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Relationships: Anywhere They Take Me

June 10 to August 5

Reception: 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday, June 10

The artist will be present.


Portrait Society Gallery of Contemporary Art (PSG) is thrilled to present a solo exhibition of work by Phyllis Bramson. This prestigious Chicago-based  artist and teacher is an influential presence whose long career is sometimes associated with the Chicago Imagist group.  The exhibition, “Relationships: Anywhere They Take Me,” runs June 10 to August 5, 2023. An opening reception with the artist is from 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday, June 10.


Bramson’s lavish paintings are part fairytale and part Rococo exultation that linger over the foibles of love and seduction. She works intuitively, building compositions piece by piece with painted passages and elements of collage. Patterns that might seem jarring interact with a lively coherence as she places her protagonists in ornamental settings. Her stories of love and intrigue are timeless and placeless. Borders are eradicated as Bramson frees myth and lore from points of origin and weaves new universal threads. Iconic figures such as a princess, a clown, a snowman, the maiden, or Rapunzel wander through her works, often meeting in paintings where they might not belong — as if they fell into the wrong story. Think of Pinnochio appearing on a page of a Grimm’s tale. This process of compilation and assimilation distinguishes Bramson’s work. She has developed remarkable finesse within this ever-expanding vocabulary of appropriation.


Critic Lori Waxman, in the Chicago Tribune, described Bramson’s 2016 retrospective at the Chicago Cultural Center as “a glorious whirlwind of excess, kitsch and desire. Bramson is a maximalist of materials and cultures, from the rococo paintings of Fragonard to the happy buddhas of Chinese restaurants and the plaster gnomes of tacky gardens. Via techniques of bricolage, she escorts these interracial, high-low, anachronistic members into delicately comedic menages that seem to have as their main principle the act of saying yes.”


Portrait Society is presenting a suite of recent paintings as well as several sculptures and drawings. Long a fan of her work, Gallery Director Debra Brehmer said, “We are ecstatic and honored to host this work. I admire Phyllis for her commitment to working with tropes that could fall into the category of ‘feminine’, a risky proposition over decades of an exclusionary art world. As all of that is now changing, Phyllis’ work is more relevant and more timely than ever. It is almost an encyclopedia of what the male-driven art world had deemed unworthy as subjects — love, domesticity, and the fluid realm between high and low expressions. She glues together art discourse with patterns from wallpaper or objects from the nicknack shelf with immensely sophisticated orchestration, honoring the cultural continuities that turn monuments into paper weights.”



Phyllis Bramson is the recipient of three National Endowments, a Senior Fulbright Scholar, a Louis Comfort Tiffany Grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Rockefeller Foundation Grant, a 2004 Artadia: The Fund for Art and Dialogue Jury Award and a 2009 Anonymous Was a Woman Award.

She has been in more than 30 one-person exhibitions, including The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York; Boulder Art Museum; the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago (mid-career survey); The Rockford Art Museum; and The Chicago Cultural Center (retrospective 1995-2016), and the Lubeznik Center for the Arts. Group exhibitions include Seattle Art Museum; Art Institute of Chicago; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Smart Museum; Renwick Museum; and the Corcoran Museum’s 43rd Painting Biennial.

Bramson lives and paints in Chicago and has been advising painting and drawing graduate students at the School of the Art Institute at Chicago since 2007. She was awarded Professor Emerita from the University of Illinois, Chicago in 2007.



Trop d'Amour (Too Much Love)

June 10 to August 5
Reception: 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday, June 10
Exhibition catalog launch: 4 to 6 p.m. Friday, August 4, 2023
Purchase catalog here


Virginia Rae Ahrens (nee Marvin) grew up in the small town of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. While Virginia (1914-1978) was in high school and into her early 30s, she kept diaries and secretively made pencil drawings on typing paper that depicted female figures dressed in erotic attire. The drawings, dated from 1930 to 1947, were discovered 20 years ago by Virginia’s granddaughter, tucked into a box of Virginia’s sheet music. None of the surviving family members had known of Virginia’s drawing proclivities.


Virginia married Leonard H. Ahrens, a high school boy friend, in 1934 when she was 20 years old and continued to secretly invent these fashion designs. The exhibition, Trop d’Amour: Too Much Love, includes drawings as well as Virginia’s hand-sewn wedding dress which serves as a symbol of her transition from a young woman with creative and transgressive dreams into the more conventional role of wife and mother.


The title of the exhibition comes from Virginia’s diaries in which she would use this phrase, “trop d’amour” when describing especially rambunctious dates with high school boyfriends.  Many of Virginia’s diaries survive. They detail her high school social life, church choir, outings with girlfriends, and excursions to events in Chicago, such as the time she saw a Duke Ellington concert or the time she heard Franklin Delano Roosevelt speak. The diaries do not, however, mention the drawings or a fantasy sex life.


The collection encompasses 132 pencil drawings, mostly on 8.5 x 11-inch sheets of thin paper. Some are double-sided and most are titled, dated, and notated. “Fantastic fashions in Chiffon” (May 24, 1940) presents four girls in different poses in see-through gowns. Each gown is further described in Virginia’s practiced cursive: “White chiffon with brocade and beaded belt and slippers in multi-colors. Gown made entirely backless to hips, high neck in front.” Most of the drawings graphically reveal the naked body through thin fabrics and many are overtly sexual with openings to showcase breasts and pubic areas. Her family recalls that Virginia was interested in film, becoming familiar with the starlets of the time such as Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Bette Davis, and Claudette Colbert. She also visited Chicago on a regular basis where an older friend of her sister’s would take her to dinner, the theater, jazz shows, and the 1934 World’s Fair.


After her marriage, Virginia channeled her creativity toward cooking, baking, and sewing. Family members speculate that her unfulfilled fantasies of a glamorous life may have caused her to turn to alcohol. Granddaughter Mindy Brancamp recalls that despite becoming an alcoholic, Virginia took great care in her appearance, until her death at age 64 of an alcohol related fall.


This body of work uniquely underscores the universality of complex and often secret human yearnings. It is significant that it emerges from rural Wisconsin, an unlikely locale for a high school girl in the 1930s to not only dream of provocative sexuality, but to explore these fantasies in the concrete, material form of her own drawings for more than a decade. Virginia’s drawings necessitated concealment within the context of the era’s societal conventions, but this did not silence her determination to express herself beyond the moral rectitude of protestant, rural Wisconsin.  Historically, women were predetermined to marry, have children, and run the household. These responsibilities and the lack of a means to earn independent income limited the expressive options for women. Few historic bodies of vernacular work of this nature survive. Woman were simply not encouraged to be the authors of their own libidos.

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