Occasionally there is synchronicity in going about things in strange ways, and in a way that Andre Breton may have approved, we are pulling Chicago gallery names at random and going to investigate. As fate would have it, the first name out of the hat was Corbett vs. Dempsey–fitting since the gallery appreciates work that branches from Dada, Surrealism, Magic Realism, and Fluxus.
Not to carry chance too far, I called gallery director, Susannah Ribstein, and arranged to hang out in the gallery for three hours while owners Jim Dempsey and John Corbett were captive to answer questions and so I could see them in action. The Chicago natives were generous with their knowledge and lived up to their reputation as two of the city’s respected authorities on Chicago painting. I could see why the Chicago History Museum contracted them to curate Big Picture in 2007, a smart exhibition covering 100 years of Chicago painting.
We started by discussing the solo show in their gallery, work by Chicago Imagist, Art Green–one of the six renowned Hairy Who artists. At 71, Mr. Green provided nine new paintings that have the familiar Imagist moorings yet are more intricate than past works. The new work admirably hybridizes surrealist/pop spatial mischief with the meticulous work ethic of a monk illuminating manuscripts. The painting Slippery Slope fits that description by virtue of its title as well.
The talk of Mr. Green was enriched as Jim Falconer crested the stairs into the gallery– –another Hairy Who Chicago Imagist. Mr Falconer stood among his old friend’s paintings as Corbett told a great story about looking for old Levis in abandoned mineshafts and Dempsey added a good tale about the origin of denim. Of course, there was some talk about jazz, as Corbett produces eclectic jazz records and the gallery is on the floor above Dusty Groove America.
Once I had the gifted conversationalists back in the interview, I asked them about their 2004 gallery inauguration, an exhibit of paintings by Eve Garrison (b.1903–d.2003). Corbett and Dempsey discovered that the work of the late painter was shamefully under acknowledged and under represented. A small part of Ms. Garrison’s 80-year painting career was as a Works Project Administration (WPA) painter of Chicago cityscapes from 1932–1940, and it was this WPA work that caught Corbett’s and Dempsey’s attention. They contacted the estate and negotiated the show. According to Dempsey, Ms. Garrison’s daughter provided a great back story, “like liner notes to a great record.” The story goes that the rather petite and attractive painter cajoled security guards into letting her into their buildings to get into rooms and onto rooftops to paint views she absolutely had to have. Dempsey stated, “It is artists that have guts like this that get our interest.”
Bravery is also is part of what attracted the duo to David Hartt, one of their most recent additions to the gallery roster. David Hartt’s Stray Light was on exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago at the time of the interview. This recent work documents inner sanctums of the Johnson Publishing Company (Ebony and Jet) before the building was recently sold. Dempsey and Corbett agreed that the same kind of nerve that got Ms. Garrison on top of Chicago buildings got Mr. Hartt inside to ultimately create a memorable portrait of lobbies and working offices with video installation and photographs.
Corbett noted that though their scope concerning media and style is widening, the gallery will still be loyal to work that “draws from American modernist traditions, including figural expressionism, American scene, Social Realism, Magic Realism, the Chicago Imagists groups, and a myriad middle-American approaches to abstraction. Part of that original vision is also the inclusion of contemporary artists that connect to those lineages.”
One of the best examples true to that mission was the 2010 solo show of new work by Robert Barnes – a show that included nearly a dozen large paintings, such as Land of Cockaigne.
As a youth, Mr. Barnes (b. 1934) was both a painter and a boxer in Chicago in the early 1950s. His painting career soon eclipsed the boxing career, with his work added to the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1958 and a long association with dealer Alan Frumkin in New York and Chicago. Today Barnes lives and paints in Maine.
Corbett and Dempsey became set on getting Barnes’ stream-of-conscious paintings back to Chicago and made visits to the Maine studio. Dempsey remarked that the well- read 78 year old artist is “charming and humorous. There was a reason he played chess with Duchamp and was friends with Max Ernst–he had the ability to hang with those heavy weights.”
The owners noted a desire to embrace even more distant centers connected to their aesthetic. We discussed the meteoric rise of some of the German painters of the Leipzig School, and the possibility of a whole cadre of lesser-known great German artists that remain underrepresented.
Corbett remarked, “We have done eight years of shows, and there will be things that we do in the future that will surprise people.”
One note about the gallery name: neither dealer is related to the World Champion boxers, yet Corbett vs. Dempsey is still a nod to the late athletes, and it clearly expresses two dealers that take their work very seriously without taking themselves too seriously.
Stephen Knudsen is a contributing critic and feature writer for several additional publications such as New York Arts Magazine, Art Pulse Magazine, SECAC Review Journal, artscope.net, and Professional Artist Magazine. He is also a co-developer of Image Comparison Aesthetics for http://www.theartstory.org/ , and he is a Professor of Painting at the Savannah College of Art and Design.