Riva Lehrer: Circle Stories
Chicago Cultural Center
78 East Washington Street
Chicago, IL 60602
March 27 – May 30, 2004
The paintings in Riva Lehrer’s exhibit Circle Stories include overtly personal and political themes. The catalog essay describes Lehrer, a Chicago painter for over 20 years, as a person who has lived with a condition known as spina bifida since birth and has had to endure scores of operations over the years. Her transformation into an artist who combined personal and activist content began when she came to Chicago in 1980 and saw the work of artists like Judy Chicago and Hollis Sigler. The emergence of the Circle Stories series began when she joined a disabled artists group in 1997. As the artist recounted in “Pink Pages” (Spring 2004): “My entire life changed…I met all these really amazing people. It is one of those things when you learn that you don’t know how badly you need something until all of a sudden it is there.” The portraits in this exhibit serve as homage to the achievements and spirit of the people in this group.
Each image portrays the subject in a setting of their choice that is occasionally realistic, but more often imagined. Their professions vary widely;a fellow painter, a dancer/choreographer, an actress/playwright, a theater teacher, a political activist, a performance artist, a Fulbright scholar/psychologist, and a poet. Several of her subjects are “little people” (the preferred designation within the disability community for people formerly referred to as dwarfs), while some are in wheelchairs or on crutches. At times the portraits do not definitively reveal what the subject’s disability is without referring to written material.
The intensity of Lehrer’s technique, with its crisply observed realism mixed with fantastically contrived settings, has a peculiar surrealistic quality with Magic Realist undertones. The name Magic Realism was originally coined by the German critic Franz Roh in 1925 and is most prevalent today in Latin American art and writing. Improbable and fantastical elements are combined with realistic elements, deeply embedding the two opposite and contradictory forces. Fantasy is used to escape deep and intolerable oppression, as a means of psychological survival but also as a way to surrealistically express and transform the emotional meaning of suffering. The “magic” in these paintings does not provide the excuse for arbitrary transformations but has an allegorical purpose. In America several important artists such as George Tooker, who worked during the Great Depression, used Magic Realism to comment on social and economic inequality and prejudice. Lehrer’s work is part of this tradition along with contemporary American artists Vincent Disiderio, James Valerio, and John Sebraw.
Each portrait expresses a particular mood. Lehrer uses Magic Realism to transmit a sense of darkness and pain as well as a will to find metaphysical relief in an imagined world. There is something frightening about the pitch darkness that envelopes the subject Tekki Lomnikki, who is sharply lit from the side and stepping on a floor littered with paper doll cutout clothes. There are stalactites that look like fangs in the cave-like background in Hollis Sigler’s portrait. The picture of the little person Rebecca Maskos (she is a victim of Osteogenesis Imperfecta) sitting on a wall with a bare winter tree behind her that entraps a blue jay is also stark. But the subject has a penetrating expression emanating from her face as she points to the palm of her hand. She is a symbolic figure, a harbinger of fate bearing a question.
Other works lie on the opposite side of the emotional spectrum and move towards healing or release. The portrait of William Shannon standing on his crutches as he reaches for some invisible presence that seems to move in the shimmering shadows next to him is mysterious and touching. This image is a sign of entry into another world. The most powerful painting in the show is the portrait of Eli Claire which depicts the artist in symbolic communion with a densely lust forest landscape. Here Lehrer is at her most memorable. Every leaf, branch, flower, and ripple of water is so intensely observed that one cannot help feeling the condensation of time in looking at the scene. This painting is moving because in it, nature and its tremendously powerful presence resolves the balance between pain and existence while affirming a wondrously regenerative meaning to life.