Ben Eine at the site of his mural on South Wabash
The sky is clear and the sun is hot. Two figures stand inside a lift that reaches the top of a two-story parking garage in the South Loop. Dipping and stretching their dripping rollers, they carefully paint around a twenty-four-foot-tall letter “A.” As I get closer, I notice a third figure standing below them. Feet pacing and eyes looking up, he squints into the sun and lights a cigarette.
“Ben?” I ask. The artist turns around quickly, smiles and shakes my hand. Beads of sweat glisten on his forehead, and his hands and face are covered in orange paint. Despite my surprise visit, he is welcoming and good-humored. Motioning upwards, he wastes no time in explaining his current project. “So, seven letters. I wanted it to be positive, I wanted it to be happy—” He is interrupted by a parking attendant who’s asking the status of the lift’s next move. As he walks off to instruct, I make note of his attire: the bold décor of his countless tattoos, Hawaiian print shorts and bright blue sneakers complements the colorful 240-foot long mural-in-progress, which spells out “HARMONY” in swirls of neon paint. Read the rest of this entry »
Alejandro Figueredo Diaz-Perera. “In the Absence of a Body,” 2015.
Performance./Courtesy of the artist
Early this July, internationally known Cuban artist Tania Bruguera received her passport from the Cuban government, which had confiscated it for more than six months. Bruguera’s freedom-to-travel marks a turning point in a long and tumultuous relationship with her home country. At the end of last year, she was detained in Havana for her performance “Tatlin’s Whisper #6,” an open-mic participatory event that encourages free speech, a problematic undertaking in the current political climate of Cuba. In the wake of this news and with a recent shift in official diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, it would appear that the future looks bright for the Cuban art community.
Alejandro Figueredo Diaz-Perera, a Cuban-born artist now residing in Chicago, is cautiously optimistic about the changes he has seen. “It’s part of the process and it’s needed…this becomes a symbol for the end of the [Cold War]…but the social and political ways of thinking are the same as they were fifty years ago.”
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Nina Chanel Abney
Nina Chanel Abney stands in front of a large auditorium full of people. It’s 2011, and she’s just been welcomed to the stage of Washington D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery of Art, where she’s giving a visiting-artist lecture. “I’m a little nervous, but it’s been very humbling to be a part of the ‘30 Americans’ exhibition,” she begins. “Just four years ago, I was in school and I signed up for an artist studio tour and we went to Kehinde Wiley and Wangechi Mutu’s studios—and now I’m in a show with them and it’s a little bit weird.” With a smiling mouth and quivering voice, she continues. “This is my first lecture, so I hope I do a good job for you guys.”
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Cover by Matthew Hoffman, Breakout Artist 2006. Photo: Cheryl Hinman
Breakout Artists is our annual showcase of Chicago artists we think you should know. This is our twelfth edition.
Lists like these always risk reduction, betray biases and can say more about the limits of their host publication’s scope than about the worthiness of artists—those mentioned or not. They persist as conversation starters: their value isn’t solely in what is printed here, but in the excited discussions and debates that proceed from them. Our circulation spikes around these featured lists, and so does the mail we receive. Understanding those contexts is an important part of appreciating what a list like our annual Breakout Artists can and can’t do.
But while many lists of this sort are ranked or correspond to particular forms of prestige, our Breakout Artists have always been determined by a more mysterious (and certainly subjective) calculus. I had to begin by wondering out of what these artists were meant to be breaking. This year, we are celebrating and advocating for ten artists’ practices who have seen breakthroughs in their work and are breaking out into higher stakes, wider visibility, a broader range of media, or expansions of what art can accomplish. Their practices subvert racial and gender stereotypes, crisscross into adjacent fields like illustration and design, enmesh studio work with curating and other socially engaged creative moves, run amuck in traditional mediums like painting and sculpture, while also finding ways to work in new places outside galleries or on the web.
The artists we’ve selected are at different stages of their careers; this is not an emerging artist list, although a couple have recently completed BFAs. If there is a common feature, it is one that shows the continued gravitational pull of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on the arts cultivated in this town. Despite being one of the most expensive college educations in the country (for art or anything else) and in the face of perpetual wondering about the relevance of higher education, each of this year’s Breakout Artists have brushed through SAIC—whether studying there or, like me, teaching there. These artists’ work happens not only in sanctioned art world temples, but in apartment spaces far out on the Green Line, in the neighborhoods surrounding Cook County Jail, from Rogers Park to Washington Park, and sometimes in Canada. Whether in major arts institutions or in the dispersed expanded field of where creative exploration can happen, these are artists worth knowing about and watching out for the great things they are doing. (Matt Morris)
Faheem Majeed/Photo: Devin Mays
At the Museum of Contemporary Art, we sit at the large table inside Faheem Majeed’s piece “Planting and Maintaining a Perennial Garden.” Two museum patrons crash my interview for the chance to speak with the artist. Piece by piece, they share a dialogue about Majeed’s ideas and their impressions of his work. We are, he tells us, in a re-creation of the South Side Community Art Center, a space he ran for seven years. “It oozed into my being. I know everything about that space.” Read the rest of this entry »
Alison Ruttan in her installation “A Line in the Sand,” at the Chicago Cultural Center
“My husband says the FBI knows what I’m doing because I have a heat signature constantly going,” chuckles artist Alison Ruttan as she leads me into the basement of her cozy Oak Park home. We pass from her living room lined with artworks by Ruttan’s husband Scott Stack and neighbor Sabina Ott into a series of chamber-like rooms with low ceilings and cement floors, all brimming with remnants of unused pieces from “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” which occupies the Cultural Center’s three Michigan Avenue galleries. Read the rest of this entry »
John Phillips. “Bob,” 2001.
oil on panel
When I walked up to the five-story loft building that houses John Phillips’ studio, he was standing outside in the cold waiting for me. “This place was a brick shell when we moved in,” he reminisced as I followed him up the stairs and through his doorway. Soaring ceilings and white walls rose to greet me, meticulously renovated by Phillips’ own hands and brimming with his artwork and that of his friends. Shelves loaded with neatly organized rows of books and records occupied his living room, as did a skinny and very outgoing brown cat.
He offered me tea, then paused and added beer as an option. I accepted the latter and we headed downstairs to his studio. Located directly below his living space and with a floor plan just as large, Phillips is granted 24/7 access to his own artistic playground. Read the rest of this entry »
Vesna Jovanovic. “Spinal Cord Stimulator,” 2014 ink and graphite on polypropylene, 80″ x 60″
There is a baseball-sized gallbladder stone living inside Vesna Jovanovic’s studio. The stone that once violently grew within an unfortunate party’s body now rests peacefully behind a glass display case on the third floor of the Museum of Surgical Science, where Vesna comes each week to work. As the museum’s artist-in-residence since October 2013, Jovanovic is granted daily access to the abundance of tools and historical objects that reside in the exhibition rooms. While the physicality of the artifacts does in part fuel her study and practice, it is the persons, stories and records behind them that really move her. Read the rest of this entry »
Ryan M Pfeiffer and Rebecca Walz
Artists Ryan M Pfeiffer and Rebecca Walz’s focus falls emphatically on collaborative action. The duo draws simultaneously, sitting across from each other and working over the same sheet of paper, arranging a mélange of seductive archetypes from the visual history of the West. Their collaborative drawings register caprices and negotiations; marks intermingle and become impossible to assign to any single collaborator. Various mystical, religious and cultural icons coalesce in busy, textured cadres—woodcuts from volumes of Sade, archaeological records, Pietas and Venus idols, or Hans Bellmer’s fetishistic photographs. Their repurposed, blended imagery has all the tellings of an expert bibliography. The compositions are stages on which the duo’s investigations into alchemy, ancient art and eroticism are performed as drawing.
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Jeff Gibson. “Product (detail),” 2014,
ink-jet wallpaper, dimensions variable
Jeff Gibson culls images from the internet’s massive store, choosing JPEGs of products silhouetted against white backgrounds, highlighted perfectly by their surrounding vacuous atmosphere. When combined, the images call out to each other in a fashion not immediately recognizable, playing against the objects’ shiny machinery or garish design. “My roots are in pop and conceptualism so a lot of my subject matter is from popular culture and bears that stain, and I am only happy to rub the world’s nose in,” says Gibson. Gibson views all his images as products, calling attention to the aesthetics of consumerism via visual taxonomies. Read the rest of this entry »