“Rugged Elegance” art exhibit merges the earthy with the industrial

Mike Baur’s sculpture Reflection Gage is currently on display in Fermilab Art Gallery.

On the Wilson Hall second floor crossover, the Fermilab Art Gallery has a feeling of erupting from the ground and revealing the past. Steel tubes and bars, covered in a rusty red patina, entangle within concrete and PVC. Between them are paintings of parabolic shapes in similar earthy hues on paper and burnt wood. Some paintings use the scraps of an old record book from the 1930s. Others hide a more modern backing of polypropylene.

These pieces of art form an exhibition called “Rugged Elegance,” featuring West Chicago artists Mike Baur and Stephen Mueller. The two are friends and mutual admirers and had been looking for an opportunity to do a show together. When Fermilab invited Baur and an artist of his choice, he immediately chose Mueller.

“Fermilab’s always been on my radar,” Mueller said. “The gallery is beautiful and when the opportunity came up, I was interested in showing there because it was a neat venue.”

Mueller’s paintings are influenced by a visit to Australia in 2007, when he encountered Aboriginal art made from natural pigments. He began to look at different ochres, iron oxide powders with various impurities that produce a range of earth tones.

“You can get those pigments in oils and acrylics, but when you do that, the material has lost its magic for me,” Mueller said. “To get your hands on just the raw pigment is pretty spectacular.”

Each of Mueller’s paintings is raw and unvarnished, with few evident touch-up marks.

Baur’s sculpture work is similarly unpolished. Using industrial materials like steel and concrete, he creates conglomerations that suggest fragility but can withstand the rigors of the outdoors.

“I try to make things so they’ll outlast me and my grandkids without falling apart,” he said.

Baur has been working in sculpture for 44 years, and he said each sculpture’s inspiration is one of his previous works. Fermilab Visual Arts Coordinator Georgia Schwender chose the exhibition name “Rugged Elegance” from an essay by the director of the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park at Governors State University, where two of Baur’s sculptures are part of the permanent collection.

“The name is not as much a theme as it is a description,” Baur said.

The exhibit will be up until September 17. An artist reception will take place tomorrow, July 20, from 5 to 7 p.m. in the Art Gallery.

Joseph Piergrossi