Art can be evocative and probing, and “Coded: Coated,” the latest exhibit at the Freeark Gallery in the Riverside Arts Center (RAC), does this thoroughly and completely, with the work of three artists, guest curated by Jay Wolke.

Wolke, the newest member of the RAC board of directors, is an artist too, with his photographic works in the permanent collection at the Art Institute of Chicago; the MOMA and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Wolke is also professor of Photography at Columbia College Chicago. Exhibit curating is another area of expertise and when asked to curate a show at RAC, his idea was to “have an exhibition based on materiality and how that contributes to the way we see objects or understand their meanings.” 

“Coded: Coated” features Chicago artists Jonathan Castillo and Paul Somers, along with Hannah Givler from Iowa City, Iowa. Wolke said each artist has their own approach to working with surface. Givler is minimalist; Somers is an abstract relief sculptural artist using an “almost maximalist approach;” and Castillo is a photographer employing handmade paper. 

Wolke feels there is a resonance among the works: “Each one takes a uniquely powerful approach to putting idea and message into the work and each one has a unique approach to the materials that they’ve chosen.”

“Julia #2” by Jonathan Castillo. | Provided by Riverside Art Center

While the approach may differ, a common thread is that the materials bring into question a bigger issue. With Castillo’s work, four floor-to-ceiling portraits of “Julia” printed in cyanotype on assembled 3-by-3 panes of handmade paper, the material itself contains the message. The paper is made from shredded $20 bills. The money is representative of Julia’s student debt, the young woman in the photos. Each portrait costs $13,793.26, which includes paying off a portion of the sitter’s loans.

In Somers’ art, heavy felt is sewn with the kinds of letters and numbers seen on school sports jerseys, a screen-printed gun, plastic animals, deconstructed footballs, other “kitsch” — juxtaposed in one piece with a rainbow patch and another patch featuring a unicorn with a rainbow mane, in a different work with a pink thong. According to Wolke, Somers’ art “questions and deconstructs masculinity and cultural expectations around men and male activity, especially around sports.”

“Idea and material are very much at play with each other,” Wolke said of Somers’ art. 

Givler’s minimalism most blatantly asks the viewer to question what is being seen. “Drape Plane,” made of pine veneer, looks like wood and acts like wood for the top three-quarters of the piece mounted on the gallery wall, but then is cut and drapes like fabric. 

“She subverts the expectations we have of materials,” Wolke said. “… Her work is incredible at transformation and demanding we make sense of what we’re looking at.”

“Drape Plane” by Hannah Givler. | Provided by Riverside Art Center

It is this play of material in art that explains the exhibit title “Coded: Coated.”

“They are so closely aligned in the making of art objects,” Wolke said of the title words. “I thought it was a logical combination of ideas. Most art, obviously, is a representation, it is not the real thing, so it relies on certain kinds of visual language and processes that would produce an artifact or thing that would have ideas behind it. Hence the idea of a code, a code being something that is not a real thing, but one must decipher, or know how to decipher, in order to understand its meaning. The idea of coated in that meaning has, at least to some degree, to do with the surface of the work itself.”

The overarching idea of “Coded: Coated” is to look beyond the surface, not just when viewing art, but everywhere. 

“A great role of art is to take things that we might already have experience with and recontextualize them and repurpose them, and that includes images in a way that includes a new context,” Wolke said. “I think that is the primary function of what an arts institution does — looks at the world differently. 

“I want people to walk away having been challenged and entertained and I want them to be able to think a little differently about the way they see,” he added. “I hope the works will provoke a cultural dialogue because all three of these [artists’] works are representative of larger social and political ideas.” 

See “Coded: Coated” at the RAC, 32 E. Quincy St., Riverside, through Oct. 16. Gallery hours, Thursdays through Saturdays, 1 to 5 p.m. Artist talk with Jonathan Castillo on Sunday, Sept. 26, 2 p.m. More: