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.
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. 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.