Few contemporary artists are hampered by the provincialism that comes from an inability to travel to distant places. But many are still marked by a provincialism of time, which compels them to create works only concerned with the period in which they live.
Miao Xiaochun's new photographs and a video at the Walsh Gallery transcend both limitations, presenting spectacular pieces that re-approach a past masterpiece from the other side of the world through technology available only now.
Trained as an art historian, the Beijing-based artist long had been fascinated by Michelangelo's 16th Century fresco in Rome, the "Last Judgment" -- not least because it was outside his cultural and artistic traditions. So from pieced-together images in his native country, he moved to re-creating the Vatican fresco in ways that turned out to be no less personal.
Miao's giant multipanel photographs result from a digital program that allowed him to replace each of the 400 figures with a nude, hairless sculptural effigy of himself, as well as to "enter" the painting and visualize it from the points of view of two of the figures. This meant he could re-present the Michelangelo, giving it new life as a cosmic environment that was being seen -- from without and within -- as never before.
The artist and a team of assistants created five still views of the fresco. Only one is what a spectator would see by standing in front of it. The others are all singular views that change the fresco's composition and emphasis. Most exciting are the views in which Miao has been allowed original invention, creating from the spirits of figures in the painting who participate in its intense drama.
A seven-minute video further extends the work through computer animation, zooming in on particular damned or saved figures and also moving among them. Nothing in the video or stills seems a violation of the painting. Much will be seen as an electrifying current that passes through the work, giving a vibrancy that ultimately should lead excited viewers back to the genius of the original.
At 118 N. Peoria St., 312-829-3312.
Spencer Finch's installations, drawings and photographs at the Rhona Hoffman Gallery are united by the theme of water, which the New York artist treats in ways both inventive and unexpected.
His major piece is an 8-by-20-foot lightbox with vertical plastic stripes of differing widths in several colors. The colors derive from light-meter readings that analyzed the mist over Niagara Falls at a precise time on an early evening last April. Finch arranged the colors for maximum visual appeal, though the effect of the piece has as much to do with reflections and afterimages, for both combine at the rear of the gallery after direct viewing to produce a gently colored haze that approximates the artist's original, out-of-doors experience.
This piece is "about" the perception of water. A second light installation reproduces and multiplies a sculptural unit that is water's molecular structure, and its persuasiveness comes from the form of the piece, which hovers like a broad expanse of clouds through which we perceive the flicker of stars.
Finch's works on paper are more playful, some taking the form of treasure maps that can be accessed only by heating the paper, others capturing the precise location of fallen snowflakes on a sheet that had to be chilled to enable the artist's outlining of an entire network. The drawings, as drawings, are slight, but they're richly animated by the artist's sense of whimsy.
I much prefer this lightened atmosphere to Finch's more methodical side, shown in a group of watercolors that attempts to render multiple wind effects on a canal near his home or works with a single, gradually evaporating watercolor over the course of several days. The other pieces find a gentle, airy poetry in the everyday; these come across as results of experiments rendered in prose.
At 118 N. Peoria St., 312-455-1990.
Matt Siber's recent photographs at the Peter Miller Gallery continue a series he began in 2002 and present a new, self-contained series unlike his more familiar work.
The continuing series offers Siber's first European photographs of streets and other public spaces shown in a diptych format. From the color images on the left Siber has removed all the words, including street names, advertising texts and pedestrian directions. White panels of equal size on the right reassemble the words, preserving original type fonts, contrasts in scale and spatial relations.
The pieces are meant as essays in visual versus literary communication. However, they are also about the extent to which advertising has taken over the urban environment and the effect of bringing the constructed landscape back to something like a "pure" state. Such an act not only makes us aware of how much in public spaces we are deadened to but also how removing a written element we may consider pollution can leave some places strangely forlorn, almost threatening in their anonymity.
The addition of European pictures to the series now enables cultural comparisons, whereas Siber's new series plays with something entirely European if not uniquely French. The photographer spent several days in Paris shooting advertising kiosks in different areas of the city. All had giant images of standing figures, either Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt from the 2005 film "Mr. & Mrs. Smith."
The relationship of the outsize figures to each other as well as to street life is the subject of the color photographs. It's the kind of thing Andre Kertesz and Henri Cartier-Bresson did superlatively well in isolated images, and Siber raises the stakes with an entire series. Unfortunately, not enough telling differences exist from picture to picture to sustain careful, prolonged, profitable scrutiny.
At 118 N. Peoria St., 312-951-1700.
Miao Xiaochun at the Walsh Gallery through June 2
Spencer Finch at the Rhona Hoffman Gallery through June 3
Matt Siber at the Peter Miller Gallery through May 27