Ed Paschke, 1973. Courtesy of Mary Baber.
Between obtaining bachelor’s (1961) and master’s (1970) degrees from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Ed Paschke painted, traveled, and worked in a series of short-term jobs and freelance assignments. In 1962, he was drafted into the army and served for two years in Louisiana, drawing guns and bullets for weapons manuals. Although he resented his time spent in the military, the position exposed him to individuals living apart from his usual experience. His time in the army, as well as a job assisting in a mental hospital, provided complex reference points that resounded with Paschke as he began developing his surreal imagery. He returned to Chicago, completed his master’s degree with aid from the GI Bill, and undertook an ambitious schedule of exhibitions. Among these were two group exhibitions, Nonplussed Some (1968) and Nonplussed Some Some More (1969), at the Hyde Park Art Center with fellow SAIC graduates Sarah Canright, Ed Flood, and Richard Wetzel.
In 1970, Paschke visited an exhibition of works by Andy Warhol at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago; he stated afterwards that seeing the exhibition reinforced his inclination towards figuration. In addition to using images from newspapers as a resource, Paschke spent many hours wandering around Chicago’s colorful neighborhoods in search of interesting characters and street signs to include in his paintings. Many of his early works referred to celebrities and anonymous underworld archetypes; Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and Claudette, as well as pimps, prostitutes, and fetishists, all served as subjects.
Although representational in style, Paschke’s composite and distorted figures, as well as his expressionistic color palette, twist reality. Noting the emotional responses his works often evoke from viewers, Paschke remarked: “They either love it or hate it but rarely are they indifferent to it.” In the 1980s, he shifted to an increasingly abstract style, with surfaces blurred by fluorescent bands of color that mimicked disruptions in modern visual technology. In the latter years of his career, Paschke returned to figuration, picturing incendiary individuals from mass media.
In addition to his artistic legacy, Paschke was also known as a prolific educator in the Chicago area, where he taught art theory and practice at Northwestern University from 1976 until his death in 2004. The Ed Paschke Art Center in the Jefferson Park neighborhood of Chicago opened in 2014, on the tenth anniversary of Paschke’s death, and continues to celebrate the artist’s life and work.
La Chanteuse (1981)
Oil on linen
Ed Paschke saved photographs—primarily portraits—clipped from newspapers, magazines, and even handbills as inspiration for new paintings. Having selected a photograph from this vast collection to work from, he would use a projector to enlarge and trace the image onto his canvas. This underdrawing would serve as the basis for an initial painting, done only in black, of the main forms—abstracted and distorted—onto which he would eventually add his brilliantly hued colors. Paschke was not only fascinated by the progression of black and white photographs and film to color, but also by the artifice associated with the transmission of an image onto the omnipresent television screen in the 1980s.
While the source image for La Chanteuse isn’t known, we can ascertain from the painting’s title that the main character is a female lounge singer. A common trope in film noir, the chanteuse is often found in a smoky lounge, singing on stage, a spotlight shining on her forlorn and sullen face. Typically a femme fatale, her beauty and dazzling costume seduces and mesmerizes the crowd while a dark sense of foreboding perfumes the air. Paschke captures her allure as she faces us, her mouth formed into a wide arc while she croons. A man whose face is entirely abstracted except for his ear, listens and lurks over her shoulder on the right. His jacket is covered in spots, perhaps suggesting a lounge lizard—a dapper gentleman intent on seducing a wealthy woman. The pair are barely in focus, yet we can envision their archetypal forms. In La Chateuse, the visual distortions heighten the dark emotion of the scene that pulses and fluctuates before our eyes, much like a film projected onto a screen in a darkened room.