By Joyce Hanson
Slow down a second. Did you just see that old-school kosher butcher shop? What’s it doing on this block of North Milwaukee Avenue? What’s it doing next to a peep show? Was that there before? Didn’t the rabbis complain about the peep show? Didn’t the showgirls complain about the headless chickens hanging in the meat shop next to theirs? And isn’t this neighborhood supposed to be gentrifying?
Take a longer, closer look, and you’ll realize you’ve just been had: the whole thing is a fake. Those headless chickens are rubber, the sausages are sawdust and red paint and the blade of that six-foot-tall meat cleaver hanging outside is mere aluminum. And the peep show next door? Nothing but a come-on, a mannequin wearing ripped fishnet tights in an empty storefront window covered over with plywood.
“I started making sausages out of stockings and sawdust mixed with glue,” says Michael Thompson, the local artist who created the butcher shop and peepshow. “I mixed up this concoction and stuffed them into the stockings, smoothed them out and tied them up like hotdogs, and then I also made smoked ribs, hanging from meat hooks, and a rolled and tied roast. Then I found some Hebrew lettering saying ‘kosher’ in a picture of a butcher shop in an old book, which I copied, and then the girl in the peepshow window is a 38-D mannequin with a wig.”
Yes, very nice, but…why?
Fact is, the two storefront windows belong to Gallery Chicago, and all that fakery is the entry point to Thompson’s one-man exhibition inside. Outside, this particular block of Milwaukee Avenue is in the same vicinity as the Intuit gallery for outsider art and the Matchbox, that strangely posh little bar that makes fabulous martinis. Around here, you can still feel traces of the old, weird Chicago that used to inhabit this spot, the immigrant bars, the cut-rate drugstores, the merchant hotels built at crazy angles to the trolley cars that once ran down the avenue.
When Thompson began to consider the look of his one-man show, he saw that the gallery’s unreconstructed, turn-of-the-century red-brick façade could once have been a tenement building in this former working-class Polish neighborhood. He speaks of “illusion, what’s real and what’s not real,” disappearing aspects of a neighborhood and seeing what once was there or might have been.
“This place hasn’t been renovated at all, it has a real authentic look to it,” Thompson says. “This stretch of Milwaukee has been gentrified, and this gallery is the last holdout. The neighborhood probably used to be full of butcher shops. Now, I don’t know where the nearest place to buy meat is. There’s no neighborhood now. It’s in transition. It’s a blank canvas to work on.”
“I don’t really know that much about what’s going on here, to tell the truth,” says a young man who identifies himself as Chris at the opening night of Thompson’s Gallery Chicago show. “It looks like a butcher shop, but there’s headless rubber chickens. One side is a butcher shop and the other side is a peep show. The butcher shop is kind of a dead art. We don’t really have butcher shops anymore. Now you buy your meat at supermarkets.”
The French cultural theorist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard writes of simulacrum, or false representation, as “the characteristic hysteria of our time: the hysteria of production and reproduction of the real.” The actual production of goods and commodities (like sausages) no longer makes any sense because modern society has become hyper-real, Baudrillard believes. “What society seeks through production,” he says, “is the restoration of the real which escapes it…It retains all the features, the whole discourse of traditional production, but it is nothing more than its scaled-down refraction. Thus the hyper-realism of simulation is expressed everywhere by the real’s striking resemblance to itself.”
Another scholar, closer to home, has a simpler explanation: Thompson is a trickster. According to Simon Anderson, an associate professor of art history, theory and criticism at the School of the Art Institute, Thompson’s work combines “humorous, political overtones, the illicit and impish tenor of [his] pranks and a deceptively casual aesthetic.”
As for Gallery Chicago’s owner, Ken Hirte, the butcher shop/peepshow is typical of Thompson’s attitude toward both art and life. “Michael’s a provocateur,” Hirte says, “kind of adamant and surly. That’s what the artist is. He could be a kosher butcher.”
Michael Thompson shows at Gallery Chicago, 760 North Milwaukee, (312)733-4632 through October 11.