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Raising the Bars: The growing trend of art in saloons

Curator Profiles, Logan Square, Multimedia, News etc., Ukrainian Village/East Village, Uptown, Wicker Park/Bucktown Add comments

By Marla Seidell

It’s almost 8pm on a freezing Thursday evening at Logan Square’s two-month-old hipster haven Whistler. Outside, Nicole Dudik’s mixed media installation, “Get Out Your Blue Mittens”—an abstract compilation of blue horizontal lines—lights up the storefront window gallery on an otherwise dark street. Inside, a hip but serious doorman checks IDs. Twenty- and thirty-something types wearing nerd glasses and blazers drink foreign beers and cocktails. Onstage, Dudik’s musician friends jam out a cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” Other than soft music and bits of conversation murmurs the atmosphere is pretty subdued. Not your typical art opening.

There are no free cups of wine in sight. No conspicuously artsy types discussing the art. Patrons fall into two categories: Dudik’s friends and the locals, who aren’t present necessarily for the opening. People like Eric Hahn, who lives in the neighborhood and frequents the bar twice a week for socializing. Sitting at the bar sipping a vodka tonic with a female bespectacled friend, Hahn muses on the accessibility of art in bars. “You might react to it without the filter of thinking of what you’re seeing as art,” he notes. Hahn first discovered Whistler accidentally, having seen the art display in the window. “Some people came out, and said, ‘Are you looking for Whistler, too?'” Hahn then realized a bar existed behind the storefront gallery window. As Hahn puts it, art displayed in a bar setting exposes the public to a medium they might not come into contact with otherwise. “It puts art in a place where people actually go,” he says. “Art in bars conveys a message—it takes away the pretense that people are afraid of.”

Despite belonging to vastly different milieus, art and booze find common ground at an increasing number of watering holes. The boundaries about what is acceptable in the art world have expanded. “It used to be faux pas,” says Melina Ausitakis, a painter who has lived in Wicker Park since 1999. “In the last two years I see [art in bars] more and more.” Ausitakis is also curator at the 73-year-old Rainbo Club, where art has graced the walls since 1985. Exhibits rotate every month, with an opening reception to boot. Curator for three years and having shown her work at Rainbo several times, Ausikaitis knows a thing or two about art in bars. “The biggest difference between a bar and a gallery is that in a bar people will say out loud that they think the work sucks,” she quips. In her view, alcohol fuels the viewing experience. “After a couple of drinks people will tell you what they think, which can be refreshing, as long as you don’t take it too seriously,” she says.

Ausikaitis says despite the brazen atmosphere at Rainbo she got a lot of good feedback from her shows, via the booze that “can be a sort of truth serum.” Although local media didn’t review the show, she got work from people she networked with outside Rainbo, due to the exposure she gained from the show. And likewise for photographer Jeremy Bolen, whose color prints of abandoned spaces in New York State’s Catskills region recently graced the walls high above the weathered red booths, in plain view. Like Ausikaitis, Bolen found similar results in terms of exposure. “The reception has been supportive, and I’ve been getting feedback around town,” he says.

Bars like Rainbo make a good place to start showing your art, especially for those gun-shy of the gallery scene. A photography graduate of Columbia, the show at Rainbo marked Bolen’s first, and he felt comfortable showing his work at a music-friendly bar. “Art openings are kind of sterile—normal people don’t hang out at art galleries,” he says. Bolen is also lead singer of local indie band Chin Up Chin Up and, according to Ausikaitis, has been a regular at the bar “forever.” Ausikaitis got to know Bolen through friends and even designed some of his album covers. Collaboration, along with feedback and exposure, feeds the artists showing their work at Rainbo. Not to mention art sales, which can be another benefit of the experience. Ausikaitis said she has sold work through many of her shows; at the time of our interview, Bolen said he was “close” to making a sale.

At Lincoln Park’s Delilah’s, art exhibits have rotated every two months since the bar opened fifteen years ago. Artist Nina Friday’s vixen girl paintings hung in a recent exhibit. Friday finds the bar venue to be both profitable in terms of art sales and a good vehicle for networking. “Art and bars go hand in hand,” says Friday, who sold three pieces for a total of $1,350 through her show. “Usually I get close to selling out, but today’s economy really affects the art world,” Friday says. Thanks to the exposure, collectors have propositioned Friday with commissions. “To be honest, I enjoy showing at bars, they’re a more relaxed atmosphere than galleries,” she says.

In similar fashion, designer Martin Cimek has found Delilah’s to be well-suited (and lucrative) for his art. This past July, Cimek sold eighty percent of his show (enlarged prints from a comic book he had designed for Delilah’s annual Mod vs. Rockers show). “The time and mood in which people socialize is that much more heightened in a bar,” he says. Bar patrons tend to spend more time with the art than they would in a gallery setting, which may encourage them to buy it. “Even though you’re not just there for the art, you might be a little more open to it, and the liquor might help as well,” observes Cimek. Delilah’s owner Mike Miller concurs. “People don’t come here to look at the art, but they end up checking it out, asking about it, so it becomes a part of their lives,” he says.

Aside from the monetary and networking perks, art in bars stimulates conversation and lends dynamic to the overall experience. At the two-and-a half-year-old Weegee Lounge in Logan Square, a permanent display of black-and-white prints by New York photography legend Weegee (Arthur Fellig) pays homage to the late artist. “Art allows a sense of free conversation, more than just hey, let’s talk about the Bears,” says owner Alex Kubner. And it’s art—not TVs or even live music—that takes precedence in shaping the atmosphere at Wicker Park’s five-month-old Flatiron. “Television squashes conversation, and art stimulates it,” says owner Nick Novich, who has displayed art on the walls of his bars for thirty years. Last May Novich closed The Note, the popular music venue that flourished in the nineties and early 2000s with events like “I Love House Music,” to make way for the Flatiron in its place. Novich cites rising expenses and a failing business model as reasons for the closing.

In addition to Flatiron, permanent, original works by Chicago artists cover the walls at Novich’s other three bars: Nick’s on Wilson, Nick’s Uptown and Nick’s Beer Garden, which resides just a stone’s throw away from Flatiron. At Nick’s Beer Garden, art from previous eras tells stories from the past. “See those bullet holes?” asks Novich, pointing to a nineteenth-century nude of museum quality containing four holes where rounds punctured the painting in 1979. “That shows how rough Armitage and Halsted was back then,” he notes. Over the pool table an airbrushed painting of a pool game by Chicago artist Roger Moy enlivens the scenery.

Moy, who has an MFA from the Art Institute, has been doing art for bars since 1978. “I prefer the bar setting, as I think the people that look at your work are more honest than in a gallery,” he says. Over the years Moy has received work via the exposure, and believes that displaying artwork in a bar is a way of giving back to the public. “It’s always nice to give people something to look at, especially when they’re relaxing,” Moy says. “Go in there four times and on the fifth time, people see something they never saw before.”

Novich feels the same about Mark Zender’s black-and-white abstract mural of cartoon-like characters at Flatiron. The mural, which hangs over the glass-block bar in back, is often compared to Keith Haring. “He just did that on his own, and I couldn’t be happier,” Novich says. “You can look at it for hours and still see new things.” Other works at Flatiron include murals of Rubenesque nudes, video-game monsters and sea-life creatures come to life in a postmodern aesthetic that straddles pop culture and street art. Unlike the generic, wide-screen TV element encroaching the neighborhood, Flatiron’s gigantic murals buck blandness. “This isn’t like Bennigan’s or Hooters, where everything looks the same,” says Novich wryly.

For the artists involved, the artistic freedom inherent in doing artwork for a bar is one of the benefits of the experience. Flatiron artists were recruited via a Craigslist ad, out of which seven artists were chosen. It took a month to complete, with artists granted a flexible, twenty-four-hour-a-day schedule, some working in the middle of the night. Richard Hull, who in the 1990s created artwork for Nick’s Uptown and Nick’s on Wilson located on the far North Side, appreciates this unique free rein. “Just the freedom to do something different, without interference, was a remarkable opportunity,” he says.

Like the artists at Flatiron, Hull was granted keys and the opportunity to create whatever sprang to mind, at whatever hour creativity struck. Hull didn’t just do the painting hanging in the main room at Nick’s Uptown, but also the ceiling and the abstract bottle display, too. “Anytime you get the chance to make something, you should,” observes Hull, who cites his thirty-year friendship with Novich as part of the motivating factor. “I enjoy working with him—I don’t know if I would do it just for anybody—but it’s this open-ended collaboration, which I like.”

Artist Mark Zender created not only the Keith Haring-like mural at Flatiron, but the eye-catching nudes up front as well. He also works as bar back and security personnel at Flatiron, where he often catches people looking up at his work. “It’s kind of humbling,” he says. Ultimately it’s about building fortitude about one’s craft. “It’s hard for me to have confidence about it sometimes,” admits Zender. “But it’s important that someone really likes it and appreciates it,” he says. And likewise for Jordan Gilchrist, whose urban family of characters based on neighborhood locals enters the scene at both Flatiron and Nick’s on Wilson. “Each time you do something big the doubts become less and less,” he says.

While bars like Flatiron, the Nick’s conglomerate and Rainbo provide new and unexposed artists opportunities for exposure and feedback they might not experience in a more traditional setting, artists at Whistler find space for flexibility. “Art in bars breaks down people’s fears about going to a gallery,” notes artist Dudik, whose installation marked the storefront gallery’s second exhibit since opening. Mark Benson’s sculpture installation of suspended shapes, “Totally Permanent,” was Whistler’s first. “It was slightly unorthodox, and the bar offered a really cool opportunity to use the installation,” says Benson, a painter who works as a graphic designer by day. “The space is yours to use to do whatever you want,” explains Benson.

“It’s a great opportunity to get art in front of an audience, as opposed to being sequestered into galleries,” observes Whistler curator Josh Dumas. Having worked with non-traditional spaces for ten years, Dumas finds in Whistler the opportunity to give emerging artists the chance to stretch limitations. “A regular gallery space literally wouldn’t afford this type of opportunity—an installation that lasts for two months,” he says. At Whistler, the chance to do something new is part of the art-in-bar elasticity. “Mark is a painter who never had the opportunity to work with a three-dimensional format, so it was exciting to see what he would do in a different context,” notes Dumas.

And given the fact that, currently, live music and alcohol sales pay the bills at Whistler, art here can be about exploration rather than the bottom line. “Traditional galleries have a different mission,” notes Dumas. “To get shown but also to get sold. And we’re fortunate that the bar pays the rent and gives opportunity to take risks without having to sell anything.”

In contrast, art at the Flatiron clearly fuels the bar’s product and alcohol sales. “For being open five months, we’re doing very well,” says Novich. The success of the Flatiron suggests that at least for the moment, music has taken a back seat to art. And at Delilah’s, art, like the music and film events, is part of a solid business model. “Our business is up right now, so we have to assume it’s because we have a tried and true product,” says Miller. While keeping a business alive and kicking may be the goal, the means to getting there aren’t necessarily all mercenary. “While I do have business motives, I’m trying to please people, and art is a great way of doing it,” says Novich.

The Flatiron attracts not only bar dwellers but groups who come just to see the art, like a museum. “There was this group here the other day, walking around looking at the art, talking and laughing amongst themselves,” says Zender. For the public, art in bars beats the hell out of TVs. For those in the art world, the inherent flexibility of the bar venue offers opportunity for experimentation and acknowledgment. And in some cases, cold hard cash in a buckling economy.

“Art is now an atmosphere that people are embracing,” Novich says. “People’s interaction with it and with each other is the entertainment.”

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