Its reputation precedes itself. River North has long been a bastion of Chicago's art scene, with galleries so littered about the area that a stone's throw in any direction should hit one. Its purported character is an unapproachable one, where your wallet better largely outweigh your interest. Refreshingly enough, you'll find welcoming directors and thought-provoking art instead, should you gather the mettle to take a peek inside.
Ann Nathan Gallery
The Ann Nathan Gallery features contemporary painting and sculpture, functional art (in this case, furniture) and traditional African objects. Assorted, for sure, though it's a planned eclecticism. Gallery owner Ann Nathan enjoys arranging works in a "warmer, more comfortable" setting. "I'm not a purist," says Nathan. The paintings and sculptures are mainly figurative, and range from the astonishingly realistic to the obsessively autobiographical. The works of self-taught (or outsider) artists mix easily with those of the academically trained: What matters to Nathan is the quality of the individual pieces. A common theme of the gallery’s collection is the relationship between traditional and contemporary themes. George Klauba retells Melville's "Moby Dick" with a cast of birdmen. Alexsander Balos and Bruno Sordo dynamically reinterpret Renaissance motifs. The gallery is a good place to test how well you paid attention in school: The more you remember from your art history or literature classes, the more you'll get from the works on the walls. The interior is spacious and bright, with high ceilings and massive beams of exposed wood secured with cast iron brackets. The back rooms contain surprise-filled nooks, such as a display of Senufu ceremonial stools and a kimono fashioned from a steel oil drum. Shows usually change every one to two months.
Barcelona has never seemed so near. Galeria Gala provides Chicagoans with a glimpse into Spain's thriving art scene, showcasing current trends and styles from the European cultural mecca. An exclusive focus on the work of Spanish artists allows a range of styles to be exhibited, including Geometric Abstraction, Realism, Impressionism, Surrealism and the Spanish Nueva Figuracion movement.
Have a penchant for discovering fresh talent? Though many of Galeria Gala's established artists appear in important collections, emerging and mid-career level artists are also shown. Though modern in concept and technique, much of the work reflects the traditions of Spain and its rich cultural heritage. Strains of a familiar palette such as rusty red ochres, chrome oxide greens and the thick lead white's of El Greco surface on modern works as if reincarnated. Many of the artists have clearly been influenced by the work of the great masters, though this influence has cleverly transmuted into a new form with a modern sensibility that is essentially Spanish.
Judy A. Saslow Gallery
The Judy Saslow Gallery specializes in an aspect of art that most see as opposing one of its basic tenets: Outsider art is art made by people who are not at all influenced by artistic culture and have no aspirations of mimicry. Many have mental illnesses. Much of the materials used are found objects. While most artists walk to the corner store to buy paint, Judy Saslow's artists search through heaps of metal scraps. The artists she selects are diverse: Clyde Angel creates intricate metal sculptures; Paul Dunham has produced 5,000 works on two themes: portraits and doors. The art is bright, unusual and different from anything you've seen. The rawness is a welcoming one. It's hard to put your finger on, but you feel there's a wall that's been toppled when looking at outsider art, revealing an honest intimacy lacking in pretension or convention.
Plan on checking any stuffiness at the door: You'll find everything welcoming and easy upon arrival at ArchiTech Gallery thanks to the warm and thought-provoking David Jameson, the gallery's director. The commercial space for architectural art opened in 1998, housing an all-inclusive workspace for the director, flatfiles filled with the gallery's archives, furniture of various architects and a viewing area for a vast collection of drawings, prints and photography.
Exhibitions rotate every two or three months, featuring architectural caches that include the photographs of Hedrich Blessing, the portfolio of Frank Lloyd Wright and blueprints from Bertrand Goldberg's Marina City. Without pressure to purchase works, visitors are encouraged to ask questions and learn about the processes of architecture: Each drawing, of course, was not originally considered to be an artwork itself, but rather one stage of many leading toward a completed (or in some cases, never fulfilled) structure.
Byron Roche Gallery
Having recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, Byron Roche Gallery is proving itself a mainstay in the River North scene. Roche founded the gallery in 1994, after working for a large Chicago gallery for nearly a decade. The gallery exhibits contemporary art in all media, but its primary focus reflects Roche's fascination with the multiple materials and processes used in contemporary painting. New York artist Margaret Evangeline is one example of an artist pushing the boundaries of her medium: Her heavy aluminum panels are often distressed with metal grinders to create an illusion of extraordinary depth; then Evangeline applies unusual pigments such as anti-radar paint to produce haunting abstract images.
Other artists represented by Roche include New York artist Paul Hunter, who uses the demanding medium of gold leaf as the basis for his paintings, and Chicago-based artists Lisa Erf and Jiwon Son, who each use repetition in vastly different ways to challenge the viewer to contemplate the purpose of painting. Roche represents primarily mid-career and established artists, and has a reputation for exhibiting work with an unusual degree of technical proficiency. He believes that education is an important mission of the gallery, and enjoys spending time with beginning as well as experienced collectors, discussing the artistic process as well as the steps involved in art collecting and appreciation.
I space is the Chicago-based gallery for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s College of Fine and Applied Arts. The open, lofty exhibition area allows UIUC students to explore and experiment with a variety of subjects and media. I space is another gallery that shows artist work in a myriad of styles, so expect lots of eye candy. As for food for thought as well, exhibitions aren’t the only thing you’ll find here. The gallery also features performances, classes, lectures and demonstrations. Spend an hour here and your IQ is sure to shoot up six or seven points. Located in the heart of River North, it certainly ranks among the least intimidating galleries to visit.