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Breakout Artists 2006: Chicago’s next generation of image makers

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By Michael Workman

Against the backdrop of a Warhol show breaking attendance records at the MCA, the desire to break down any remaining distinctions between culture and fine art, to demolish any remaining boundaries on the making of art, have never been stronger. The very idea of art as only a visual medium is no longer a given, a notion that simultaneously invigorates the practice while challenging its remaining conventions and support systems. In that light, or darkness, we offer a look at a handful of yet-unsung Chicago artists who are doing their part.

Adam Brooks and Mathew Wilson, Industry of the Ordinary
“Through sculpture, text, photography, video, sound and performance, Industry of the Ordinary are dedicated to an exploration and celebration of the customary, the everyday, and the usual. Their emphasis is on challenging pejorative notions of the ordinary and, in doing so, moving beyond the quotidian.” So says the “manifesto” link on the Industry of the Ordinary website at industryoftheordinary.com. Comprised of Adam Brooks and Mathew Wilson, Industry of the Ordinary has emerged as one of the top collaborative groups working in the city, with an influence that spirals outward from the Midwest to a larger watching art world. Whether escorting an ice sculpture of the Ten Commandments down Michigan Avenue and serving the melted water to passersby or playing foosball dressed up like Old God and Young God in the waters of Lake Michigan, their work tackles large issues of religion, politics and identity all the while strongly resonating with an earnest desire for intellectual play.
A native of New York, Adam Brooks lived in London until he was 20 with a father who made commercials and directed films and a mother who worked as a children’s librarian. Growing up in a creative family, he was acquainted early on with art through visits to the city museums and his parent’s collection. His earliest experience was seeing a Lichtenstein show at the Hayward Gallery in the late 1960s, and a Kienholz show in Amsterdam at about the same time. After a stint at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, he came to Chicago to attend graduate school, studying sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Here he found a community of artists with whom he could hone his ideas about art, and reacting against certain faculty members gave him an opportunity to stake out his own positions. “We would hope that anyone anywhere who saw our work would be able to engage with it,” he says. “As we are really just starting, we have not shown the work much physically outside the Midwest, although as it is based on our website, anyone with a computer and Internet access can see and experience it.”
The second half of the two-man team that comprises Industry of the Ordinary, Mathew Wilson was born in Reading, England to a father who worked as an airline steward and a mother who managed a dry cleaners. Unlike Brooks, Wilson’s parents had no influence on his interest in art. “I was able to draw when I was very young. I remember copying photographs for my friends; it was a kind of party trick. It was not something I had much interest in until I was about 15 and discovered painting.” It was at this age in high school that one of his teachers noticed his ability to draw and introduced him to a wide range of other media: photography, print-making, sculpture. It was upon seeing a Joseph Beuys exhibition at the Pompidou Center in Paris that he decided he’d pursue a career as an artist. After graduation, he studied at “a small, unfashionable program in the north of England.” Seeking ideas for what his next move would be, he was also drawn to Chicago by the graduate program at the School of the Art Institute. “I didn’t have a clear idea of where Chicago was, but they offered me a free ride and this allowed me to achieve my primary goal of continuing my studies outside of England.” Since graduation he has performed mostly in the theater arts, most notably with his previous collaboration, “Men of the World.” Wilson views his art practice as a calling but believes that “you need a career to survive.” Wilson and Brooks, the latter of whom has shown at Rhona Hoffman gallery, are now discussing the possibility “of showing as Industry of the Ordinary.”

Jon Gitelson
Born in 1975 in Mount Kisco, New York to a family of social workers, Gitelson developed his interest in art his senior year at Marlboro College in Vermont. He was a lit major and “looking for something non-academic. I’d always taken art classes but never really took it seriously. It was just to take an elective—Photo I—and it just clicked. I’d always taken painting, drawing—but I’m a terrible painter. Photography was the first time I felt confident. I liked that I could explore photography from this film-noirish perspective; it had a kind of eerie, mysterious quality because it was black and white.” Gitelson fell in love with street photography, and with documentarians of everyday life such as Robert Frank, “people like that.” When he graduated from Marlboro, Gitelson moved to Guatemala for eight months to work with an organization called “Out of the Dump,” a group that teaches to kids living in city garbage dumps. He taught photography in Guatemala City and when eventually he moved back to the U.S., it was to Boston, where he worked a series of odd jobs: short-order cook, housepainter. He set up a darkroom in his apartment, and set to pursuing his passion. “I lived in Boston four years, and kept up with my photography while I was working forty hours a week at these other jobs to pay my bills.” It was during his time in Boston that he took a month-long Greyhound bus trip to shoot the street life across America. “I was one of those photographers who try to shoot twenty rolls a week.” He bounced back and forth awhile from Boston to Philadelphia, before coming to Chicago in 2001 to attend Columbia College. “I kept bumping into people who mentioned it, and at that time I was much more traditional, so was looking for schools with photo departments instead of five different unrelated departments. There weren’t that many schools that have a straight photo department and I just loved Chicago. It seemed like a different urban space than I’d lived in before.”
Columbia expanded Gitelson’s view of photography as an art. “It’s funny because I think it was the perfect school for me. I think if I’d gone to a more experimental school I’d make more traditional work. Columbia’s more traditional; you look at UIC, for instance, which is much more doctrinaire, and I think the stubborn side of me would have rebelled.” Gitelson had never really worked on one project for a long period of time, but at Columbia he started making artist’s books and “that was my way of not having to work on one thing for too long. It opened up for me how to get around it.” But Columbia’s biggest benefit to him was its community. “I met people like Jason Lazarus and Brian Ulrich there, and since graduation we’ve all been pushing ourselves as a unit as opposed to in any way cutthroat competitive.”
When Gitelson graduated in 2004, “I was thinking about how to get work out and, as I was making books, they’re tricky to circulate so I started thinking about different ways to approach narrative and storytelling.” He experimented with making “these kind of storyboard poster projects, in response to seeing the Chris Ware show at the Cultural Center and also old movie posters.” His goal was to begin thinking about how to get his work back to a finished product that could be wall-hung, something he viewed as “more accessible to more people at once and I went with that for a year or so and pushed it outside Chicago wherever I could.” It was a little over a year ago that he started collecting flyers that were left on his car and stitching them together into a car cover that he eventually parked in front of the nightclubs that the flyers were advertising. Finished images of the car are viewable at his website, www.thegit.net. “’The Car Project’ was a little more conservative for me, a single image where I had to care about print quality, decent scans and proper lighting—these more traditional concerns—and bring them to this more conceptual project. Also I started thinking about one coherent body or series of work. It’s kind of a one-year project, taking this idea of a book or a finite project and doing it as a wall show.”

Elisa Harkins
Born in Oklahoma in 1978, Elisa Harkins lived there until she was 17, then left to pursue her ambitions to become a dancer. “I moved to New York and was with the Alvin Ailey Jr. Company for a few months and I hated it. They told me to move to Chicago and go to Columbia College, but I broke my ankle skateboarding the summer before I was supposed to move.” With her dance ambitions out the window, she sought alternatives that would keep her in a creative field. “I started studying interactive media, so my background is in website and CD-ROM design.” She wanted to do performance art mixed with digital media, “sort of an interactive game with dancing, which is a really weird concept, but I’ve actually seen companies doing that now.”
Harkins has spent much of her artistic career over the last several years delving into different fields, experimenting with what could stick. “I feel like every five or seven years I totally switch things up. Dancing, website making, pretty intense programming, and now I do flash animation for a job and painting and silkscreening and I hope to start incorporating animation into my drawing.” That approach resulted in difficult interactions with her professors, and turned her attention to the socio-cultural elements of the kind of work she ultimately wanted to make. “My professors told me I was in the wrong school or the wrong department, or I had the wrong train of thought. But I had a lot of friends at the school, and we started a digital-media collective, so it was through that that we inspired each other to keep going.” Harkins’ work with her friends eventually led her to Ed Marszewski, who organizes Chicago’s annual Version Festival. “My education came from working on Version, which started in 2001, the year I graduated. I started working with that and in the past five years I’ve met artists from all over the world who are doing amazing things. I’m a street-art chick. I do a lot of stuff on foam, and I do some silkscreen work and other stuff I paint. I’ve done some collaborations with Chris Uphues. I went to Miami and sold some pillows off an ice-cream truck. I curated a show called ‘Digital Disobedience’ which was in Utrecht in the Netherlands.
“The first time I put up some pieces, they were up maybe half a week and a weekend and then parts of them started disappearing. First I put up two girls and then one of the girls just disappeared. And then it was just one. And I remember it was right across from Earwax and I was sitting there kind of crying and the owner was like ‘I saw it in someone’s house when I was making a delivery.’ So then I thought it was okay. Maybe it’s okay. Maybe I should get used to the fact that my stuff is going to disappear. And it gives me a good reason to make more.”

Matthew Hoffman
Matthew Hoffman was born in Van Wert, Ohio, and went to school at Ball State in Muncie, Indiana, where he earned a degree in graphic design. He was interested in design as early as high school. “We had block scheduling, that was this new thing and we were able to take this seminar class at the last period of every day. We had pretty much free reign, and at that time, we had five new G3s, the teal ones. That was kind of a big deal. There weren’t really assignments, so we were able to go at it and do whatever. A lot of the kids didn’t do anything, but I took full advantage of it.” He moved to Chicago about four years ago, where he lives with his wife, two cats and a dog in Humboldt Park. Much of his work has been shown using a pseudonym or under different project names, so that none of his art (though you’ve likely seen it) can be associated with its maker. “I’ve worked on these different projects and plugged away at them, forming groups. All my undergraduate work, for example, was done under the name H. Mathis. If you want to check it out, it’s at Hmathis.com. I was kind of testing the water with all these things that I thought were interesting: correspondence art, performance art, running the gamut of things.” Even at university, Hoffman didn’t broadcast his involvement in the work he was doing, though it’s that work which has had the most pronounced effect on the work he makes today. “Most people didn’t know I was a graphic design major because I was in the studio a lot, I was in the foundry or the wood shop every single night, every single weekend, I barely made it to my design classes. I got a minor in furniture design, so in my current work, it’s mostly wood cutouts. So I’m trying to blend my thought with that craft.”
It was only this last year that Hoffman came out from behind the pseudonyms and manufactured identities to make art under his real name. Though his wood cutouts and text art hang on the streets pretty much everywhere across Chicago, he still wishes these past projects to remain unassociated with his real name. Pseudonyms, for one thing, suggest a desire to maintain a democratic core to his work, which can be neither bought nor sold. Hoffman wants to take ownership out of the art-making equation. While his shift away from pseudonyms signals a deviation from this specific approach, his use of materials may or may not change all that much as a result. “Right now, I’m working on this sign-based work, and I’ll be showing some original pieces in a print series at AI Gallery [at the Nova Art Fair], and I’m kind of excited about that because the print is a very accessible thing. Most of the work that I have that I haven’t traded is prints, because I can buy a print. I’m also working on a freer, less formal collaboration with Nelson Kahakina for the Urban Gardening Show at Version. It’s a 4 x 8 canvas mixing his imagery with my words. I only use hand tools, no power tools. I’ve worked with metal and casting plastic and resin before, and with that, you have fumes from the resin and metal was so dirty and really cold, but wood is natural and it’s very calming and relaxing to work on. I think sometimes I’m not focused on an absolute goal; I just work on a bunch of different things. I hate to say it, but I think I have a short attention span. I’m working with wood on these things and creating objects, but I’m also very interested in idea-based campaigns and curatorial projects.”
Hoffman’s curatorial and collaborative efforts are projects that he’s eager to showcase during the spring art shows in Chicago. With his friend Lee Petracki, he formed a curatorial project called Research and Development that will showcase a small show of emerging artists for the NFO (pronounced “info”) Expo at Version. “That’s been very interesting, working with people whose work you enjoy seeing. We may not necessarily be able to afford to buy it, but we’ll at least be able to see it. Lee Piechocki also heads up a group called Science Department (www.resdevspace.com) that will present what we’re calling Flight Capsules at the Group Group Show at Version. The one Lee and I are making is a very large ship, hung from helium balloons and you can put contents or messages in them and sail them off.”

Richard Holland and Duncan MacKenzie
While Richard Holland and Duncan MacKenzie may come from different backgrounds—different countries, actually—listeners to their weekly podcast radio show “Bad At Sports” (badatsports.com) are more likely to hear the similarities. Part of the pure joy of Bad At Sports is listening to Holland and MacKenzie and their newest co-host, Amanda Browder, tear down barriers—mostly by poking fun at their guests, each other and themselves—tempered with an earnest dedication to the subject of art. They use humor and self-deprecation to access serious issues related to contemporary visual practices, an approach that has garnered them a relatively large following. MacKenzie’s Canadian heritage is a favorite recurring target for Holland. “It’s kind of hard [for artists] because Canada’s a nation of ignorants,” Holland says. “There’s not a lot of people who have walls [to hang art on], because the igloo’s a curved form. It’s hard. You gotta figure that the entire population of Canada is thirty-five people.” And so MacKenzie must know them all? “Know them all? He’s related to them all. Which hasn’t stopped him from sleeping with them.”
Born in Calgary, Alberta, Canada in 1976, a place MacKenzie describes as “a very wealthy white-collar city that doesn’t support culture at all,” he read a lot of comics as a child, his parents urging him into a career in business or law, while his mother and grandfather “secretly” hoped that he’d become a professor of philosophy. As a “skate-punk kid,” hanging out with friends and arguing social issues, he ended up in art school not knowing what he really wanted to do “and sort of quietly grew into it.” Often on the show, MacKenzie’s the one who comes out wielding the intellectual ammo, and it’s rare, regardless of the subject, that he fails to demonstrate less than a voracious passion for debating it.
Holland works more like one of those bugs that stride across the surface of a pond, feeling his way through his subject. He spent his youth in Milwaukee, which accounts for most of it. “I can trace my interest in art to my complete and total lack of interest in being a high-school student,” recalls Holland. “I was a straight-D student in high school. I was kicked out of honors English class because I was such a jerk.” He left at the age of nineteen for Chicago “because I was too poor to go to New York” and “as a young art person here with no real plan, there’s enough crap jobs here that you can eke out an existence.” After a stint working odd jobs at galleries and museums, he finished his studies at Columbia College. After that, he worked for Americorps, then enrolled in law school and, while there, decided to study for his MFA. “It was weird ’cause you’d go from Welding to Civil Procedure 2—I’d be all covered in soot with a welding mask and stuff.”
Invited as artists to plan a show at The Suburban in Oak Park, the two hit it off. “I was making sculptural objects that I was casting so I was spending a lot of time in my basement,” recalls MacKenzie, “and Richard had this temp law job where he was listening to a lot of audio books and podcasts and I was desperate to feed my brain something other than the mind-numbing boredom of slush-casting nerf foam. So, we started talking and we were like, ‘Maybe we should do a podcast.’ We got drunk one night and it sort of happened and now it’s sort of snowballed into something that’s taking up our entire free lives. Something we resent from every corner of our souls.”

Paul Nudd
Accolades for Paul Nudd’s role as a prime mover in the city’s art culture are probably overdue. Besides solo shows at Bodybuilder and Sportsman, curatorial work and solos at Butcher Shop/Dogmatic Galleries, Nudd also prints his own zines and has somehow managed to get his drawings of blobby, fluid-squirting biomorphic forms into an amazing number of hands. It’s been a lifelong pursuit for Nudd. “I’ve been talking to myself since I was like nine,” he says. “At some point the focus of that just started to be making things.” Born in Harpenden, a small town north of London, Nudd moved in 1982 with his family to Frankfort, Illinois. His earliest experience of art was his parent’s coffee-table-book collection: “We had a couple of modern-art books lying around the house when I was growing up. Probably the most vivid one was Chaim Soutine. He was kind of a fauvist, modern painter. I think Francis Bacon was in there too.” His older brother was also an early inspiration. “He was a real kind of a natural talent,” Nudd says. “He initially started taking art as an elective in high school and he really got me involved in it.”
He went to Lincoln Way High in New Lenox and then enrolled at the University of Illinois in Champaign for undergrad and then moved to Chicago for his graduate studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It was there that he studied with the writer, critic and artist Buzz Spector. “He wrote a lot for Artforum in the eighties, he founded White Walls,” Nudd says, recalling the things that impressed him about Spector. “Chicago’s got its own little core of conceptual art and he’s kind of the anchor for that. He was just a phenomenal teacher. Totally amazing and he exposed me to things and ideas in contemporary art that I didn’t know much about.” That translated into a fascination with depicting a world of microscopic, bacterial forms. “Everybody’s trying to communicate what you’re so familiar with; they’re just trying to get that out, to communicate with people. What I’m personally interested in is fairly arbitrary. Some people are into fluffy things, geometric forms. I’m into this bio-organic stuff. There’s kind of a history to that in art, I’m self-consciously participating in a lineage. Sort of from Guston to R. Crumb.”
Nudd’s take on his success is rooted in his English cultural heritage. “I think it was kind of weird, my parents being English, growing up in England you sort of know who all the famous painters of the day are, whereas here nobody knows anybody. The general public has no idea who artists are.” And he’s happy to keep it that way. “I pretty much stuck to the gallery system. I’ve never really gone outside of that. I’ve self-published a few books. I’m pretty much going for the general art public; the art-viewing public rather than the public at large. I kind of keep it a secret from the public at large.” Why keep it a secret? “I consider myself to be in the very beginning of my career. I’m kind of focused but I really hope that my work isn’t a reaction to fashion. Because it’s really cheap, it’s not slick. I like the idea of art being a daydream.”

Sabrina Raaf
Born in Boston, after three months Sabrina Raaf’s family moved to New York and kept moving, year after year. “I moved probably about fifteen times in my life… I wasn’t a military brat, but I had a dad who always had a desire to change jobs. He’d have a job for a while then get tired of it. By the time I was 13, I was so disgusted by him moving us around that I left and moved myself around.” She attended the School of Foreign Service in Washington where she got an undergraduate degree in political science, a subject she was interested in because “at that point I’d lived abroad as well and was really fascinated by all sorts of different countries and our policies toward those countries, the cultural differences. I went to foreign-service school and spent five years in D.C. and got completely disillusioned and disgusted with politics.”
She arrived in Chicago in 1997, where she studied for her MFA at the School of the Art Institute in the Art and Technology Department. Unconvinced she wanted to pursue a career as an artist, she supported herself with an assortment of odd jobs. “I worked in a gallery and as a paralegal and began meeting a lot of contemporary artists and curating exhibitions, and then began meeting artists that I really admired, and then realized that that was what I wanted to do. So I had a rather ass-backwards conversion.” She worked day and night “in this little dungeon of a room” in the basement of the Michigan Avenue building called the kinetics lab, where all the dead copiers and printers were stored, “and late at night we’d cannibalize them. I learned the basics there and since then I’ve kept up with that tradition of just taking stuff apart and figuring out how it works and humbling myself by going online and finding code by these kids already building robots at age fifteen.”
Her focus on the crossover realms of art and technology since those days in the basement on Michigan Avenue has proven a revelation. “I’ve always been sort of a nerd and totally fascinated by sciences and always reading Scientific American and keeping up with all the areas of research that are going on right now. I’m fascinated by the trends in smart architecture and artificial intelligence. In terms of art it can be a very punk-ass medium because you don’t have to get anybody’s permission. It’s not about the identity of any one individual or one “art star.” I love that kind of anonymity. It’s a bit anarchistic but in a productive way. We’re repurposing technology and using it for purposes that it wasn’t meant for. It’s also very different now than even ten years ago, when new media was a bit younger. It was all about making all your own circuits from scratch—I should say that this was really in the eighties—it was all about learning how to do all the tech, and building it on your own and now that’s done, you don’t have to do that. The community spirit has changed. It’s not about creating your own circuit hacks, it’s about repurposing technology that’s out there and repurposing it effectively for whatever kind of social or civil disobedience you want.”
Disobedience may not exactly be Raaf’s goal, but she certainly has what many would consider an insurgent desire to alter the art world to accommodate a broader interpretation of what people think of as viable ways for art-making to occur. “You see this flight out of fine art, while on the other hand you see some amazing design and some amazing filmmaking that goes beyond the ten-dollar movie ticket or the next nice gadget that will top the landfill. So I think art needs to redefine itself or stop being so strict in the way it defines itself. When I got into it, it attracted me because it seemed to be this last bastion of freedom. It was this place where you could come up with this whole worldview, this whole coda of iconography that was yours and keep developing it and it was so beautiful. But as I’ve gone on, I’ve realized that in doing that, you are often creating works that only other artists can appreciate.”
Raaf credits her contact with student friends and others seeking ways of making art outside the art-world system as major influences. “I have a couple of really good friends who are artists and work for Honeybee Robotics—they built the rock-abrasion tool that was used on the Mars rover. They also do work for architectural firms and work at I-Beam in New York doing tech exhibitions. That’s the difference now: young artists are starting to realize that the best training isn’t necessarily how to draw well, or how best to phrase your concept, but how to integrate yourself into a world were the kind of work you want to make is supported and learning a lot of the new tech from the ground up. We just realize that that’s our studio now. So I think that if it’s important to continue to reach greater and greater audiences, you have to find a way to get outside the four-walled gallery art world, open yourself up to a more chameleon-type of mentality and say that you can be effective and create works that do reach a larger audience without reducing your integrity. There’s always going to be room for amazing painting and sculpture, it’s just a matter of artists understanding how they can re-personify themselves and society understanding the value of them in a very different way than they ever have and that’s going to take at least another generation for that to happen. But ultimately, it will feel so much more vital—that kind of vitality and connection to people is what will make it worth it for people to go through the steps.”

—Research assistance by Brian Bolles

Pompidou Center

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