By Jason Foumberg
Recently, in conversation with a painting and drawing professor, the subject of skill, and the long quiet hours required to refine those skills, arose. Woe to he who pursues art for monetary gain, said the professor with his usual dramatic flair; it’s rather like a monastic pursuit, he said, extending forefinger skyward for oratorical emphasis. Hoping to improve my own basic drawing skills, I turned to Betty Edwards’ classic manual, “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain,” wherein she writes that learning to draw can help bring about “creative solutions to problems, whether personal or professional.” In this light, Edwards’ otherwise charming book could spawn a hundred dreary corporate professional development seminars. So which is it—is drawing, and hence the pursuit of creativity, a means of self-purity, as the monkish professor would have it, or is it a utility with social aspirations?
Let’s not be too idealistic. The practice of art is afforded by free time. If you don’t have any, then you make some by pinching from the corners of your life. In time, a space is made and a circle is drawn within which to be a little hermit. It’s in here that you make, consider, re-make, and reconsider something that may not move outside of your little hermitage until it reaches the art gallery—the hermit conference.
The question of artistic productivity is at the heart of this month’s installment of Twelve Galleries, the nomadic exhibition project slated to last for one year, and which takes place at a different space each month. The January Gallery strays from the traditional solo-show structure. Here, organizer Jamilee Polson created a situation where gallery-goers could collectively plan a year of activities. Large monthly calendars on the walls provided the blank squares for viewers to write both real and fictional events based on personal, political, whatever art world dreams and desires they cared to share (but the actual development of these activities is left to the individuals). The effort was an exercise in seeing the big picture, getting organized and mapping goals—presumably things that we need to practice.
“Are We There Yet?” is the name of an essay from the New Art Examiner, published in May, 1995. Critic Ann Wiens wrote that if the Chicago art world was to survive the mid-90s economic slump it must create “a vital artistic community” external to the needs of the commercial gallery system. “Nomadic galleries, temporary spaces, or shows in homes” (read: unencumbered by rent) must be embraced, Wiens wrote, as if presaging the Twelve Galleries project, which opens in art and non-art spaces alike and, as far as January was concerned, successfully raised no cash.
“Chicago galleries still want a room of their own,” warned Wiens. Still, a space such as Lloyd Dobler Gallery, which hosted Twelve Galleries this month, is an apartment gallery that aspires to otherwise. The apartment’s front room—the gallery part—emulates the white cube model—an unfurnished room with clean walls and bright lights. For many, this is the most comfortable arrangement to view and discuss visual art.
Likewise, a new group exhibition at Dominican University, wittily titled “Untitled (Field Work),” features several artists who consider their role as Artist in light of The Art World. The “field” in the show’s un-title refers to the common field—the shared roles and rules—where artists work and play. Two photographs by Jason Lazarus, from the artist’s self-portrait series, propose contrasting artistic personae. A 2004 piece shows the artist spreading gasoline on the front steps of the Museum of Contemporary Art. This is the artist-as-revolutionary persona, which isn’t exactly revolutionary because Ed Ruscha did it in 1968, but presumably this is the joke: the production of originality is mired by the past. Lazarus’ other photo, from 2006, reveals an incandescent moon behind a cloudy sky at night. Titled “Standing under the same moon as Barack Obama,” it shows the artist as documentarian of the present, gifted with special insights to distill our collective myths (for without the title, it’s just an image of the moon). This is still a potent and viable position for an artist to inhabit, although no less constructed than the others.
The playing field, according to Conrad Bakker, has problems. In the gallery he casually flags cracked, water-damaged and unpatched holes in the white cube patina. Bakker also made a replica of Artforum that sits on a replica of the iconic sleekly designed gallery bench alongside other gallery paraphernalia. Thus Bakker presents a cautionary tale of gallery realism: beware of your art’s context. It could get trapped in the everlasting circular relay where it exists only to prove that it exists. Eventually, only the white cube will remain, while the artist disappears like so many layers of dried white paint.
January Gallery shows through February at Lloyd Dobler Gallery, 1545 W. Division, second floor. “Untitled (Field Work)” shows through February 28 at The O’Connor Art Gallery, Dominican University, 7900 W. Division Street, River Forest