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Double Take on the Biennial

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By Jason Foumberg and Burt Michaels

It’s hard not to interpret the Juror’s Awards at the Evanston Art Center’s 19th Evanston & Vicinity Biennial as a commentary on the state of the nation. Three award winners deal with rot and decay, a much-missed but irretrievably disintegrated past and an ominous future, while the fourth offers an escapist fantasy.

A record 450 artists submitted work this year. From them jurors Barbara Wiesen, director of the Gahlberg Gallery at College of DuPage, and Lanny Silverman, curator of exhibitions at the Chicago Cultural Center, selected forty-five for the show, with a heady forty percent or so photography.

SAIC grad Amy Mayfield won both a $500 Juror’s Award and an independently juried two-week Ragdale residency for her enamel and ink, “Withering Bursts and Floating Spinnerets,” a dark display of organic decadence. A fanciful hovercraft of brightly painted foam and plastic by SAIC prof Rosalynn Gingerich received an award, as did the haunting and ominous photo “Harbinger” by SAIC grad Joyce Lopez. IIT grad Eric Holubow won for a digital photo of a crumbling urban community center; the remnants of a sign proclaiming “Summer in the City” punctuate the abandoned space and give the work its title.

Coinciding with the June 1 opening of the biennial, which runs through July 6, was the opening for the art center’s latest Sculpture on the Grounds by Kansas City sculptor Matt Dehaemers. “The Nereid Beckon” at first glance looks like five huge Absolut bottles littering a lawn after a wild party, but Dehaemers has a more cerebral explanation. The shapes, which point at the lighthouse next door, represent shipwrecks. Each shape—sixteen-feet-long and about a fourth as high—consists of more than 1,000 smaller plastic bottles, on a structure of wood, PVC tubes and the plastic sheeting greenhouses use. About three out of five bottles contain messages written by art students and community groups. Sensor-triggered LED lights illuminate the capsized vessels at night. You could easily argue that this fascinating sculpture represents still another commentary on the state of the nation.

Artists from seven counties in northern Illinois were eligible to submit up to four works each. The biennial’s intent is to give emerging and mid-career artists exposure they might not otherwise receive. (Burt Michaels)

Where the Whitney Biennial in New York takes the pulse of the nation, and the venerable Venice Biennale puts the world on stage, the Evanston + Vicinity examines a cross-section of Chicago’s art scene—the city’s only such effort. Hosted at the Evanston Art Center, the exhibition is in its nineteenth-year, that is, it has opened every two years since 1972 (if my math is correct).

The range of art is limited mostly to the type that hangs on the walls: painting, drawing and photography. There are about three sculptures this year, one of them wall-bound, and not counting the new sculpture on the front lawn, an annually rotating commission. Surely Chicago appreciates the taste for new media—sound, performance, video—but it seems the bulk of submissions, and the judges’ picks, cater to the small and manageable. Not to their detriment, though, the small and mid-sized works speak to the self-contained nature of individual creative accomplishment. (Years’ past have featured large-scale installations, as do the several temporary exhibits not part of the biennial).

As noted, Amy Mayfield’s enamel-and-ink painting won the coveted first place, no doubt bolstering her career, and deservedly so. Surely Mayfield’s unique works come to mind when thinking of Chicago painting today, yet there are also some gems by artists that are not always in the limelight. Rosalynn Gingerich, who graduated three years before Mayfield, also from SAIC, shows a sculpture in similarly sugary hues with soft contours. “Boogie,” located in the Center’s sun room, is composed of cast resin in chalky pastels. Much like an overgrown child’s toy, its softly rounded edges and nipple-like protrusions could be fondled by infants and suckled by adults alike.

From the same class at SAIC as Gingerich, Susan Dwyer shows plaster and polyurethane sculptures that were likely cast from plastic bags. They at once nod to glut, with stretch marks near bursting, and emptiness, their color pallid and drained. These minimal, quiet shapes extend Dwyer’s interest in air-filled flotation-like objects that lend an illusion of lightness bound by density. On an opposite wall, a small abstract watercolor by Doreen Johnson also achieves such Zen-like quietude, the “little black painting” being a monument to the day’s task of depiction.

Other works of note are on view by Brain Yates, Jennifer Ray, Scott Gruss, David Parker and Eric Holubow, highlighting a theme of suburban desolation. Yale Factor’s painting of a naturalist’s worktable, with specimens, books and tools, is a work that I could gladly ponder for an hour. Jason Foumberg)

The 19th Evanston + Vicinity Biennial shows at Evanston Art Center, 2603 Sheridan Road, Evanston, (847)475-5300, through July 6.

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