Featured Image: Installation view, 2022. Image of Stuart’s show between all saints day and halloween, as seen from outside the gallery. The snowy sidewalk contrasts with the bright interior of Roman Susan, the light from the gallery’s wide windows spilling onto the night outside. Photo courtesy of Roman Susan.
After a record-breaking period without, Chicago has finally had its first snow, bringing with it the soft wintry palette of early January: flushed pinks, cool oranges, green ochres, and silvery blues. But for all the cold in the air, there is always warmth to be found. Much of it, I find, is human.
Chicago-artist, Kevin Stuart’s show, between all saints day and halloween at Roman Susan Art Foundation holds much warmth for those who go to see it. It’s a small exhibition made up of three large works on unstretched canvas and three small works on paper. It’s easy to get a good look at the works on view from outside of Roman Susan, but to get a full sense of the work it certainly helps to go inside. Viewings are by appointment only, and luckily the artist’s studio is right around the corner. By all appearances, Stuart is elated to come let visitors into the gallery. When I arrived at the gallery I gave him a call—yes, he gave me his phone number in a DM—and was greeted by a frenetically charming hello with a promise that he would be right over.
Unfortunately, by the time this article is published the show will be down, or I would encourage everyone to meet this awkward gem of a person. I’ll be clear and say that this is a review of a show and not of a person, but I was tickled pink at the opportunity to meet Stuart. Our conversation ranged across extinct pigments, oxides, rabies vaccinations, Frans Hals, Judith Leyster, Limp Bizkit, county fairs, Catholic tradition, walnut oil, ritualized anonymity, ritualized fraternity, egg-holding tchotchkes, cement, quinacridone, his late mother’s clothing, raccoon ice-caves, among other things. Having the opportunity to speak with the artist was personally exciting, as I had long wanted to meet this elusive paint-maker, but it also opened exciting windows into the work on view.
Now, the paintings absolutely stand on their own and do not rely on the presence of the artist for their charm—every brush stroke is suffused with Stuart’s earnest curiosity and tenderness; the affection for the figures reads across the sweeping gestures that all seem to lead to pleasantly smiling faces; the balance between the cool, wintry palette and the warmth of the narrative compositions is stunningly achieved—but something shifts when you’re told that color decisions were made in accordance with whether or not the artist’s late mother would wear it. “No, that’s too dark,” he might say. “She would never wear that.”
A bit about the name of the show: between all saints day and halloween. If you’re one for math and liturgical calendars, you’d piece together that this is the 364 day period between Halloween, a day of camaraderie between strangers, and All Saints Day, the day in Catholic tradition meant to honor all the saints of the church. In other words, All Saints Day is the day one honors all the holy dead. Following the death of his mother, Stuart’s show is an answer to the question of what one does in the interim.
Each composition depicts a moment of communion with others coming from Stuart’s memory and imagination. From a low vantage point, as if from a child’s eye, we see bright splotches of color denoting pale flowers in spring and a mother figure holding a gift while a doting father leans against her. In another painting, a raccoon is being petted by a delighted man while a woman smiles peacefully behind him, bundled against the cold and looking out of the frame towards the viewer, as if in invitation. In the third, a cat moves across a counter as the central figure, another mother figure, makes pickles while two scruffy men help on the sides. There’s an aura of conviviality about each painting, as well as a sense that the viewer is welcome to join at any time. As the figure in the second large painting looks out, one feels a certain warmth towards the crouching man and his raccoon, a sense of shared feeling about an old friend and the things we know that only he would do.
There is also, however, a kind of tenuousness at play. Throughout the paintings, Stuart uses manganese blue to represent a dynamic and colorful sky, suggesting an end to things, or of things gone by. Manganese blue is an endangered color, having gone out of production years ago when manufacturers stopped producing it to be mixed into cement. This sense of ending is further expressed in the way that objects are represented. Much of the compositions are quite gestural as if fading away just as they were painted. Where there should be a cat, there is its outline; flowers exist as bright splotches of color, and the paints have been thinned to a degree that the white of the canvas shows through. The bodies of the figures start to melt away like so much snow in the warm light of memory. The effect, overall, is deeply touching.
Stuart’s answer to what one does in the interim then, those long periods after an ending where it seems we are simply waiting for the next thing to begin, is that we come together with the people we love. We make pickles for the county fair, make friends with raccoons along the lakeshore in winter, and give gifts to our parents in the gardens of our memory.
Kevin Stuart’s exhibition between all saints day and halloween was on view at Roman Susan Gallery from December 19 – January 6, 2022.
Reed Everette is a painter and a poet currently living in Chicago, IL.