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Eye Exam: Why Have There Been No Great South Side Artists?

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Lowell Thompson

Lowell Thompson

By Jason Foumberg

A panel discussion was assembled this past Thursday, March 26, to address a perception that artists on Chicago’s South Side are under-known and undervalued or, at worst, intentionally ignored. As a nod to Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel “Invisible Man,” the multi-part event, which included the discussion, was titled “Invisible Artist: Creators from Chicago’s Southside,” underscoring a divide that is not merely geographic but also—and mostly—racial.

The “South Side problem” is a micro-argument of the “Chicago-problem,” or second city syndrome, an old topic recently dusted off once again at the University of Chicago for the roundtable “Chicago Artist? Is there such a thing anymore?” in January. In both cases there’s the acknowledgement of a healthy and active art scene followed by its perceived dismissal by a large and vaguely defined power-granting establishment. Unfortunately this can be distilled to the question, Why haven’t “They” made me famous yet? This is unfortunate because it assumes a passive, backseat role to one’s career, which has not been the enduring feeling of the many do-it-yourself art scenes on the South Side and in Chicago alike. In both cases artists have pushed through the various stereotypes (the South Side is violent; Chicago is provincial) to create their own artistic home.

On this point panelist Joyce Owens, a prolific artist, educator and curator in Chicago, admitted she was “confused by the question,” albeit it was a rhetorical confusion. Chicago art in general, and South Side art specifically, is indeed written about, talked about, exhibited, collected and celebrated, and Owens gave many examples. Existing in an art community means making connections with other artists and institutions, said Owens. An audience member followed up by noting many substandard musicians are popular simply because of their PR engine. Most of us do not employ our own public relations firm, so creating a self-made and sustaining network is necessary; notoriety and fame doesn’t land in one’s lap. Still, many artists will never achieve fame or strong sales during their lifetime or beyond. Pandering to marketable styles is one sure mode of recognition, but a more sustainable practice is to have self-satisfaction with what you’ve got, which accounts for the unique and self-nurturing South Side art community.

40th-indiana-bluesThe discussion took an uncomfortable turn when a handful of students in the audience were singled out for being the only students in attendance, and asked to justify their peers’ absence. Sometimes it’s good to be uncomfortable, said panelist and artist Lowell Thompson, but when they offered up no quick excuses, Owens stepped in to squelch the interrogation. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which hosted the panel, was also positioned as an enemy, and again Owens was quick to remind everyone that the School has been on the forefront of crossing racial lines in the artistic community since the mid-forties.

SAIC faculty Patrick Rivers, also on the panel, represented the School’s integration of topics of race and art in the curriculum, which he encourages in his classes. Rivers mentioned that both the School and the Chicago contemporary art world looks solely to the North Side, not south, when making decisions about recognition and exposure. He was being a little vague, so Owens asked what, exactly, was being looked for and seen. Thompson shouted, “White people!” This was not pressed for explanation, and some audience members applauded his brashness.

The South Side’s art scene was partly represented on the panel by Andre Guichard, whose Bronzeville gallery has three floors and regularly rotates its exhibitions. Guichard was excited to announce his next show. It’s going to be really different, he said; it’s going to be abstract art! This comment, delivered with the implication that abstract art deviates from accepted forms of art, highlights the fundamental differences among Chicago’s various art scenes. An abstract painting would barely be blinked at in River North or the West Loop, but for Guichard it represents a departure and a risk. His gallery has helped maintain a distinct South Side style of art that necessarily caters to its audience by depicting black heritage and community pride; without the audience’s approval there would be no art community. So, too, do West Loop galleries implicitly ask their audiences for approval, which is aimed at and answered by international art journals and biennial curators. But the conversations they’re having are completely different. Each discussion is an acquired taste: the West Loop or SoHo style is largely concerned with an academic message, whereas South Side art, like the artistic blossoming of Harlem in the 1920s, is most relatable to a localized concern. Some art engages international trends, some art is emotional, and some art is decoration. “We do have to talk about aesthetics,” said Owens, who remarked that artists educated in a certain manner will make certain decisions, both artistically and professionally. The topic here gets sticky. If the possibility for certain decisions is limited by circumstance, then we’re dealing with what Guichard termed “old racism.” At a basic level, though, several art communities co-exist in Chicago, and each could stand to be curious about the others.

The “Invisible Artist” panel discussion will air on Chicago Public Radio at a future date to be determined. A related exhibition, “Change…” is on view through April 30 at the South Side Community Art Center, 3831 S. Michigan.

19 Responses to “Eye Exam: Why Have There Been No Great South Side Artists?”

  1. Joyce Owens Says:

    Thanks for the coverage, Jason. It is clear that a lack of public information caused the perception in the first place and more press will, of course, help. We know it is rare that exhibitions featuring black artists get much coverage in the mainstream press. It is rarer that the shows get reviewed.

    Just a note about abstract art by African American artists: people of African descent have been making abstract art for generations. African masks, sculpture and textiles are often abstract. The Benin of Nigeria, for example, produced naturalistic cast sculptures as far as 500+ years ago, but as with artists from other parts of the world, artists of the African continent and the diaspora produce work in a variety of styles and techniques. (Egyptian art is distinct from Nok art.) Modigliani and Picasso and other European artists who engaged in abstraction were inspired by African art. “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon”, the 1907 pivotal turn Picasso took that thrust the world into modern art, was created after Picasso supposedly saw an African sculpture.

    The premise of the panel seems to have developed because the SAIC students are not introduced to art by African Americans in Chicago.

    The people who develop curriculum at SAIC can easily remedy this deficit. And if the press reports on these artists, problem solved.

  2. PacoDeLambera Says:

    What a poorly written article by a usually intelligent and observant correspondent.

    The topic of the discussion is rhetorical and insulting. Just because whoever conceived of it is ignorant does not make the topic relevant.

    Just out of curiosity, how many of you can name a great northside artist?

    There happen to be quite a few great southside artists. Some are black, some are white, some are brown. So what?

    That Andre Guichard is the most significant southside gallery is a tribute to his charisma, but certainly not his aesthetic. Perhaps his visibility leads one to inaccurate conclusions about what goes on in Bronzeville and further south.

    But mostly I’m upset about the subject and its title.

  3. Jason Foumberg Says:

    in case anyone is curious, the title of this essay references Linda Nochlin’s famous Feminist essay, “Why have there been no great women artists?” It’s a rhetorical question, and can be read here: http://www.miracosta.edu/home/gfloren/nochlin.htm

  4. Jason Foumberg Says:

    to Paco (Paul): about artists on the south side being black brown or white, this was raised by the panelists from the start of the discussion. i did not invent the distinction.

  5. Lowell Thompson Says:

    When I asked how many media people were at the panel discussion Jason Foumberg reported on in his article,”Eye Exam: Why Have There Been No Great South Side Artists?”, I was disappointed when fewer than a handful of hands went up.
    I found out later that two of the three or so raised were from NewCity. When I was later contacted by Mr. Foumberg, I was happy that at least one media outlet thought the discussion that night was worth noting.

    But when I read Mr. Foumberg’s (or his editor’s) headline, I knew he (and by association, your paper) was exhibit A in what’s wrong with the media in general and in Chicago’s art world in particular. The ignorance of Mr. Foumberg’s headline is closely followed by the its arrogance. I’d give the article itself a gentleman’s C.
    Where, oh, where did he get the idea there have been no great South Side artists? Certainly not from me, or anyone else on the panel. In fact, the whole point of the panel was that there were plenty of artists, great, near great, pretty good, mediocre, poor and piss poor on the Southside – just like on the Northside.
    I’ll name a few off the top of my head (and I’m in no way an expert):

    Kerry James Marshall
    Richard Hunt
    Archibald Motley
    Charles White
    Gordon Parks
    David Philpot
    Roger Brown (He’s “white” I know, but his work was first exhibited at the Hyde Park Art Center).

    Of course, these are just a few of the world-renowned visual artists who have lived or are now living on the Southside of Chicago. If the definition of artist is expanded to its current ecumenical inclusiveness, the list is literally far too long to go into here, starting alphabetically around “Armstrong” and winding to an end near “West” or “Wright”, with “Dorsey” (as in “Thomas A.”, considered by many to be the father of Gospel music) somewhere in between.
    And another thing. Foumberg says:

    “The discussion took an uncomfortable turn when a handful of students in the audience were singled out for being the only students in attendance, and asked to justify their peers’ absence.”

    Uncomfortable for whom? Since the event was at the School of the Art Institute, I was curious to know if any of its students actually attended. And I didn’t ask them to “justify their peers’ absence”. I merely asked why they thought more students and faculty (who showed up in even fewer numbers) didn’t attend. If the students or Mr. Foumberg have a problem with that reasonable query, the problem is theirs, not mine.
    Mr. Foumberg’s seeming valiant attempt to take up the indefensible case of Chicago’s artpartheid would be laughable if it wasn’t so typical. Why does he think he has to come to the rescue once again of much defended white “innocence”? (Which, has been lost more than that of a 100 year old whore).
    But that’s another article.

    Mr. Foumberg also says,
    “Owens was quick to remind everyone that the School has been on the forefront of crossing racial lines in the artistic community since the mid-forties.

    The (alleged) fact that the SAIC has been on the “forefront of crossing racial lines…” is easy when the city’s whole art community is so racially retarded. Are we supposed to hand out awards to the least egregious among us?
    I’m assuming Mr. Founberg considers himself well versed in the visual arts but his vision seems extremely limited. He sets himself up as some sort of arbiter of value. But who is he? What are his bonifides? As the late mayor, Richard the 1st, might ask, “What trees has he planted” to make him such an expert?
    But assuming he does have some caché in certain conventional (white) art circles, what gives him the cojones to declare, in essence, there have been no great artists on the Southside of Chicago? It’s like a classical music critic going down to the Sunset Cafe on 35th and Calumet in the 1920s and declaring “there are no great musicians there”.

    Of all the debilitating combinations of character flaws humans exhibit, none are more lethal than the highly combustible brew of ignorance and arrogance. Mr. Foumberg (and his editor) proudly, and obliviously, exhibits both.

    You call yourself NewCity but when it comes to art, you seem pretty much like the same OldCity Chicago has always been.

    But I hope my point is not lost in all the heat. We in Chicago have an “unpresidented” opportunity to lead this country into the next America. But we can’t do it if we’re still living in the middle of the last century. Art and artists should be leading the way, but we are still stuck in a pre-Civil Rights time warp culturally. Wake up, time’s a wastin’. There’s an African-American man from Chicago’s South Side in the Whitehouse. Now can African-American artists (and other artists of color) get a little respect here too?
    Lowell Thompson
    lowellt@hotmail.com

  6. Jason Foumberg Says:

    Lowell, about the title, refer to comment #3, above. It’s not a literal question. “Why haven’t there been great south side artists?”….because no one recognizes them as such. (it’s pretty much the question you were asking at the panel)

    In fact Newcity routinely celebrates the artists you listed from the south side, and we visit south side venues very often. Perhaps a good question is, why haven’t we been singing your praises?
    good luck,
    Jason

  7. lowellt Says:

    Jason,

    Maybe I should have known your headline was an attempt at irony. But, as I said in a note to your editor, I’d be very surprised if I’m the only one with insufficient insider status to have gotten the allusion. (Especially since you didn’t see fit to make some subtle reference to it in the article itself).

    You guys are just too, too hip for the room.

    But maybe I misread it because the rest of your article was in keeping with your headline. Smug, arrogant and clueless are words that pop to mind

    And as far as needing you to sing my praises, don’t waste your breath. I’m pretty good at it myself. Besides, as hard as it may be for your to understand, my campaign to “colorize” the art world, is not only (or mostly) about me.

    It’s about making the art world a lot better than it is. For everybody with eyes.

  8. Joyce Owens Says:

    What I have learned about having an art career, later than I wish I did, is that I have to be proactive. I have to present my work, at the top of my game, every time…I have to be my harshest critic. I have to work every day and put in hours of time. I have to develop ideas that are meaningful.

    I have to make friends with others that can work with me and vice versa. I feel that I have started that process on a small scale.

    Some artists, Roy de Carava comes to mind, eschewed being confined to a racial group. His work remained in the photography gallery at the Art Institute when they had the “100 years of Collecting African American Art” presented in another gallery.

    In the art world, most artists have been cited by nationality, ethnicity, gender, and religion, sometimes depending on the topics they address in their work, and how the artists define themselves.

    The issue seems that African American artists have a tough time defining ourselves because others own the publications that define art.

    Having our own institutions, our own publications, our own archives, our own museums can help. I think many know the history of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. The Art Institute, as I understand it, did not include some artists, so the wealthy community that supported those artists found the money to start their own museum.

    The so-called arbiters of the current trends and “good” taste control the market in ways I can only imagine, not having any contact with that world! It is NOT about the most talented (whatever one may think “talent” means; it is all about connections.

    And yes, aesthetics is not on the table, most of the time. Mostly people want to be touched. They want a reflection of themselves. If your work happens to provide that you will be successful, no matter what world you live and work in.

    I wish the other two artists sitting on the panel also had work illustrating this article.

    http://www.joyceowens.com

  9. Jason Foumberg Says:

    Thanks for the comment, Joyce. You articulate these issues very clearly. I also believe the issues of exposure and recognition go hand in hand with good communication, and often, a sense of curiosity.

  10. Friday Clip Show : Bad at Sports Says:

    [...] City art editor Jason Foumberg has a nice recap along with some thoughtful analysis of last week’s “The Invisible Artist: Creators from Chicago’s Southside” panel [...]

  11. Floyd Atkins Says:

    Let me guess everyone should be in the Art Institute and The Museum of Contemporary Art.Remember this “The man who fights in the middle weight division should have enough sense not to look for the heavy weight crown”. My Point is a lot of artist do not know their own weight class. You have to first do some soul searching and most of all tell yourself the truth. Museums and Institutions of higher learning are looking for work that stimulates critical thinking and relates to work they already have. If you think your work does that and you are doing what it takes to get your work recognized well at least you have a concern.
    But if your work is geared more towards the Decor market maybe your barking or pissing up the wrong tree. Knowledge is the most important part of any fight.In any case if you choose to paint dogs that is all fine and dandy however understand you’re a dog painter that is suited for that market. Once this determination is made you’ll know whose ass to chew out.Then I’ll understand your fight from a more respectable perspective.

    Let me be clear I am not letting the Institutions and media off the hook. I understand the pain artist feel when their phone only rings in the month of February. It is truly a numbers game that is largely based on referrals believe it or not. Do I think this formula is useed in other parts of the city? Hell No. But Again, it is what it is and you have to have a plan to deal with it. Just remember at some point in time your work has to stand on it’s own two feet.

  12. lowellt Says:

    Mr, Atkins,
    Welcome to the fray(ed?). You make some good points, in your inimitable way.

    But I think they are beside my point.

    I don’t claim everyone who picks up a brush or lump of clay should be in the hallowed (hollowed?) halls of the MCA or the AIC. I’m just raising the issue of why, after almost 400 years of AfrAmericans in America, so few of us are even acknowledged as being artists at all in any “mainstream” American museums, galleries and journals – in downtown/Northside Chicago or anyplace else I know?

    But I’ll admit, it’s really a rhetorical question. I think most of us who really know anything about the history of America…and Chicago, already have a pretty good idea of the answer.

    Right?

  13. Thomas Frank Says:

    This has been a very interesting discussion. Although I could not attend the panel discussion at the Art Institute I would like to thank the organizers for attempting to bring this subject to a wider audience. I think the subject speaks to the importance of identity and place and the old stories of enfranchisement.

    I grew up on the northside and moved to East Chicago, Indiana about a decade ago. This brought me to the opposite end of the Chicago Metropolitan Region in what is called the calumet industrial corridor.

    As I grew up I always felt I identified with Chicago not just because I was a resident, but also because of my genes. I felt I shared in the genetic profile of Chicago’s built environment and history. This identity can be traced back to my great great grandfather who played an important role in forming Chicago and its identity. He was Roswell B. Mason, a civil engineer who worked on the Erie Canal, brought the Illinois Central to Chicago, reversed the chicago river and most notably served as Mayor of Chicago during the Chicago fire.

    A major characteristic of my identity with Chicago was what was absent. I had a massive blackhole in my awareness of the city’s southside. Yes, there were a few islands called Hyde Park and China town that my family would set anchor to every so often and I was a Sox fan, but otherwise I had no other identity with the southside.

    Chicago is known for its iconic neighborhoods, and yet from the 1960s through the 1980s, most of Chicagoan’s lived in what I call “Gap Areas.” These are places that lie between identities, mostly serving the nimby instincts (not in my backyard) of iconic identities. Consequently, these places tend to receive discarded land, material, infrastructure, and peoples; out-of-sight, out-of-mind. Whether they are brownfields or brownpeople northsiders do not want to hear their story. It is hard for an enlightened northsider to speak to a Blackhole, even if they grew up in one.

    Now that I live down here, I find the authority of my assumptions don’t apply.

  14. lowellt Says:

    Congratulations Thomas,
    You have managed to write a comment on the subject of this thread without using the words “Black”, “White”, “race”, “racism” or “art” once.

    Amazing.

  15. lowellt Says:

    OK.
    Who says I won’t it when I’m wrong?
    You did use the word “art” once – as in Art Institute.

  16. lowellt Says:

    Who says I won’t “admit” it when I’m wrong?

    (It was early)

  17. Thomas Frank Says:

    Lowellt,

    Your Right! You made your point very clear. I didn’t think it needed repeating. Never-the-less what I wrote supports your assertions. From your response, you would think I had argued against your point – I’m not.

    Again, I apologize for not being able to attend the panel discussion, so I am at an loss when referring back to that event. My interest in commenting here was not to debate anyones position in this thread, I think all the points thus far are fairly well founded including the issue of racism particularly towards the black population on the southside. Although, I don’t think a comment page is the best venue, there is a lot more that needs to be explored on the topic of racism in the Arts. Racism in Chicago and America is real and is occurring through out our social, cultural, and community institutions, including our art institutions. I think you did a good job baring that out. I apologize for what may have seemed to be an semantic omission on my part. I did not intend to neuter my comment. Rather my interest in commenting was to contribute a fairly narrow, and what I thought neglected, aspect of geography to the discussion.

    When “I” think about this topic I don’t just think about the agents of art (makers and consumers) but also the place of art. Whatever you may think about the person, place also has an important role in Art. And when you add markets to the mix, well then, you just created hierarchies of place and centers of the arts which are highly biased toward monied interests.

    There has always been a conflict between where the market is and where the artist live. Artists (or the Creative Class), being more mobile, have been known to abandoned where they live to migrate in mass and cluster around these highly capitalized creative centers. But now that capital has become highly mobile, actually much more mobile than people, there is no reason we can not bring these markets to these once discarded communities and neighborhoods and seed the development of more great artist.

    See I believe, some of the blind neglect by the institutions of art and the media has expression in our built environment. The built environment is physical and solicits certain behavior. Its the construction of the Dan Ryan all over again. What has occurred on the southside with respect to the art world is another form of white flight and building barriers.

    We are only beginning to see revitalization in the Bronzeville neighborhood and the near southside. My worry is that developers such as Community Builders, who are developing the Ida B. Wells area, have neglected the importance of Culture and the Arts to such an extent that they have not attracted the necessary capital to seed a vital cultural life.

    Although Pilsen is a near southside community it can serve as a good example for seeding the development of a cultural center. There are several initiatives that make it a vital place for artist to live (the Hispanic Art Museum and the Podmajerski properties to name just two). The last decade has also seen an expansion of the art scene into Bridgeport and farther south. Then of course there is Hyde Park, Beverly and Morgan Park.

    But what is forgotten are the neighborhoods that lie under the plumb of fallow 20th century industry – steel mills and oil refineries. There has been very little to no progress in these neighborhoods.

    So yes, I think this discussion is fruitful. It has, by it’s title, created a dialectic between the art establishment and the southside. If I was a community organizer, I would say we made same great gains here. So, as much as we need to continue building channels for great artist to reach the great show rooms of the Art establishment so too we need build the channels that brings the Art establishment to the southside.

    Regardless, I think this is a great topic that needs to be addressed from all sorts of angles and voices.

  18. Thomas Frank Says:

    “Change life! Change Society! These ideas lose completely their meaning without producing an appropriate space….new social relations demand a new space, and vice-versa.”

    – Henri Lefebvre

  19. lowellt Says:

    Thomas. Now you’re talking.

    Contrary to (what may be) popular belief, I welcome thoughtful arguments on this subject. What I don’t welcome is silence, fuzzy logic,diversion and confusion.

    I just wish a few more of the lurkers here would add to the discussion and now just sponge it in. You know who you are.

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