By Paul Varnell
Chicago Free Press
August 22, 2007
Most artists specialize in just one or two mediums- painting, drawing, sculpture, ceramics, constructions, calligraphy. Chicago’s gay artist John-Michael Korpal essays virtually all of them- as the mood strikes him. The result is an impressive variety of creative works but one that is hard to generalize about.
The paintings range from representational to symbolic to abstract. One of the most appealing is call “Zen” a small Japanese style work depicting a heron standing on one leg in a shallow lake while a young tree represented by just a few wispy lines grows on the left.. One paradoxical painting groups together a large chair and small building, reminiscent of Giorgio de Chirico’s landscape in a room or the reverse, “Furniture in a Valley.”
A group of small works are of identifiable objects but layered over with thin translucent plastic rods. “Blue Boy” (no connection to the Gainsborough painting) is a side view of a nude youth, his legs drawn up towards his body. A similar image is offered in orange. An Iris and a rainbow flag are similarly treated
Other works are more strictly symbolic. An image titled “Eye of the Spirit” Places a large eye in the sky gazing down benignly on the barren landscape below. The Light Within” depicts a male torso and legs with rays of light or energy streaming into or out from the body.
More abstract works also seem to contain a kind of symbolism though. “City Blocks” consist of small colored squares resembling a Mondrian, but it is clear what they represent. The brightly colored “Points of Intersection” consist of colored rectangles, divided by white lines with small white circles protruding from the pictures plane. The puzzle is that only three of the 12 circles are actually placed at points of intersection. It could be the pictorial equivalent of a Zen Koan- a question or paradox that invites meditation because it has no obvious solution.
Completely abstract pieces include a Buddhist Mandala and works titled after their content: “Safety” consists of small pieces of shattered safety glass. “Spring” has a small spring, perhaps a chair spring, protruding about two inches from the picture plane into the viewers space. The latter two are good examples of Korpal’s using what he calls ”recycled” or found objects in his paintings.
“I enjoy taking objects and giving them a new purpose and new form” he says. The Calligraphic works too are varied. They include a piece called “The Celtic Alphabet” with elaborately drawn Roman alphabet latter arranged as in a samplers 19th century women used to sew. Other less elaborate pieces offers real Zen koan: “How can the drops of water know themselves to be a river?” A group of smaller pieces are single word embedded in Lucite, some suggesting gay relationships- “Leather”, “Daddy”, “Sir”- others suggesting spiritual or philosophical theme-“Wisdom”, “Nature.”
Korpal shifts from his medium, depending on his mood. If he gets tired of one thing, he sets it aside and works on something else. The calligraphic works, he says are the hardest because they require precision. “If you make a mistake, there is no correcting it. You have to start over,” he explains.
Korpal, 38, was born in northern Indiana, where as a child he enjoyed drawing the tress and the wildlife of his semi-rural neighborhood. He took art classes in high school, learning photography, and learned ceramic in college. He moved to Chicago in 1988. Currently he is studying for a degree in art while working as a massage therapist and teaching a course in Calligraphy.
It is obvious from Korpal’s painting that Buddhism has influenced his works-as it has influenced his personal spiritual journey. Korpal visited Tibet in 2003 and found the focus on spirituality appealing. He is a member of Unity of Chicago, a “new Thought” denomination that has no dogmas but places emphasis on the individual’s spiritual growth. “Creating art is a kind of meditation,” Korpal say” It focuses me on what’s in front of me”
He declined to explain the meaning of most of the paintings, however. “I want people to think for themselves,” He says He is happy to have people make up their own story about his works.” There are no wrong answers,” he insists.