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Breakout Artists 2004: Chicago’s next generation of image makers

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By Michael Workman

Artists are made to break out, break away from convention. Artists break out of limits that are personal, financial, intellectual or social, to name a few examples. Not that swimming against a current of anti-ambition bias and a Midwestern kind of bunker mentality makes their task any easier. But these nine have successfully made a break for it, activating in spectacular ways a myriad of cultural and social networks for their own artistic purposes. They’re the ones to watch for what’s next in Chicago art.

Siebren Versteeg
Futurist rock star
A native of new Haven, Connecticut, Siebren Versteeg will be finishing his degree in Studio Arts from the University of Illinois this August. Hassled often as the oldest student in his class, Versteeg takes a nonchalant approach. “My work essentially resonates between my subjective relationship with the world and larger influences, between public and private. I want to bubble up the subjectivity of understanding. I want to create a contemplative relationship versus leaving viewers to navigate surfaces.”
Versteeg uses media that people have predetermined responses to, including television and the Internet. Primarily a writer of code, Versteeg has become perhaps best known for hacking into content providing online databases and then flowing that information into live media feeds. His “Coke” piece, titled “Dynamic Ribbon Device,” a live feed from the Associated Press newswire that broadcast the text onto a plasma screen in the Coca-Cola brand font, is only one example. “I provide shells for the information that come from these content providers, I provide mediating systems. That’s what artists do, we mediate our experiences through content. We’re filters.”
His recently installed MFA project leaves no room for doubt as to where he wants to place the viewer in that process: a video projection on one wall shows movie credits scrolling over a landscape scene, but only first names and last initials. These are birth announcements fed live from the Grown Family Nursery database. Against a black background on the opposite wall, another list of names feed in from Legacy.com, a provider of death announcements to news media. Take the hint of the as-yet totally unnamed children scrolling across the first screen and pick up the clue of the black background in the other, and you may, if only for a moment, breathe a sigh of relief at the full distance between them.

Gabe Fowler
Video cultist
Born in Connecticut, Gabe Fowler grew up in Florida, where he went off to school to study biology. After graduation, he worked for a small-town ABC News affiliate as a morning and noon producer, a job he left because it was “incredibly stressful and not creatively satisfying.” Shortly after quitting, he started producing a cable-access program with friends called “Nothing Special,” a name stolen from Andy Warhol who said if he ever were able to produce a TV show, that’s what he’d call it. A favorite spot was “Viewer Mail.” Nobody ever wrote in, so Fowler and friends wrote and responded to their own letters. One of his friends suggested they write a ransom letter from somebody who had kidnapped a cat and the bit evolved into an ongoing skit he smirkingly refers to as the “catnap” letters.
Fowler came to Chicago for graduate school at the Art Institute in August 1999, an experience he characterizes as “debilitating, depressing and chaotic. I was really into film and thought I’d just come to town and make a feature-length film.” Before long, he was contemplating dropping out of school. “Then I realized I was just going to have to work for myself rather than rely on a bunch of drunken friends to help me make a movie.” Fowler started hanging around the video department, where he found lots of remaindered film footage that he started stringing together. He’d overdub an episode of “The Transformers” with a reading of Revelations or glom together explosion scenes from ultraviolent cartoons into a single continuous video clip.
These days, Fowler keeps pushing the envelope, focusing on how big business manipulates popular culture and industrial society. It’s impossible to make a film that’s not a pop product, he claims, citing the language of the city’s office towers, subways and airport people-movers as pre-existing fodder for his work. Video and similarly small-scale manufacturing projects are also more cost-effective. Neon signs—like the one he made reversing the letters in a neon OPEN sign to read NOPE—are cheaper to produce compared with a piece of architecture, say, or a parking meter. “If you wanted to build a parking meter from scratch, you’d need some serious equipment and understanding of physics, but the aesthetics of video are already ingrained in the culture.”

Deborah Stratman
Geo-cultural engineer
A Chicagoan born in D.C., Stratman got her start studying physics at the University of Illinois. After finishing, she moved around, living for a while in Iceland and Latvia, followed by a stint in Denmark after graduate school at California’s Cal Tech. Stratman relates her interest in travel to her early fascination with science and with landforms in general. “I have an easier time thinking in terms of things like volume as opposed to stories, where there’s not necessarily a concurrent spatial understanding of the world.” And the way she thinks about landscapes serves her cultural-anthropological approach to art making, as places where history and culture become embedded. Take her interest in the Uyghur people of Turkistan, for instance. A Turkic-speaking Muslim people situated on the frontier through which the Silk Road used to run between Asia, Europe and the Middle East, they’re in a similar situation to the Tibetans. They want their freedom and independence, but because of Chinese-held economic interests, are unlikely to ever realize their nationalist ambitions. Stratman’s interest in the Uyghurs led her to make a film about tightrope walking, their national sport.
Among her other favorite places in the world are deserts: Stratman’s “Power/Exchange” is a project she undertook with the assistance of the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Los Angeles. For it, Stratman photographed hundreds of telecommunications and radio towers in a 200-mile radius and then built her own from scratch. The result is a functioning sixty-foot telecommunications tower that now stands in the town of Windover, Nevada, at the border between Utah and Nevada. The town’s significant as the location of Windover Air Force Base, home of the airstrip where the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, the Enola Gay, first took to the air.
Long before these projects, Stratman made experimental, essayistic and documentary films. Her most recent, “In Order Not to be Here,” an exploration of “the cycles of fear and safety and how they perpetuate one another,” was selected for this year’s Whitney Biennial. Filmed in Illinois suburbs and California towns, it illustrates Stratman’s theory that architecture can be used as a way of policing people. “I was interested in how banal or discreet things we don’t normally pay attention to change our views of power,” explains Stratman. It was those ideas about how environment affects codes of behavior that got her into the Whitney.

Saya Woolfalk
Sexual sign linguist
New York-born Saya Woolfalk engaged heavily in the body-politics discourses of the eighties, took a particular interest in semiotics and read a lot of Roland Barthes. The French intellectual’s essay “Toys” in the collection “Mythologies” was a strong influence on Woolfalk, as was her mentorship with lesbian iconographic artist Leslie Bostrum at Brown University, who taught her how to negotiate social relationships through a process of simplification.
“I cut out a bunch of pussies from Hustler,” explains Woolfalk “and I made a porno alphabet.” After that, she started working with felt, making finger puppets that she’d invite patrons to interact with. “They’d put them on their fingers.” Woolfalk recalls. “I wanted them to create their own sign landscapes and have their own conversations.” After a brief shift to wearable art, Woolfalk happened on the idea for an installation/performance piece called “Nostalgia.” In it, Woolfalk lay beneath a sculpture surface covered with winding tubes from beneath which she stuck her legs. “People were like, ‘What exactly is this?’ They couldn’t see my face, only my legs. It was a jumping-off point for my thinking about emanations of sexuality, taking the unfamiliar and moving that back into the realm of the familiar, which is actually all about communication.” She’d found a way to embody her visual language.
During her time at the School of the Art Institute, she started thinking about how audiences move through a space and how any given space works to activate a specific dialogue for those audiences depending on the place. People get quiet in a gallery or museum, for instance. She started working on ideas for how to make performance-art objects that could interact with people in a way they could negotiate with some familiarity, deciding on sexual codes and how our bodies are directly affected by them. But Woolfalk wanted to know what comes after that moment of response to having themselves aroused by an object. “I wanted to give a ‘wake up’ moment to the audience who’d encounter this golliwog, but one that has become a love object that inspires desire. How does something like desire actually exist in the moment? Well, I started to build these environments that people could walk into, exist in for a while as spectators and which would then start to change the code systems embedded in their subjectivity, those complex accumulation of signs.”

Mike Wolf
Communitarian tradesman
A native of St. Paul, Minnesota, Wolf transferred to the Art Institute of Chicago in the late 1990’s from Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, where he’d started off studying biology. “I thought biology would be all about hanging around outdoors, but the experience was really about my life changing.” Wolf took his lead from his older brother, an unpublished novelist. Once here, Wolf pursued studies in film, video and sound, and enjoyed rewarding relationships with faculty, including Greg Bordowitz and Van Lyne Green. He cites both as major influences. “I wanted to do experimental video; I was using the computer to manipulate text, edit and make collages from fragmented images.”
Early on, Wolf started frequenting what he refers to as “the stray spaces of the late nineties,” exhibition spaces holed up in storefronts and run out of people’s houses, like Dogmatic Gallery and 7/3 Split in the Pilsen neighborhood. In the no-frills party atmosphere of these spaces, artists often exchanged ideas with Old Style cans in hand. The fruits of Wolf’s grassroots approach have been projects like his recent collaboration with POSTChicago, a poster project run by Keri Butler and Lisa Williamson. For it, Wolf spent a summer bird-watching in his Humboldt Park neighborhood, documenting the species he saw. Mostly imported from Europe over the last 200 years, he illustrated them and prepared the information in poster form. “It’s important, I think, to contribute to the culture of the neighborhood,” explains Wolfe, who can’t help but tack on his typical self-effacing elan: “Even though I don’t do it that well all the time.”
Another collaborative project, Wolf refers to the Network of Casual Art (NCA) and the Network of Casual Art Audio Visual Department (NCAAV) as “shell organizations” that he’s been using to do his work through. For him, it’s a way of putting a lot of other people’s projects under one umbrella, accumulating and dispersing resources. Every year since 2001, the NCA has administered The Bloody Tool Grant, a program that allows Wolf to give away money, usually a couple hundred dollars, to people doing non-commercial work he admires (it’s ineligible for other types of funding, notes Wolf). Its logo are a bloodied knife and fork on a plate. Recipients have included art-collaborative Temporary Services, writer Dan Gleason and performance art group Lucky Pierre. Another initiative of the NCA, the NCAAV has functioned as a particularly successful networking and dialogue-forcing tool for Wolf, who lends out video projectors and other AV equipment worth tens of thousands free of charge.

Bonnie Fortune
Genealogist of self
A native of Tennessee, Bonnie Fortune makes books for artists and staged a show called “The Magical Menagerie,” a collection of found ceramic animals, on green Astroturf decorated with blue and white felt, but works primarily in film and video. Her Little Owl Cinema’s Found Footage Film Event traveled around to Chicago galleries, apartments and enjoyed large audiences at the occasional home screening. Fortune served wine, operated the equipment and jumped in between reels to offer explanations about what patrons were about to see. Usually intimate and experimental, she uses what she refers to as “detrimental imagery” to investigate personal and female perspectives.    Fortune likes to use old Super-8 cameras that she finds at flea markets and garage sales in her work. Her aesthetic require light leaks and dirty lenses to approximate the process of memory decay and the problems inherent in memory recall that she relates to difficulties in language and communication. “Artists are always struggling to express an idea,” says Fortune. “It’s the same things as in relationships with friends or family. There are too many different networks, too many subtleties and points-of-view. It’s hard to make something clear when you’re faced with all that.” Facing that kind of intimidating disjunction between point of view was expressed clearly for her while volunteering at a homeless shelter in Nashville. There she met Adrian, a woman who worked at the shelter. She came to serve as a kind of mentor to Fortune. “Adrian used to have this bumper sticker on her car that said ‘Speak Your Mind Even if Your Voice Shakes.’ That’s a really good way of putting it.”
Besides seeking out mentors and people to work with (she’s recently collaborated with Mike Wolf), Fortune often turns to her family for subject matter. For her film, “Plan,” Fortune returned to Tennessee to shoot old footage of her grandmother’s house and has recently been working on another called “First Girl.” In it, she traces the history of a blue shirt made by her grandmother Elsie Finey and worn by her mother, Sue Fortune. After modifying it with some of her own sewing, Bonnie now has the shirt. Her film literally follows the hand-me-down trajectory through first daughters in the family to have owned it, while tracking the metaphoric succession of female mantels in the family hierarchy.

David Coyle
Professional villain
Saddam Hussein. Osama bin Laden. There’s no shortage of “evildoers” these days, but gathering the power of even a lesser-evil brand of tyranny requires finely tuned skills of coercion, manipulation and deception. Enter David Coyle, professional villain. Before venturing to Chicago, Coyle was an undergraduate student of painting and drawing at Tyler University in Philadelphia. While wandering through his interests in art history and theory, he discovered that he could “validate” his work by quoting French philosophers. This success with disingenuousness piqued his interest in theory, and he started delving deeper into the history of painting. After finishing at Tyler, Coyle set out for graduate studies at the Art Institute where he hoped to figure out what his work meant by thrusting himself into the middle of “bright and aggressive peer groups.”
It was a tough row to hoe. After knocking around ideas in conversation, Coyle decided that he needed to allow for more humor in his work. “I needed to accept that the work could be smart and funny at the same time.” In response, he shifted to video and started drawing from and combining his own personal history with characters from classic monster movies. In one, Coyle sits in a chair facing the camera dressed up as Count Dracula, complete with raised-cowl cape and a chunky metal cloak broach. He paws at the viewer with a hairy, black-nailed hand, mumbling the words “I need you, I vant to suck your blood.” Coyle-as-Dracula’s constant importunities create a parasitic relationship between subject and viewer wherein the life-sucking vampire can’t exist without the emotional attention of the viewing subject.
Coyle found that he’d long been a fan of how popular culture pokes fun at the foibles of human needs and insecurities. “Much of my work tends toward unpacking ideas we have about villains by looking into moral quandaries, where something playful shifts to a more aggressive idiom. I made this piece called ‘Frosty,’ for instance, in which a little snowman slowly melts through the time-lapse of a video and at the end you discover there’s a rock embedded in it.” Coyle describes his background in painting as a solid source for his work in video. Reversing his direction, Coyle’s recently been working on a series of large-scale paintings based on “2001: A Space Odyssey” that investigate the influence of high Modernist abstraction on pop culture.

Rashid Johnson
Racial detective
“I’ve been trying to take off the handcuffs,” Rashid Johnson says of his latest work. Race has always been the American hot-button issue, with our history of lynchings and ambiguity about our agrarian capitalist motives for slave ownership clouding the issue of race identity.
A Columbia College grad, Johnson started working as a response to photographer and installation-maker Pat Ward Williams. The artist’s use of social and personal history led to him to look at artists thinking about race issues who were able to break out of working in a didactic mode or, as he puts it “who had rejected the idea that there’s an individual behind racism making decisions that problematize social interaction.” He prefers instead to look at the issue as a systemic problem. Can a distinction in subject histories be made that doesn’t suffer interference from hideous master-race narratives? Johnson’s work uniquely separates complexity from complication, if only his audiences are willing to confront the psychodynamic struggle he situates at its core. Trained as a photographer, the medium through which he communicates was simply always easiest for him to use. However, the medium offered him the opportunity to investigate two parallel histories: that of photography itself and the appropriation of black imagery. Both coalesce into a complex imagery filled with all the woof and warp of a struggle to identify himself in the effort.
Still, he worries that the counterintuitive standing of his subject will turn out as the trees of personal black experience that won’t be seen for the forest of historical contentions about racism. The idea of black community he’s exploring are less about racism and more concerned with the difficult space of community where opportunities to acquire blackness open up minds to a racially problematic personal struggle. His participation in “Freestyle,” a show curated by Thelma Golden, opened up his thoughts on the matter. In the show, he saw how artists were dealing with issues surrounding self and gender and began thinking about the sophisticated space that black contemporary artists occupy. “I need to allow myself space to participate in that dialogue,” says Rashid. “My work now is an attempt to occupy an expansion into things outside the realm of social responsibility.”

Brian Taylor
Ideological cyclist
A 1999 graduate of the Art Institute, Brian Taylor might loathe inclusion in a list of “breakout” artists since his art contends explicitly with the process of cycling through and then recycling old ideas. He started off working in photography, then encountered the work of artists like Tom Friedman and Bas Jan Ader. The encounter convinced him to concentrate solely on making objects. His graduate-school experience focused him keenly on how he would make those objects, how things existed and came about in a process of conceptualization.
“My good friend Philip von Zweck says that art is ‘the residue of thinking.’” Taylor explains, pointing out that whether a piece will be shown outdoors or in a gallery setting change how it will be made. His early work was about things that exist in our day-to-day experience that simply go unnoticed. A piece he made for a show in Pilsen, for instance, included figurines made of rubber bands stuffed into cracks in the exposed cement floor. These days, he finds his mission to sow discretion converging with an interest in participatory art, epitomized by an open-air “temple” for practicing tightrope walking that he constructed for a Garden Fresh-organized show at the Evanston Art Center. Between two wooden posts was a short piece of rope suspended maybe two feet off the ground. In collaboration with Mike Wolf at last year’s “Thrill” summer art festival, Taylor helped in the construction of 16 piñatas that were strung across 150-foot-long wire through the center of the fairgrounds. “That project was collaborative right from the beginning,” says Taylor. “Things were cycling over into different ways of making the work, and now I’ve been working for the first time a lot with video. I’m trying to attack the same old ideas instead of thinking about what I want to do in terms of, say, the heaviness of the materials, opening up things more rather than thinking of them as medium-based work.”

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