Steve Hough’s painting, “The “R” of Entropy,” is both beautiful and thought-provoking.

Steve Hough, "The "R" of Entropy." Urethane on silver plated, carved polymer relief, 2016. 38.75"h. x 85.75"w. Courtesy of Zg Gallery, Chicago.
Steve Hough, “The “R” of Entropy.” Urethane on silver plated, carved polymer relief, 2016. 38.75"h. x 85.75"w. Courtesy of Zg Gallery, Chicago.

On a frigid evening in early January I ventured out to Zg Gallery to see their latest group exhibition, “Para Natural World.” I tend to avoid gallery openings because they are usually bustling with people, which is great for the gallery but not so great for viewing art. But I figured the Chicago exhibition would be desolate, since it was nearly zero degrees outside. I was wrong: people were out in droves.

The chance to see a new painting by Steve Hough, an English artist based in Wisconsin, was my motive for attending the opening. I’d seen Hough’s work in the past, and found myself mesmerized by his simple motifs that suggest qualities in nature, such as dimples of sand on a beach. His latest work, “The “R” of Entropy,” mimics the ripple of a pebble piercing the surface of a blue body of water; gradations of circles emanate to the painting’s edge. When I got word that this new painting would be displayed, I knew I had to see it.

Upon entering Zg Gallery, I meandered through small groups of people sipping glasses of wine as I looked for the painting. I found it hanging in a small side gallery — distinct from the other artwork on show. In part this was because of its physicality, about seven feet wide, but also its reflections of color and light stopped me in my tracks. Rather than a slab of blue paint on a canvas, the painting’s hypnotic circles had a three-dimensional quality that radiated light beautifully. In short, “The “R” of Entropy,” like his others, was aesthetically delightful. Yet something was different: seeing this painting in a gallery full of people allowed me to experience Hough’s work in an entirely new way.

For awhile I basked in its surface qualities. Facing “The “R” of Entropy,” I noticed how the gallery’s bright lights accentuated the tactility of the circles wound tightly in the center. At the same time, they highlighted the softness of the circles that had flattened towards the painting’s edges. I wanted to see how the lights affected the painting from other angles, and was surprised the shades of blue changed as I moved side to side.

Exhibition shot.
Exhibition shot.
Exhibition shot.
Exhibition shot.

More wonderful still was the painting’s reflective quality. It wasn’t mirror-like, yet I recognized the shapes and outlines of myself and others. I also saw artwork by other artists hanging on neighboring walls; scenes from Amy Casey’s city paintings blurred in the ripples of Hough’s painting. What caught my eye, though, were the circles reflecting unobtrusively, but expansively, onto the gallery floor. This dialogue between painted and reflected color proved to be an unexpected joy of the show.

That wasn’t all. The best part of the painting was the contemplative experience it generated. This is mostly because its color and subject echo a moment in nature. For many people being in nature is a way to de-stress and get lost in another world, whether you’re hiking in Yellowstone National Park, scuba diving in Belize, or sitting on Cathedrals Beach in Spain. “The “R” of Entropy” takes you to this other world. Seeing what looks like an ever-changing body of water was a mental retreat to peaceful moments I’ve spent in nature: thinking, looking, and reflecting.

Steve Hough, "Pass." Color shifting urethane on carved polymer relief, 2016. 20"h. x 40.25"w. Courtesy of Zg Gallery, Chicago.
Steve Hough, “Pass.” Color shifting urethane on carved polymer relief, 2016. 20"h. x 40.25"w. Courtesy of Zg Gallery, Chicago.

I’d noticed this soothing, meditative quality in Hough’s past work, like “Pass,” when I was one of two people in the gallery. It’s easy to get lost in thought when nothing completes for your attention. However, seeing “The “R” of Entropy” during a crowded opening emphasized its meditative effect. Despite the stimulus going on around me — people chatting, laughing, and strolling throughout the gallery — the painting commanded my attention and interaction, resulting in a fascinating occurrence that I would’ve missed had I opted to see it on any other day.

For some “The “R” of Entropy” is simply aesthetically pleasing; it would certainly be a talking piece among friends in a Chicago high-rise. For others the art historical references and theoretical underpinnings make this work admirable. The changing and reflecting color in Hough’s painting recalled artists like John McCracken, James Turrell, and Robert Irwin, among others associated with the Light and Space art movement. (This movement began during the 1960s and 1970s on America’s west coast as artists explored visual effects of light using glass, fluorescent lights, and cast acrylic, among other materials.)

Indeed, the aesthetics pulled me in and the art historical and theoretical foundation gave the painting meaning and structure. But, for me, seeing Hough’s work in a different context resulted in a captivating experience that underscored the power of a painting.

“Para Natural World” runs through February 28, 2017 at Zg Gallery.

Programmer and Writer: | | @amymhaddad