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The Wanderer: Looking at the Art of Life

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By Katie Waddell

A friend once told me that the best way to look at art is to show up at a gallery after a forty-eight-hour stint of not sleeping. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to anyone as a method, but I get what he meant: sometimes deep looking requires that we take measures to adjust our sensitivity and attentiveness to things. And while screwing with real-world psychosomatic feedback loops can have an effect on how a person experiences art, I think the opposite is also true. Have you ever spent time with a Rothko painting, only to wander outside and find that, somehow, the sky looked different? That the vastness and intensity of that giant blue swatch suspended above you threw the nuances of various cloud densities into sharp relief? Or, have you ever spent an afternoon with a book and felt its lyric atmosphere slink back hours or days after you set it down? (Once, after reading Don DeLillo’s “White Noise,” a novel replete with descriptions of sterile modern shopping centers and their fluorescent lights’ menacing, paranoid buzz, I had a mild anxiety attack in the middle of a Target. True story.) Galleries and book jackets are signals. They tell us: Pay attention to this. This is important. They tell us to expect something special—an experience that takes us out of our everyday. But what if we applied the kind of careful looking and attention to nuance that typify our interactions with art and, instead, scrutinized the quotidian stuff of life as if it were intentionally arranged by a deft and calculating hand?

Chicago, filled with diverse neighborhoods that produce their own specific cultural signatures, lends itself to observational experiments in this vein. From Pilsen to Old Town, each area speaks in the language of its particular urban material—a kind of communication that can only be understood and appreciated on its own terms. Learning a neighborhood’s vernacular can yield unexpected encounters, whether it’s something implicitly profound about the seemingly ordinary, or something wonderfully strange that, upon closer inspection, emerges from a landscape of the commonplace.

What follows is a composite report of various roamings through Logan Square and Avondale, an area that is, at this moment, a kaleidoscope of sundry communities specific to Chicago. (If what Heraclitus said is true, that you can never step in the same river twice, so too with the city street—its cultural-material landscape is constantly in flux.) This report could potentially have been about any other neighborhood, given each one’s singular qualities, but, for me, this article presented an opportunity to write a sort of love letter to the neighborhood(s) I have lived in and become immensely fond of over the past couple years, so think of this as an archive of little discoveries and personal favorites that have grown on me over time, each thing representing a tiny jolt of poetic resonance or charm in an area not particularly known for its visual appeal.

From Americana to Alien Murals: Logan Square’s Business Aesthetics

Big Smile Dental

Some of the most weirdly endearing things about Logan Square and Avondale are by far their idiosyncratic businesses and storefront displays. Though I’ve never opened up and said “Aaaah” as a patient there, Big Smile Dental at 2833 North Milwaukee (you know, the place with the fully three-dimensional fairy—possibly the same size as an actual child—with sparkly silver butterfly wings, waving her wand over a dentist scrubbing giant dentures with an enormous green toothbrush) has left me with my mouth agape plenty of times. No humdrum office facades for these folks. Instead, Big Smile Dental opts for a cartoon tableau hovering over the sidewalk, which I can only imagine turns as many customers away as it attracts. But it’s not like their sign is totally off base. It leaves no doubt as to what this place is all about (unlike many Logan Square businesses) and, after all, using ideograms to lure customers is a practice that goes back to colonial tradesmen, some of the most inventive of which were apothecaries that advertised their services with giant, wooden unicorn horns. Fanciful as their display is, a smidge of something true-to-life lingers in Big Smile Dental’s colossal chops: If you’ve ever had your gums shot through with Novocain, you know that clownish sensation of having a mouth that, rubbery and swollen, feels twice as big as your face.

Foto Quetzal

Big Smile Dental isn’t the only local business venture that delivers as many smiles to passersby as its customers. Take, for example, Foto Quetzal—a photography studio on Milwaukee (near Fullerton) that has gained some notoriety amongst the local lushes. Commissioned studio portraits are always fascinating because they depict the sitter’s idealized self. They don’t lie about who we really are so much as tell errant truths about who we wish we were. And with its multicolored, blinking LED and strobe-lit window display, featuring racy photos of naked-ish couples, Foto Quetzal attracts lingering bar patrons like so many chain-smoking, beanie-wearing flies, who make a sport of speculating about these sweethearts’ bold choice to air their rather risqué dirty laundry in public; not to mention the group spoof portraits, the prom queen pasted over the Lisa Frank-esque galaxy background, the wedding photo featuring a surly groom in dark sunglasses, arm around his young, sweet-looking bride, giving the camera his best machismo poker-face. Looking at Foto Quetzal’s commercial panorama is like surveying a gallery of ordinary longings, each smiling face couched between E.T. statuettes and holographic stickers. The sitters embody a kind of ordinariness that holds its head high— that, despite its overtures to the glamor of fantasy, is happy to be exactly what it is.

Real Tenochtitlan

It would seem that, despite wringing their hands to wrist-spraining excess, cultural critics (and artists: recall Don DeLillo’s novel) bemoaning the corporate homogenization of American culture overlook something crucial. Not that the blandness of gentrification shouldn’t be resisted. It most definitely should be resisted, and is, subtly, often unintentionally, by shop owners that appropriate commercial practices and make them their own—often in surprising, unexpected ways.

Such examples of bold, homegrown business aesthetics abound on North Milwaukee, where shop owners blazon their wares in anything-and-everything discount-goods assemblages, often cleverly supplementing these tableaux with collaged magazine backgrounds. Proprietors of Uncharted Books invite pedestrians with a seasonal storefront mise-en-scene (and bid them stay with divey décor and clever signs that could have been sourced from McSweeney’s), while Polish butchers a few blocks away taunt salivary glands with high-res vinyl meat porn. Real Tenochtitlan, a family restaurant, seduces in another way—murals of topless goddesses and mermaids (topless no more! thanks, city officials) can be seen from the sidewalk. Other shops lure spookily—just peer through the iron bars and barely patched window at a church supply store further north to see an orgy of religious figurines: Santa Muerte, several Our Lady of Guadalupes, tribal chieftains, Buddha, a unicorn—all leering, chuckling or gazing tenderly at the meandering traffic outside.


Often, the stores’ strongest lures are their advertisements, provided that we see them through our hypothetical looking-at-art goggles. DayGlo hand-painted signs, resembling post-New Wave Americana renditions of Warholian silkscreens, announce various grocers’ specials. At the far northwestern end of Milwaukee, a mural advertising the now-defunct Pasieka Bakery resonates—note the striking typographics, strong diagonals and black-on-orange tension—with Russian Constructivist overtones.

Despite the carnival of entrepreneurial design quirks that populate Milwaukee alone (an aside: Whistler, Botanica and those giant origami cranes just seemed too easy), I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Patents + TMS at 2849 West Armitage, a “specialized law firm that people remember!” (Their website is also worth a visit.)

Sick Fisher, Mural, Patents + TMS

Self-described as eclectic, Patents + TMS’s office space, peppered with DayGlo-greenish accent walls, funky paintings and retro children’s science kits, looks like the decorator fell into an black hole on his way to pick up the cubicle parts and corporate beige carpet that law firms are supposed to have. He did—kind of. Firm founder Brian Mattson, who also serves on the Bucktown Arts Fest organizing committee, has a side business buying and selling vintage housewares and clothing on eBay. Mattson sees collecting, supporting the local arts scene, and his law practice as interrelated, all facilitating creative exchange. He even commissions local artists to cover the office’s façade with a new mural every six months—the current offering is a UFO-infested cityscape by artist Nick “Sick” Fisher.

Interior, Patents + TMS

I think that what makes this office so appealing is that it doesn’t appear overdesigned. It escapes that pre-packaged feeling that office settings—even the most ornamentally avant-garde (like the Twitter or Facebook headquarters)—tend to have, like their product or service has infected the architecture and every armchair or light fixture is quietly peddling something. Patents + TMS, by contrast, feels neighborly. A dining-room table (complete with placemats) replaces the prototypical conference table. If someone calls the office, a vintage Mickey Mouse telephone rings. Mattson uses secondhand objects—things that always have a kind of history or nostalgic heft—to articulate personal taste where most business-owners concerned with professional appearances might have leaned on the soullessness of branding, and for the area that surrounds Armitage and California, that totally works. By standing out as a law firm, Patents + TMS blends in to the heterogeneousness of its street.


The Best Things in Life are Found

Woodscrap assemblage

While I’ve provided a wandering map (at the end of this article) for anyone wishing to check out these spots on their own, sometimes freestyle urban explorations yield the richest discoveries. In 1958, a group of radical European artists called the Situationists outlined the theoretical bases of dérive (literally “a drifting”)—a practice wherein artists would wander cities without agenda, map or destination, searching out the cities’ “psychogeographic contours,” allowing chance, curiosity and attraction to various sites guide their urban ambles. And while a dérive proper is meant to be intensely methodological, just wandering a city to discover unexpected pockets of emotional or aesthetic resonance needn’t be. It can be playful, taking on the kind of loosely-structured improvisations of a game of hide-and-seek. Haphazard wandering can be ideal for finding ephemera or momentary anonymous urban articulations—graffiti, fliers, signs—individual interventions in the collective cityscape.

Logan Square has, of late, been subject to yarn bombs, guerilla woodscrap assemblages, uncommissioned prose-poem murals, and giant, disembodied paste-up cat heads. But sometimes, the best interventions are the ones that don’t quite read as choreographed street art, like the unwashed window that has accumulated layers of tags, the seemingly random words spray-painted on the sides of buildings, or the notebook-paper sign posted on the door, bearing a solitary word: meow. Ambiguity might be the domain of contemporary art, but it can resonate just as much in everyday life, where it is least expected, and is as much the work of spontaneous, converging forces (wind-gathered garbage in undeveloped lots—those urban meadows growing concrete patches in weedling beds—offer a kind of voluptuous post-apocalyptic melancholy) as it is prankster vandalism.

Ideological grandfathers to the Situationists, the Surrealists saw everyday life’s inherent uncanniness. As cultural theorist Ben Highmore writes, “Surrealism is not just a technique for making the ordinary extraordinary; the everyday in Surrealism is already strange… the everyday is not the familiar and banal realm that it seems to be; only our drab habits of mind understand it this way… As such [Surrealist techniques such as collage are] both a way of breaking habits of mind that would submit to the normalizing impulses and a suitable form for representing the everyday. It is in the actuality of everyday, when passing a second-hand shop, for instance, where umbrellas and sewing-machines find themselves collaged together on a dissecting table.”

Or, for example, when a caution sign for a firing range is pasted over a lopsided (white, dead-ish) mannequin, beneath a security camera, next to a goblin at Threads, Etc. Resale, and you have to wonder how these objects came together in this particular, exquisite-corpse-like array.


The Dreamland of Homescapes

Barry & Monticello

Juxtaposing objects to break drab habits of mind happens, perhaps most strikingly, in instances of expressive land, window, or balcony-scaping on private property, where decorative objects reflect highly personalized creative choices. Residential streets in Logan Square/Avondale abound with yard altars and doll-head planters, but the area’s piece de resistance by far lives at the corner of West Barry and North Monticello. Home to multiple families and the proprietor of H&C Welding Co., this residence is encased in an ever-shifting art installation. Murals painted in homage to El Salvador, Puerto Rico, South Africa and America cover the garage. Images of revolutionaries, religious figures and Princess Diana are tacked onto the house’s façade. Carefully arranged stuffed animals, toys, figurines and statues accompany painted toilet and sink planters in the yard. A nearby tree wears a garland of shoes filled with fake flowers. A plastic mushroom cloud sits behind a rainbow-hued wrought-iron fence. It is evident that the welding expertise came in handy here: an I-beam cross stands erect in the front yard, and a metal cutout portrait of Che Guevara adorns the side gate. When I lived in Avondale, I would walk by this place on the way to the train everyday, slowing my pace to take it all in. It changes constantly—objects disappear and additions are made, more often in the summer.

Once, I brought a friend who specializes in Latin American art history to see it. He suggested that the aesthetic choices might be informed by Latin American altar-building practices—something I know nothing about. My impulse is to frame it as a kind of art environment, like Wisconsin’s House on the Rock, but given my own lack of contextual understanding, I would encourage Newcity’s readership to see it for themselves rather than rely on my shaky descriptive scaffolding. I will say that, for me, the place always felt like a gift—a flourish of the fantastical in an area that can get pretty drab, especially in winter; its sensational garishness and clutter a kind of fuck-you to the faraway, prim Lincoln Park condos—the architectural embodiments of order and “normalized impulses.”


City life can be harsh. Especially Chicago, especially during the winter. As the last festival vendors of the season pack up their wares, as the skies gray and sleeping bag-caliber down coats appear on the streets in greater number, remembering what’s beautiful about this city can be a boon and a comfort in those why haven’t I moved to SoCal yet? moments. So before you start breaking out the long underwear and stocking your pantry with whiskey, spend an afternoon wandering your neighborhood. Or my neighborhood. I drew you a friggin’ map after all, so please, use it.

One Response to “The Wanderer: Looking at the Art of Life”

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