by Robin Dluzen
The Black Walnut/Robert Wayner Gallery is, as its name suggests, a space that serves many functions, boasting exhibitions of modern furniture, modern sculpture, and modern art. And the art is Modern indeed. Renowned as the gallery is for woodworking, past painting exhibitions at the gallery include a solo show by Robert Wayner himself, entitled, Forgotten Giant: Remembering the Vision of Leo Tolstoy. The current exhibition of Chicago-based Rex Sexton’s works, X-Ray Eyes, shares its title with the artist/author’s latest published compilation of poems and short stories, and is unapologetically framed within a Modernist context.
Taking into account the gallery’s diverse genres, it makes sense that an artist who wears many hats would be featured with a solo exhibition of dual mediums. Though known for novels, and publications which contain both reproductions of his paintings as well as text pieces like poems and short stories, Sexton does not merely illustrate the texts with his paintings. Obviously linked through the shared content of dreamlike forms and compositions, the paintings in X-Ray Eyes employ a Surrealist sentiment with fragmented narratives and classical metaphors, reinforcing a reciprocal relationship between Sexton’s painting practice and his writing practice. Historically, the paintings bring to mind the bizarre figures and spaces of Chagall—another artist who navigated different media, including narrative stained glass and book illustration. Bridging reality and fantasy through vaguely chimera-like figures/personified animals, and oddly flat, somewhat deskilled pictorial spaces, Sexton’s paintings also emotionally engage viewers directly with multitudes of figures with multitudes of vivid expressions.
The rectangles of the canvases are often filled right to the edges with faces within faces, or faces squished right next to faces, in a kind of all over, cell-like pattern. Sexton’s flat, patterned compositions also bring to mind the flattened forms and spaces, and line qualities of Miró, which become written signs of their own, again reinforcing Sexton’s reciprocal practices. The paintings are not so unlike written word; both operate within given, rigid frameworks. In writing—especially in this case— a writer adheres to the rules of the English language: syntax, spelling, punctuation (sometimes), grammar, stylistic rhythms, and other kinds of formatting necessary in relating narratives to a wide audience of readers. Painters often do the same, though they (arguably) have more flexible options. In Sexton’s case, he has chosen his formal language of Modernist tropes borrowed from Surrealism and Fauvism
in which to present and inform his nostalgic fantasy-narratives; he appropriates this language, and all its connotations, as a means for his own contemporary ends.
Rex Sexton’s X-Ray Eyes will be on display April 1 through 30 at The Black Walnut/ Robert Wayner Gallery, 220 North Aberdeen, Chicago.