Robertello's New Digs: Peter Allen Hoffmann and Jason Robert Bell at Thomas Robertello Gallery

By Jeriah Hildwine
Photographs by Stephanie Burke

Thomas Robertello has moved into his new space at 27 N Morgan, just around the corner from his old location.  It's a step up, more spacious (although still not huge) and with a cleaner feel, more "white cube" than the old space, with fashionably-unfinished concrete floor, huge storefront windows, good lighting, and a remarkable little project space in the back.  This project space is smaller than most, a far cry from Packer-Schopf's cavernous basement, smaller even than the bank vault/freight elevator behind the desk at Peter Miller, but it's well-lit, more cozy than cramped, and Robertello's got big plans for it.  Artists are going to be invited to use the small space for a year, sort of like an on-the-walls residency.  Jason Robert Bell represents the first iteration of this endeavor, with "The Tetragrammaton Archive" (had to look that one up, it refers to the four-letter Hebrew name for God, represented in English as "YHWH" or "JHVH"), the work consisting of reworked pages from a Bergdorf Goodman catalog.  (Yeah, I had to look that one up too.  Fancy women's fashion.)

For the inaugural exhibition in the main space, Robertello features Peter Allen Hoffmann.  This struck me as something of a departure, or a new direction, for Robertello, much quieter and subtler than many of Robertello's artists with whom I'm familiar (and of whom I'm fond).  It's a perfect choice for this new space.  Hoffman is a Brooklyn-based artist who previously exhibited with Robertello in 2007.  That show (just before my coming to Chicago, unfortunately) featured small landscapes.  The works in the current exhibition,  "When The Cathedrals Were White," are also small, this time mostly 12" squares, but their subject matter, and method of execution, were more varied.  One, a painting of a skull, is so highly varnished a viewer sees mostly his or her own reflection:  one of the more obvious references to the concept of reflection, which Hoffman attributes to Le Corbusier.  This painting contains a more obvious art historical reference as well:  the corner of a newspaper reveals the first two letters of its title as "JO...", a clear reference to Picasso's Still Life With Chair Caning (as well as numerous other cubist paintings by Picasso and Braque).  

Two of Hoffman's other paintings are still lives, and refer directly to Gustave Courbet's 1871 "Still Life With Apples and Pomegranates" (no, he didn't just paint crotches), one of several still lives painted by Courbet after his imprisonment in that year for calling for the destruction of a public monument during the Paris Communne.  One of Hoffman's Courbet spin-offs, "Pomegranates," is veiled by a layer of thin white paint, so that it is viewed as through a scrim.  The obscuring role of white is repeated in several of Hoffman's other paintings, some of which ("Red Hook") look like the "all-white painting" which has been lampooned in everything from Tina Howe's play "Museum" (as the work of fictional artist Zachary Moe), to a Visa Check Card commercial:  "Art store wouldn't take a check again?"  Of course the obvious champion of the white-on-white painting is Robert Ryman.  But in Hoffman's work, the layer of white seems more like a doubling of the scrim, a more opaque layer covering something else, with tantalizing hints peeking through the paint.  In one, "Diurnal" (2008) the white canvas's upper edge is lipped with yellow paint, suggesting daylight.  

Landscape, still life, and abstraction are the fields on which Hoffman plays his games, with himself, and with the viewer.  The works are small, quiet, and subtle, and do very well on the larger, new, clean white walls.  The role of the "white cube" gallery has been repeatedly questioned, probably since its inception, but it is exactly the kind of space that this kind of work, easily lost in a more cluttered environment, requires.

Jeriah is an artist, educator, writer, and snack enthusiast.  You can see his work at www.jeriahhildwine.com, and read his columns at Art Talk Chicago and Chicago Art Magazine.  Jeriah lives and works in Chicago, with his wife Stephanie Burke.

Stephanie Burke was born in Nevada City, CA in 1984. She received her BA in Studio Art and Anthropology from Humboldt State University in 2007, and her MFA in Photography from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2009. Currently she lives in Chicago with her husband Jeriah, makes work, teaches, writes for Bad at Sports, is Editor-in-Chief of Art Talk Chicago, as well as maintaining her own blog, The Gallery Crawl and So Much More. When not making, teaching, looking at, or writing about art, she enjoys running around in the woods, drinking beer by bonfires, crazy quilting and target shooting.

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