Bob Meyer infuses color into his long history of theatrical artwork

Tuesday, 05 December 2017, 07:21:12 AM. His haunting pencil drawings and prints became a prized feature of the Chicago theater scene in the 1980s and '90s.

Something unusually magical happens to the work of visual artists who also are preoccupied with the theater. Think of Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Jean Cocteau, Alexander Calder, Salvador Dali, Robert Rauschenberg, David Hockney and William Kentridge, to name a few, and don’t forget Leonardo da Vinci.

‘BOB MEYER: NEW WORK’
When: Through Dec. 31
Where: Primitive, 130 N. Jefferson
Info: www.beprimitive.com

Bob Meyer, the Chicago-bred artist, actor, director and writer who now lives in a village outside Paris near Monet’s Giverney gardens (and has installed his studio in an actual cave across the street from his home), is another ideal example of this cross-pollination of image with story, character and dialogue. His haunting pencil drawings and prints became a prized feature of the Chicago theater scene in the 1980s and ’90s, when he founded the Gare St. Lazare Players, a company that has since established itself in France and been seen throughout Europe, and under whose banner Meyer has been responsible for 60 productions of self-penned work, as well as plays by Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Sam Shepard, Wallace Shawn, Dario Fo and many others.

Artist Bob Meyer in his studio outside Paris. | Courtesy of the artist

Now, Meyer’s work is making a rare return to Chicago, and reveals how in recent years he has shifted from primarily black-and-white drawings to magically hued pastels and paintings. About four dozen of his beautifully framed pieces are now on display at Primitive, the museum-quality emporium and gallery in the West Loop that brings together a remarkable mix of antique and modern furniture, tribal and ethnic art, textiles, jewelry and fashion from more than 100 cultures. And that juxtaposition only enhances the magic of the artist’s exquisite draftsmanship and use of color, the satirical bite, lush sensuality, pathos and compelling eccentricity of his imagery, and the intriguing titles of his works, many of which could be described as one-line plays.

Meyer, who has had pencils, paper and crayons in hand since childhood, attended Southern Illinois University and received scholarships to study at both the Ox-Bow School of the Arts and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He founded Gare St. Lazare in 1982 and began attracting attention for the postcards the company used to promote its productions.

Barbara Gaines, founder and artistic director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (CST), recalls that she first met Meyer in 1986 when she staged her initial production, “Henry V,” on the roof of the Red Lion Pub in Lincoln Park.

“Bob and I immediately got on very well, and at one point he said, ‘I’m going to do a little postcard for you’ and he came back to me with the most gorgeous black-and-white pencil drawing of King Henry kissing his sword,” said Gaines. “It hangs on the wall of my office to this day. He then said, ‘You need a poster,’ and he created a magnificent one with the image of a big gloved hand that looked as if it were in a sword fight (he said he’d found a dark black glove on the street), and it had the dates of the show, and the name of every actor in the cast. We Xeroxed it and hung it in all the store windows in the neighborhood, and there’s still one on the wall of the Pub.”

“Bob just has such a big, generous heart, and there is an empathy and compassion in his work that is palpable, and just keeps expanding,” said Gaines. “His images burn a place in your heart, and the title he devises for each work kind of wraps around the piece like a string of rosary beads. My favorite is the one for the face of a wounded young girl that says: ‘He Waited Till My Birthday Then He Dumped Me.’ ”

Many of the works at Primitive possess a disturbing yet poignant portrait of adults who still inhabit a childlike world, or of children who seem preternaturally adult – a cross between fairy tale characters and strange, even a bit creepy human windup toys. And they come with such unpunctuated titles as “Just Tell Your Mama And Your Papa I’m a Little School Boy Too,” or “Go Ahead Turn the Key I’m A Jockey That’s What I Do I Ride.” There also are dramatic scenes, as in the painting of an encounter between a father and his young son (titled “Because I Said So”), the ambiguous relationship between two siblings (“Sisters”), and a long-married couple, lying in bed and staring at the ceiling (“30 Years”).

Theater, from start to finish.

Bob Meyer’s oil on canvas work, “Because I Said So.” | Courtesy of Primitive

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