In 1897, the Art Institute of Chicago began hosting an annual juried “Chicago and Vicinity” exhibition. As the 1985 catalog explained: “Though the format has changed, the purpose has remained essentially the same: to provide a forum for the best new art being produced in the Chicago area—1600 entries, 136 works, thirteen prizes.” But that turned out to be the last iteration. Big money was flowing into the contemporary art market and museums were not going to attract these investments with a quality-focused, locally specific curatorial practice begun in the nineteenth century.
Shane Campbell Gallery promotes its current version as a “snapshot of what is happening in studios across Chicago, filtered through the perspective of the gallery.” One might note this perspective is rather narrow. It seems that fully half the fifty chosen artists got a degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago after 1995, and most seem preoccupied by whatever may or may not distinguish art from non-art, profundity from banality, high culture from popular culture. Other personal, social or aesthetic issues are peripheral. Chicago’s distinguished master of these borderlands, Michelle Grabner, is not shown, but the influence of her investigations make her more present in this show than the fifteen other older Chicago artists who are included.
Among the SAIC graduates, William J. O’Brien is exceptional. His abstract-expressionist painting and life-size, ceramic torso are too full of gut-level strength to allow much speculation about the ontology of art. Matthew Metzger also stands out among the graduates of other schools. His reductive pictorial approach to presence and balance feels much fresher than the descendants of Duchamp’s “Fountain” or Malevich’s “Black Square” that hang nearby. There are also many fine works by legendary Chicago artists including a sharply designed print by Barbara Kasten, a master of abstract photography.
With so much borderline banality and pieces displayed in the offices as well as the main gallery, it was fun to guess which office furnishings were actually artworks. But the real excitement was the spanking new, museum-sized Shane Campbell Gallery itself. It is a substantial gift to the world of Chicago art, or, at least, one part of it. (Chris Miller)
Through April 23 at Shane Campbell Gallery, 2021 South Wabash.