Ed Paschke’s Women at Alan Koppel Gallery and Russell Bowman  

Carrie McGath
The March 26, 2010 openings of Ed Paschke’s Women were very well-attended and many of the paintings had those lovely red dots, and in looking at the price list for the sold work, I deduced that Paschke was still Chicago’s favorite native son, people paying in the tens of thousands for a painting. The atmosphere was celebratory at both the Alan Koppel and Russel Bowman galleries, as if we were collectively toasting the life of a true Chicago artist  who is still among us through his colorful, incongruous, humorous, and discomforting canvases.

Ed Paschke was born in Chicago in 1939 and worked in the Chicago Imagist style during and after his training at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he received his Bachelors of Fine Arts in 1961. Paschke’s timeline allowed him to become a pinnacle contributor to the Chicago Imagist style, and he was included in the show of these artists at The Hyde Park Art Center in the late 1960s. It is important to point out that this was not a movement per se, it was instead a style that included several elements such as surreal and whimsical, garish and a very obsessive execution of the work such as clean, linear detail, and the Imagists played with humor, violence, and sexuality, often distorting the body to evoke these responses from a viewer.

His Women paintings show a level of respect in that many of the works acknowledge the subject, titling them after her name. When you first walk into Alan Koppel Gallery, you are greeted by the fascinating, Polly from 1973. Her hair is the first thing one notices, and upon closer inspection, one can see the obsessive brushwork so often associated with the Chicago Imagist style and especially of Paschke. There is nothing out of place in the execution of the paint onto the canvas even though everything seems amuck as you look at Polly’s grotesquely oversized right hand, her garish hairdo, and clown-like makeup. The obsessively painted patterns and shine to her clothes also show Paschke’s mind-boggling and compulsive skills.  My favorites at Alan Koppell is certainty Polly, but also Faces from 1968 and 1972’s Sophie. In Faces, I reminded of a carnival poster, almost hearing the chaotic carnival barker in the distance trying to lure me into a tent of oddities. Paschke and the other Chicago Imagists also share the common practice of incorporating vernacular images from pop culture. Faces looks to me to be an amalgam of this device, the images colliding with Chinese characters, model-beautiful women who look as if they were peeled straight out of the pages of a fashion magazine, while a small portrait of a heavy woman who does not possess the beauty accepted and sold to her culture, sits on top and is the focal point as if she is the one ruling this image-soaked world.

Sophie shows a woman covered in tattoos that are compulsively painted all over her body, including her face. Her costume hints at her possibly working as a circus performer, perhaps a tightrope walker whose rebellion flows through her tongue-in-cheek beauty. Not knowing much about Paschke as yet, I like to think about where these women came from, if they were friends, from his imagination, a combination of several women he may have seen on the city streets of Chicago or while riding the El. Paschke liked to work out of archetypes, but contemporary ones from popular culture and subculture. His incorporation of these contemporary archetypes is very visible in looking at Sophie. She has movie star looks that are manipulated into an odd but also more realistic image with her tattoos and pink-purple hair. Her pose hints at a tease, possibly a strip tease, her fingers threatening to lift her skirt. Her pursed lips continue the sexual energy of the portrait, and one wonders if she is blowing kisses or whistling to her audience.

At Russell Bowman, the candy-slick homage to Paschke’s Women continues. The gallery is smaller that Alan Koppel, and was crowded with many admirers of Paschke who opened their checkbooks liberally to own a piece of this significant part of Chicago art history. A highlight was the 1973 lithograph, Rosarita, a portrait of a woman posed in a pin-up pose that again asks the viewer to turn up the volume on the sexual energy that exudes from this print. Her body is the societal ideal and is very sexualized, while her face and hair tells us this is a Paschke. Her tanned body is stretched into an unnatural pose and her smile is a bit menacing, not sexy. Her stressed and tightly-wound hair style mirrors her body’s discomfort and the tight rendering of Paschke’s hand in coloring the lithograph in more subdued colors than most of his paintings.

1972’s painting, Paula, returns us to Paschke’s expression of the body’s grotesquerie in her awkward pose and confounding costume. It looks as if there is a floatation device around her neck while she looks to be about to dance, and possibly even strip the costume. The standard colorful background illuminates her to the point of appearing radioactive, a definite reason to admire Paschke’s eye in expressing grotesquerie, beauty, humor, and sex all in one canvas. Again, too, we see his obsessive hand painting immense amounts of details — from the subject’s gloves and stockings, to her Frankensteinian green face that tells her increasingly uneasy story.
Ed Paschke’s attention to detail can be find in every part of every work that he ever created, and is likely a large part of the reason why his work is still drawing large crowds of Chicagoans to his shows where his work flies off the walls thanks to his deep-pocketed fans. The carnivalesque funky fun in his work is also invariably a draw to audiences that are as diverse as Paschke’s women. The exhibitions go very well together, so I recommend trying to go to both in one day. One cannot live in Chicago and not attend these well-curated exhibitions of Chicago’s rough gem of contemporary art, our own Ed Paschke.

The two exhibits of Ed Paschke’s Women are on view now through May 8th, 2010 at the Alan Koppell Gallery at 210 West Chicago Avenue, and is on view now through May 29, 2010 at Russell Bowman, located at 311 West Superior.