"Looking at a two-dimensional work of art doesn’t have to be a static experience. Certainly, the work of some artists lends itself to a more vivid encounter, not just visually, but even viscerally. This is true of late Chicago artist Ed Paschke (1939-2004), remembered as a pop artist of Andy Warhol’s ilk, although he outlived Warhol to explore and evolve his own perspective on fame, image and identity.
Opening last weekend at Herron School of Art and Design, this historical retrospective of Paschke’s work — Ed Paschke Nonplussed: Paintings 1967-2004 — is a must-see for those who are willing to delve into Paschke’s psychedelic make-believe world, largely consisting of portraits of the known and unknown, from Elvis and Osama bin Laden to unnamed street hustlers and strippers. In true pop art form, Paschke explored fame and/or notoriety from public and private perspectives. As Paschke said in 1990, “One’s work is always autobiographical, reflecting your life at the time you did it. I’ve always felt like I was a filtration system, processing materials floating around me, attempting to select, emphasize and editorialize.”
Paschke editorializes with color and the bold designs encompassing seemingly opposite elements: The aforementioned Osama, for example, in “With God on Our Side” (2003; oil on panel), depicts the anti-hero’s face dramatically cropped so that he appears to gaze out at the viewer from a curtain of floral patterns. Paschke’s palette is so alive and engaging as to suggest an enigma. Here is one of our darkest contemporary figures emerging into radiant light.
David Russick, Herron’s gallery director and curator, was asked to put together a retrospective of Paschke’s work for the Chicago Historical Museum, and this fortuitous connection brought the show to Herron and Indianapolis. Paschke’s work is at once academic and easy. We all recognize Elvis’ face in “Matinee,” and yet, unlike Warhol, Paschke adds complex visual elements that make Elvis at once luminescent and layered. The icon’s face is punctuated by a brilliant patchwork of color, giving the image a digital feel. But there’s no technological trickery here. While his images are decidedly modern, Paschke painted in a highly traditional style, layering color upon a black-and-white base image in a technique that dates back to the Renaissance.
As Russick points out, work such as this reminds us why we still have art galleries in a digital age. Paschke’s work is synthetically perfect on screen, but in person you’ll see the human touch of the artist’s brush. The swaths of neon-bright hues carefully come together as you step back, much like a blurred photograph coming into focus.
While figures such as Elvis and Osama are easily recognizable, others are abstracted beyond recognition, using the same technique of embellishments with color and accent, later using symbolic imagery such as floating hands or a series of rooster’s heads. It’s as if Paschke extracts the essence or even aura of those he paints so that we see them from within rather than as surface portrayals. The exhibition offers the same depth of perspective on the artist himself.
Ed Paschke Nonplussed: Paintings 1967-2004 runs through April 29 at Herron Gallery, IUPUI, 735 W. New York St. Call 317-278-9419 for information.