumpy Butterfly” series?

The “Grumpy Butterflies” are the ridiculous result of doodling my feelings out.  I seem to deal better with sadness and rage through a veil of humor, and I love that the butterflies can be totally unrestrained even when I can’t be.

-“Pretty Girl” is such a compelling, vibrant piece.  Are you commenting on the social behaviors of human flirtation?


This one began as a simple character study, but became a strong statement about the sexualization of girls and the infuriating and destructive messages dominant culture sends to young women about their bodies.  That is, the emphasis on physical beauty, and the narrow definition of those terms, and the idea that as a woman you are obligated to be “pretty” for other people, and that the sum of your worth is embedded in your ability to preen yourself to ridiculous and harmful standards.  It makes me beyond grumpy!

-What’s next for your adventurous, quirky women?

I would love to see them in the pages of books for young people to digest.  Even better, to eventually transition to the world of motion pictures—that would be the biggest dream come true of all.  For the moment, I will continue to paint them, venture further into the realm of 3 dimensions, and do my best to assure they continue to tell important stories.proudastrogirl

-written by Emily Alessandrini

2014 – Insightful Talk with a Socially Conscious Chicago Artist

On June 7th, a group of us had the pleasure of hearing Rahmaan Statik speak about his artistry and his current exhibition, “Coltan”. The talk went on well past our scheduled time as the questions kept flowing while Statik passionately addressed his feelings on what it means to be an artist.

Statik’s inspiration behind “Coltan” goes back to the Black Exploitation film, “Coffy”, and Pam Grier’s portrayal of the female vigilante. Statik is frustrated with media’s frequent exploitation and objectification of the African American woman. As main characters within “Coltan”, he presents these women from a liberating point of view, as they possess the strength and power frequently demonstrated by the female stars of Black Exploitation films. He understands that art is subjective and that some viewers may choose to view his portrayal of women as further objectification as they become painted representations of our need to acquire wealth, power and status. However, Statik is clear about his intention and leaves it up to the viewer to draw their own opinions.

Through this female character, Statik creates a consistency throughout the work that addresses global free trade, technology, consumerism and the tragic beauty of the modern African American cultural identity in relation to the mining of the black gold, Coltan*. His passionate drive to portray women in this way comes from the inspirational females in his life whom he respects: mother, sister, wife, aunts, artists. He feels it’s important to capture their spirit through his work as opposed to their pure physicality.


In a world where “…there’s constant inflation, work wages are low and conspiracies are now protocol…”, says Statik, an exhibition such as this is relevant and necessary. “There’s no conspiracy to greed as our means to an end is not just,” says Statik. We continue to use cell phones as companies continue to market the next best one to get, when, in the end, the phones die and end up in a landfill. It is important to look at where they started and where they end up. Statik is calling us to address this issue and create awareness of the lives that are lost to put these devices into our hands.

Statik’s drive to create what’s in his well-known murals and in the galleries, is to have a message behind the work. His intention is to make the world a better place. He wants us to see the work and have the work speak for itself. Statik vows to not be predictable and for each new body of work to be better than the last.

When asked what’s next, Statik said that the next edition of this body of work will be based on the plot of “Coltan”; this current exhibition is just the introduction.

“Coltan” is on exhibition through June 28th at Elephant Room in the South Loop neighborhood of Chicago. A closing reception will be held on the 28th from 7 to 10pm.

*Mined in the Eastern Congo, coltan is a vital component in cell phone electronic circuits and therefore is an essential yet overlooked part of our everyday lives. The brutality of the coltan trade has been documented through various media sources as the abuse of the people of the Congo continues.

-written by Kimberly L. Atwood

2014 – The Man Behind the “Menagerie”

George Keaton is a Chicago-based artist working in a variety of painting mediums. His exhibition, “Menagerie”, is currently showing at Elephant Room through March 8th. George is a great representation of the artists we strive to exhibit. He is under-represented at the moment, but the potential for him to reach a wider audience is likely as his drive, passion and unique techniques are in abundance. His work is striking, starting with a rather simple subject that eventually transforms into a bold and vibrant piece full of emotion. The paint strokes, placement of text, colors and expression of the subject all contribute to a statement. The statement is not forced or heavy-handed, but rather inviting of the viewer’s interpretation. The viewer’s interpretation was one of the subjects brought up by guests during George Keaton’s artist talk on January 30th, 2014.

His inspirations are Andy Warhol, Guy Denning, Jean-Michel Basquiat and David Choe. His photographer wife, Mariah Naella-Keaton, is also a constant inspiration. A conversation and subsequent studio time with fellow artist, Hebru Brantley, is what really pushed him into painting on a regular basis, even though he’d been fascinated with mixing colors since he was a child. His signature on each of his pieces is the outline of a small car, something his father first showed him how to draw. His father passed away before he got to see his son’s paintings, but the signature tribute is a heartfelt way for George to pay tribute to the inspiration his father must have had on his creativity.

After a very warm studio visit with both George and Mariah, I knew that I was dealing with a genuine heart and creative spirit. Those sorts of people can be rare but they are a great reminder that everything is not cold in the art world. It’s exactly why I love what I do!

Getting back to the “Menagerie”, George starts with doing charcoal sketches of the animal portrait, then starts thinking about the colors, starts layering on the paints (can include house paint, oils, acrylics, tea, etc.), then starts destroying it a bit with water or turpentine. He wants the paint to have movement. “When I’m painting, it’s just like a conversation.” – George. The piece starts to talk back to him saying, pour something here, paint here, move this, etc. It’s an organic process, an evolution from start to fruition.ram

Why paint animals? While George and Maria were vacationing in Guatemala, they went out at dawn to see the ruins and stopped to listen to the animals in that early am. Those sounds inspired him in that moment to stop painting people as he had been, and start painting animals.

Although George insists that he is not pushing any political or social agenda, we all are aware of the variety of agendas that can be interpreted by viewers. This is the beauty of art. It is subjective whether or not the artist makes their intentions known. There is no doubt that being aware of any intentions can certainly influence our viewing process. George shares with us that he is painting these animal portraits just as he sees and feels them. The animal changes from start to finish and the end result reveals the emotional relationship that has just occurred between artist and subject. He loves hearing what people think about his work as he thinks it’s all constructive and important. One guest commented, “You can SEE the energy you put into it.” Another guest commented that some of the animals looked like fossils as there are elements of cracking and a general wearing down. George responds, “Now you become the artist. I’m just the middle man at this point.”

There is no doubt that in general there is pain in these portraits. They can feel dark and piercing, but at the same time, somehow celebratory. George is on display here. As we were installing the exhibition, he came by, stood back, and commented on how it is a bit daunting as his body of work consumes this new space as opposed to being in the confines of a studio. “My heart and my mind are on display.” – George.

A guest asked George how he knows when the piece is finished. He could not readily answer as his process includes painting over a portrait many times before it feels right. Even then, it is still evolving and may change further if he gets it back. He compares his artwork to all other aspects of life. “We’re never finished in life. We’re all works in progress.” – George. He always views his work as unfinished.

A question asked at almost every artist talk is how does the artist balance their own passions to create with the suggestions and wants of others, specifically as it relates to commissioned work. For George, he can work with very loose boundaries, but if the needs of another get too specific, they can interfere with the natural flow that takes place in that conversation between the artist and the piece. “When you start to put limitations on an artist, it starts to take away from the work.” – George.

Stuart Hall was a gracious guest moderator for the talk and if it weren’t for him, I may never have met George. Many people suggest artists to us, but rarely is in the inclination to exhibit their work so immediate. In this case, based on his portfolio, it certainly was. Being social and making connections is not always a strong point for many artists of talent, but it is certainly worth it to put yourself out there as you never know who may fall in love with your work and learn from your message.

-written by Kimberly L. Atwood

“Menagerie” is on exhibition at Elephant Room, Inc. through March 8th, 2014. There is a Meet the Artist Event on Thursday, Feb. 13th from 5:30 to 8pm.