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'Star Struck' artists focus on famous faces

April 19, 2002

By Misha Davenport Staff reporter

T heater is the expression of conflict as action. Dennis P. McCann's portraits of pop icons like Elvis Presley and Andy Warhol attempt to express their greatness in vibrant color. It's a perfect match.

McCann, 41, is one of four artists to be featured in "Star Struck: An Exhibition of Celebrity Portraits." The art show opens tonight in Steppenwolf Theatre's second-floor gallery. Produced in conjunction with Anatomically Correct, the show further explores the themes from Steppenwolf's current production, "A Royal Family."

You might think a theater is a strange place to show art, but McCann thinks it's a great way to get his work shown.

'Star Struck: An Exhibition of Celebrity Portraits'* Through June 16* Steppenwolf Theatre Gallery, 1650 N. Halsted* The gallery opens one hour prior to curtain for "A Royal Family"* Gallery admission is free* (773) 335-1650

"There are more artists than there are galleries. When you are fortunate enough to land a show, it runs a few weeks and then that's it. Anyone who doesn't happen to catch the show misses the art. But Anatomically Correct is different. Instead of waiting for people to come to art, it's taking art to the people," McCann says.

Steppenwolf's director of marketing and communications, Jennifer Bielstein, is equally enthused about the concept of using theater space to showcase art.

"We wanted to make our lobby more attractive and wanted to enhance our patrons' theater-going experience. It's been a great fit," Bielstein says.

While the play turns a critical eye on only one of the royal families of stage and film, the Barrymores, "Star Struck" is not that limited. Portraits featured in the exhibit include celebrities from stage, television, film and rock music.

While McCann works exclusively in acrylics, the other three artists--Robert Pogatetz, Philin Phlash and Renee McGinnis--work in other mediums such as charcoal, photography and oil.

McCann is an expressionist painter. Icons of rock and pop are seemingly ill-suited as subjects for such treatment. Expressionism by its definition is the expression of one's inner experiences through art. McCann's paintings aren't about his experiences, but rather those of people who live their lives in front of the prying eyes of the public. However, McCann says he does internalize his subject matter.

"I use a combination of photographs and combine the images in my head. It's that final image I paint from. Ultimately, the style ends up being personal," McCann says.

McCann started painting pop and rock stars by accident. In 1991, he presented Lou Reed with a portrait as a gift at a poetry reading the musician was giving. Trouble was, Reed was also approached at the event by JAM Productions, who wanted him to donate something to a celebrity auction for charity. Reed signed and donated the only thing he had with him, McCann's painting.

"The next thing I know, a friend calls me and tells me to turn on MTV. They were doing a piece on the auction and one of the items they focused on was my painting," McCann says.

McCann contacted the charity and entered into a three-year agreement to donate artwork to the group. A couple of weeks before a celebrity would blow into town, JAM would contact him to arrange a portrait.

"I did one portrait for charity and one for me. I got both signed and before long I was accumulating these paintings of stars," McCann says.

As to the stars' reactions to their likenesses, all have approved, though McCann says one celebrity in particular did give him a bit of a scare.

"Eric Clapton is very British and very proper. Most stars would look at them briefly and say they were nice. Clapton looked at them for 20 minutes. Those were the longest 20 minutes. Finally, he told me they were really nice."

McCann will unveil two new works tonight. A portrait of Elvis already had been completed at the request of Anatomically Correct. McCann was in the process of completing his latest work, Steppenwolf's John Malkovich, when we interviewed him.

"Thank God I don't work in oils. The painting would still be wet when I was hanging it."


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