The BMO Harris Bank Chicago Works exhibition series is designed to showcase the best new work being made in Chicago, regardless of the status of the artist’s career—whether emerging or established, mid-career or undergoing reinvention. BMO Harris Bank Chicago Works: Paul Cowan captures artist Paul Cowan at the beginning of his professional life. A recent graduate of the MFA program at the University of Illinois–Chicago, Cowan has, in a short period, distinguished himself as a penetrating observer of and participant in the long tradition of painting—questioning its cherished ideals and putting forth provocative proposals for its future.
In this exhibition, Cowan debuts new work, drawing from several recent bodies of painting, sculpture, and installation that revolve around mark making, composition, and artistic authorship. These concerns are at the heart of debates about painting, and Cowan has found inventive ways to address them. One recent series of paintings, for instance, relies upon supports made from store-bought fabrics—some single-hued, others patterned—on which the artist affixes fishing lures. The positioning of the lures, as well as the color relationships between these objects and the fabrics they are attached to, constitutes the primary painterly activity. Seeming at first like just another riff on the readymade, each lure is carefully selected by Cowan, subtly and minutely contributing to a finely tuned composition that might at first appear nonchalant.
Even more recently, the artist has engaged commercial sign painters working in Chicago in the creation of abstract paintings. Focusing on the decorative flourishes that these painters use to advertise products at local liquor or grocery stores, Cowan reveals how painterly marks and colors attract the eye in the everyday realm. Stripped of content, these marks—squiggles, starbursts, emphatic underlines—reinvigorate gesture with urgency and purpose.
This exhibition is organized by Michael Darling, James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.