Reviews, profiles and news about art in Chicago

Portrait of a Museum Director: Lisa Corrin

Curator Profiles, Galleries & Museums, News etc. No Comments »

It is a brilliant coup for Chicago’s art community that, on February 1, Lisa Corrin took the reigns as the Ellen Philips Katz Director of Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art. Corrin relocated to Evanston from her directorship at the Williams College Museum of Art, and prior to that, as Deputy Director of Art at the Seattle Art Museum, where she oversaw the commission of major works of public art in the Olympic Sculpture Park. Like several of Chicago’s newest museum directors, notably at the AIC and the MCA, Corrin is a former museum curator. She is a champion of contemporary art, and widely respected in her field for co-organizing Fred Wilson’s 1992 groundbreaking exhibition “Mining the Museum,” which essentially threw open the doors of the institutional critique genre.

How will Corrin position her own brand of advocacy for contemporary art in a city that is nearly saturated with major contemporary art institutions? I recently spoke with Corrin about her priorities for the Block Museum and how she envisions the museum’s role within the city. Read the rest of this entry »

Eye Exam: The Slow Way

Curator Profiles, Pilsen No Comments »

Jason Dunda's "Portrait of Paul Hopkin as the most Beautiful Effigy in the World"

By Jason Foumberg

Paul Hopkin is an artist who opened Slow gallery in August 2009 in a west Pilsen storefront. Slow is a curatorial project where Hopkin pairs two (and sometimes three) artists in an exhibition to see a conversation emerge. We chatted about his practice and vision for the gallery.

Tell me about the name Slow.

I am really interested in food, and have been forever. I used to automatically mistrust any artist who didn’t know their way around a kitchen. The connection of slow food and slow art is not coincidental.

Can you explain the practice of curating two-person shows, rather than solo shows?

Solo shows always “work,” but they seem to encourage the dreaded like/dislike response. It is hard to get someone to look at a show of a single artist and encourage them to think about what they are seeing at the same time. Pairing work in ways that are less obvious can draw out tensions, illuminate peculiarities in an artist’s point of view. That content often makes itself apparent as tension or a giggle rather than as a concise answer. Theme shows can dumb down too—they can simply generate an internal checklist—yup, that one is about robots too.

I fell for art because it was introduced to me as a way to change the way people see. I am still in love with the power and problems that that offers. The way I put shows together allows me to put something out in the world that is my take on things, but still keeps the artist’s work front and center. Read the rest of this entry »

Laughing at/with the Art World: Inside the weird enterprise of the Reeder family

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Photo: Colleen Durkin

By Ella Christoph

There’s no hiding at Club Nutz—the comedy club nestled into the second floor of a building on Clark and Hubbard Streets is a tiny, twelve by twelve foot space. Darkly lit with a spotlight on the stage, small balconies give some viewers a tiny bit more breathing room. Still, performers can’t avoid looking audience members in the eye, and vice versa. The club, the brainchild of brothers Scott and Tyson Reeder, and Scott’s wife Elysia Borowy-Reeder, sells itself on the claim that it’s the world’s smallest comedy club, as though that is something people seek out. But the owners claim it makes comedy way, way better. Scott compares it to watching a movie on a plane and laughing out loud even when the movie’s not funny. “There’s something about that enclosed space, and the fact that you might die, that leads to heightened emotions,” he says. It’s the same at Club Nutz. “Even a bad act has a certain intensity to it.”

The intimacy raises the stakes of the event—if a joke falls flat, there’s no hiding. Scott says there’s one serial performer that has shown up at Club Nutz a number of times. “He just told all these terrible facts about his life,” Scott says, laughing. “I mean they were terrible, a really rough childhood, and he didn’t present them in any funny way. And the content—I mean it was kind of funny, but it was heartbreaking. I don’t know if it would work at a normal comedy club. There’s something about the scale of it where it’s more intimate, or people can feel comfortable sharing something like that.”

The Reeders often work with small spaces. First and foremost visual artists, the comedy club is just the latest venture in their series of weird enterprises. Beginning in 2002, the Reeders curated at The Wrong Gallery in New York. The smallest exhibition space in New York, it was “nothing more than an expensive-looking glass door identical to those of the Chelsea white cubes it satirized,” the Reeders write. Designed and curated by class clown of the art world Maurizio Cattelan, Ali Subotnick and Massimiliano Gioni, The Wrong Gallery crossed lines without ever opening its doors. Peeking through the locked single glass door, labelled with the gallery’s irreverent name in simple black type, viewers could see whatever art they exhibited on the brick wall of the gallery, which had two-and-a-half square feet of floor space. After being evicted from its New York location in 2005, it moved to the Tate, where it exhibited pieces like Dorothy Iannone’s “orgasm box,” a colorfully decorated box framing video of Iannone’s face as she masturbated. Read the rest of this entry »

Eye Exam: What Is a Curator?

Curator Profiles 4 Comments »

Susan Aurinko

By Jason Foumberg

A friend recently asked me what a curator does. Are they like librarians? he asked. For an art outsider like my friend, the definition of a curator is limited to a stereotype suggested by the quiet halls of the museum. In the art world, though, the title of curator is totally unfixed. Just as the definition of artist was blown open in the early twentieth-century, the role of curator is no longer an elite, academic-bound job title.

Museum curators create solo retrospective exhibitions or thematic group shows, and biennial curators are jet-setting networkers. Often these types of curators have the highest degree offered in their academic field (art history or art studio), but that doesn’t mean they work in cushy, first-class jobs. They do more fundraising and donor development than actual exhibition planning, they give lectures and write catalogue essays, and they build and sustain their museum’s collection, if it is a collecting institution.

All of that is fairly routine and traditional in relation to the curators that I recently spoke with. They call themselves curators, but do not work for a museum. Do their self-ascribed job titles expand the definition of a contemporary curator, or merely confuse it? Read the rest of this entry »

Portrait of the Artist as Curator: Brandon Alvendia

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A sticker by Alvendia

“I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap & still comes out on top,” wrote Claes Oldenburg, in 1961, in a non-traditional artist statement titled “I am for an art.” Brandon Alvendia would like to see more artists define their practices in light of Oldenberg’s spirited dictums. He reframes Oldenburg’s “everyday crap” into “everyday pragmatism.” It’s a phrase that guides his own work. “How do I make best use of this,” he continually asks himself.

Alvendia re-purposes things at every turn, from bargain-priced floppy discs (gutted, they make good CD cases) to out-of-print books that he photocopies and binds into paperback books for free distribution. Not everything that he re-purposes is an object, though. For example, exhibitions are readymade platforms for the creative presentation of other artists’ work. “Curating is my art practice,” says Alvendia. For the Miami art fairs in 2007, he exhibited the work of ten artists in his wallet, a fitting context for the moneyed affair but also an economic means of exposure for the ten artists.

Alvendia’s latest artistic-slash-curatorial mission is “Fair Use: Information Piracy and Creative Commons in Contemporary Art and Design,” which recently opened at Columbia College, where he teaches part-time. The exhibition features about a dozen artists who test the limits of copyright law. Image appropriation has been a hot topic since the 1980s, but the rules of the game keep changing. As the law adapts to deal with artistic interventions, artists keep pushing the envelope. Read the rest of this entry »

Portrait of the Curator: Matthew Witkovsky

Curator Profiles, Photography No Comments »

Continuity or change? That is the question that Chicago’s photography community is asking as Matthew Witkovsky settles in as the new chair of the Department of Photography at the Art Institute.

Under his three-decade reign, Witkovsky’s predecessor, David Travis, built up the Institute’s collection, expanded its exhibition space and added facilities for scholarship; but he also played it safe and emphasized connoisseurship, leading to a staid approach that kept the department at several removes from the waves of experimentation that have broken over photography during his tenure.

Having come to his new position from stints as first assistant and associate curator at the Department of Photographs at the National Gallery of Art, Witkovsky is no stranger to the arts of diplomacy required of an arts manager in the big leagues. He is not easy to pin down when it comes to finding out the direction in which he intends to take his department. Read the rest of this entry »

Raising the Bars: The growing trend of art in saloons

Curator Profiles, Logan Square, Multimedia, News etc., Ukrainian Village/East Village, Uptown, Wicker Park/Bucktown No Comments »

By Marla Seidell

It’s almost 8pm on a freezing Thursday evening at Logan Square’s two-month-old hipster haven Whistler. Outside, Nicole Dudik’s mixed media installation, “Get Out Your Blue Mittens”—an abstract compilation of blue horizontal lines—lights up the storefront window gallery on an otherwise dark street. Inside, a hip but serious doorman checks IDs. Twenty- and thirty-something types wearing nerd glasses and blazers drink foreign beers and cocktails. Onstage, Dudik’s musician friends jam out a cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” Other than soft music and bits of conversation murmurs the atmosphere is pretty subdued. Not your typical art opening.

There are no free cups of wine in sight. No conspicuously artsy types discussing the art. Patrons fall into two categories: Dudik’s friends and the locals, who aren’t present necessarily for the opening. People like Eric Hahn, who lives in the neighborhood and frequents the bar twice a week for socializing. Sitting at the bar sipping a vodka tonic with a female bespectacled friend, Hahn muses on the accessibility of art in bars. “You might react to it without the filter of thinking of what you’re seeing as art,” he notes. Hahn first discovered Whistler accidentally, having seen the art display in the window. “Some people came out, and said, ‘Are you looking for Whistler, too?'” Hahn then realized a bar existed behind the storefront gallery window. As Hahn puts it, art displayed in a bar setting exposes the public to a medium they might not come into contact with otherwise. “It puts art in a place where people actually go,” he says. “Art in bars conveys a message—it takes away the pretense that people are afraid of.”

Despite belonging to vastly different milieus, art and booze find common ground at an increasing number of watering holes. The boundaries about what is acceptable in the art world have expanded. “It used to be faux pas,” says Melina Ausitakis, a painter who has lived in Wicker Park since 1999. “In the last two years I see [art in bars] more and more.” Ausitakis is also curator at the 73-year-old Rainbo Club, where art has graced the walls since 1985. Exhibits rotate every month, with an opening reception to boot. Curator for three years and having shown her work at Rainbo several times, Ausikaitis knows a thing or two about art in bars. “The biggest difference between a bar and a gallery is that in a bar people will say out loud that they think the work sucks,” she quips. In her view, alcohol fuels the viewing experience. “After a couple of drinks people will tell you what they think, which can be refreshing, as long as you don’t take it too seriously,” she says.

Ausikaitis says despite the brazen atmosphere at Rainbo she got a lot of good feedback from her shows, via the booze that “can be a sort of truth serum.” Although local media didn’t review the show, she got work from people she networked with outside Rainbo, due to the exposure she gained from the show. And likewise for photographer Jeremy Bolen, whose color prints of abandoned spaces in New York State’s Catskills region recently graced the walls high above the weathered red booths, in plain view. Like Ausikaitis, Bolen found similar results in terms of exposure. “The reception has been supportive, and I’ve been getting feedback around town,” he says.

Bars like Rainbo make a good place to start showing your art, especially for those gun-shy of the gallery scene. A photography graduate of Columbia, the show at Rainbo marked Bolen’s first, and he felt comfortable showing his work at a music-friendly bar. “Art openings are kind of sterile—normal people don’t hang out at art galleries,” he says. Bolen is also lead singer of local indie band Chin Up Chin Up and, according to Ausikaitis, has been a regular at the bar “forever.” Ausikaitis got to know Bolen through friends and even designed some of his album covers. Collaboration, along with feedback and exposure, feeds the artists showing their work at Rainbo. Not to mention art sales, which can be another benefit of the experience. Ausikaitis said she has sold work through many of her shows; at the time of our interview, Bolen said he was “close” to making a sale.

At Lincoln Park’s Delilah’s, art exhibits have rotated every two months since the bar opened fifteen years ago. Artist Nina Friday’s vixen girl paintings hung in a recent exhibit. Friday finds the bar venue to be both profitable in terms of art sales and a good vehicle for networking. “Art and bars go hand in hand,” says Friday, who sold three pieces for a total of $1,350 through her show. “Usually I get close to selling out, but today’s economy really affects the art world,” Friday says. Thanks to the exposure, collectors have propositioned Friday with commissions. “To be honest, I enjoy showing at bars, they’re a more relaxed atmosphere than galleries,” she says.

In similar fashion, designer Martin Cimek has found Delilah’s to be well-suited (and lucrative) for his art. This past July, Cimek sold eighty percent of his show (enlarged prints from a comic book he had designed for Delilah’s annual Mod vs. Rockers show). “The time and mood in which people socialize is that much more heightened in a bar,” he says. Bar patrons tend to spend more time with the art than they would in a gallery setting, which may encourage them to buy it. “Even though you’re not just there for the art, you might be a little more open to it, and the liquor might help as well,” observes Cimek. Delilah’s owner Mike Miller concurs. “People don’t come here to look at the art, but they end up checking it out, asking about it, so it becomes a part of their lives,” he says.

Aside from the monetary and networking perks, art in bars stimulates conversation and lends dynamic to the overall experience. At the two-and-a half-year-old Weegee Lounge in Logan Square, a permanent display of black-and-white prints by New York photography legend Weegee (Arthur Fellig) pays homage to the late artist. “Art allows a sense of free conversation, more than just hey, let’s talk about the Bears,” says owner Alex Kubner. And it’s art—not TVs or even live music—that takes precedence in shaping the atmosphere at Wicker Park’s five-month-old Flatiron. “Television squashes conversation, and art stimulates it,” says owner Nick Novich, who has displayed art on the walls of his bars for thirty years. Last May Novich closed The Note, the popular music venue that flourished in the nineties and early 2000s with events like “I Love House Music,” to make way for the Flatiron in its place. Novich cites rising expenses and a failing business model as reasons for the closing.

In addition to Flatiron, permanent, original works by Chicago artists cover the walls at Novich’s other three bars: Nick’s on Wilson, Nick’s Uptown and Nick’s Beer Garden, which resides just a stone’s throw away from Flatiron. At Nick’s Beer Garden, art from previous eras tells stories from the past. “See those bullet holes?” asks Novich, pointing to a nineteenth-century nude of museum quality containing four holes where rounds punctured the painting in 1979. “That shows how rough Armitage and Halsted was back then,” he notes. Over the pool table an airbrushed painting of a pool game by Chicago artist Roger Moy enlivens the scenery.

Moy, who has an MFA from the Art Institute, has been doing art for bars since 1978. “I prefer the bar setting, as I think the people that look at your work are more honest than in a gallery,” he says. Over the years Moy has received work via the exposure, and believes that displaying artwork in a bar is a way of giving back to the public. “It’s always nice to give people something to look at, especially when they’re relaxing,” Moy says. “Go in there four times and on the fifth time, people see something they never saw before.”

Novich feels the same about Mark Zender’s black-and-white abstract mural of cartoon-like characters at Flatiron. The mural, which hangs over the glass-block bar in back, is often compared to Keith Haring. “He just did that on his own, and I couldn’t be happier,” Novich says. “You can look at it for hours and still see new things.” Other works at Flatiron include murals of Rubenesque nudes, video-game monsters and sea-life creatures come to life in a postmodern aesthetic that straddles pop culture and street art. Unlike the generic, wide-screen TV element encroaching the neighborhood, Flatiron’s gigantic murals buck blandness. “This isn’t like Bennigan’s or Hooters, where everything looks the same,” says Novich wryly.

For the artists involved, the artistic freedom inherent in doing artwork for a bar is one of the benefits of the experience. Flatiron artists were recruited via a Craigslist ad, out of which seven artists were chosen. It took a month to complete, with artists granted a flexible, twenty-four-hour-a-day schedule, some working in the middle of the night. Richard Hull, who in the 1990s created artwork for Nick’s Uptown and Nick’s on Wilson located on the far North Side, appreciates this unique free rein. “Just the freedom to do something different, without interference, was a remarkable opportunity,” he says.

Like the artists at Flatiron, Hull was granted keys and the opportunity to create whatever sprang to mind, at whatever hour creativity struck. Hull didn’t just do the painting hanging in the main room at Nick’s Uptown, but also the ceiling and the abstract bottle display, too. “Anytime you get the chance to make something, you should,” observes Hull, who cites his thirty-year friendship with Novich as part of the motivating factor. “I enjoy working with him—I don’t know if I would do it just for anybody—but it’s this open-ended collaboration, which I like.”

Artist Mark Zender created not only the Keith Haring-like mural at Flatiron, but the eye-catching nudes up front as well. He also works as bar back and security personnel at Flatiron, where he often catches people looking up at his work. “It’s kind of humbling,” he says. Ultimately it’s about building fortitude about one’s craft. “It’s hard for me to have confidence about it sometimes,” admits Zender. “But it’s important that someone really likes it and appreciates it,” he says. And likewise for Jordan Gilchrist, whose urban family of characters based on neighborhood locals enters the scene at both Flatiron and Nick’s on Wilson. “Each time you do something big the doubts become less and less,” he says.

While bars like Flatiron, the Nick’s conglomerate and Rainbo provide new and unexposed artists opportunities for exposure and feedback they might not experience in a more traditional setting, artists at Whistler find space for flexibility. “Art in bars breaks down people’s fears about going to a gallery,” notes artist Dudik, whose installation marked the storefront gallery’s second exhibit since opening. Mark Benson’s sculpture installation of suspended shapes, “Totally Permanent,” was Whistler’s first. “It was slightly unorthodox, and the bar offered a really cool opportunity to use the installation,” says Benson, a painter who works as a graphic designer by day. “The space is yours to use to do whatever you want,” explains Benson.

“It’s a great opportunity to get art in front of an audience, as opposed to being sequestered into galleries,” observes Whistler curator Josh Dumas. Having worked with non-traditional spaces for ten years, Dumas finds in Whistler the opportunity to give emerging artists the chance to stretch limitations. “A regular gallery space literally wouldn’t afford this type of opportunity—an installation that lasts for two months,” he says. At Whistler, the chance to do something new is part of the art-in-bar elasticity. “Mark is a painter who never had the opportunity to work with a three-dimensional format, so it was exciting to see what he would do in a different context,” notes Dumas.

And given the fact that, currently, live music and alcohol sales pay the bills at Whistler, art here can be about exploration rather than the bottom line. “Traditional galleries have a different mission,” notes Dumas. “To get shown but also to get sold. And we’re fortunate that the bar pays the rent and gives opportunity to take risks without having to sell anything.”

In contrast, art at the Flatiron clearly fuels the bar’s product and alcohol sales. “For being open five months, we’re doing very well,” says Novich. The success of the Flatiron suggests that at least for the moment, music has taken a back seat to art. And at Delilah’s, art, like the music and film events, is part of a solid business model. “Our business is up right now, so we have to assume it’s because we have a tried and true product,” says Miller. While keeping a business alive and kicking may be the goal, the means to getting there aren’t necessarily all mercenary. “While I do have business motives, I’m trying to please people, and art is a great way of doing it,” says Novich.

The Flatiron attracts not only bar dwellers but groups who come just to see the art, like a museum. “There was this group here the other day, walking around looking at the art, talking and laughing amongst themselves,” says Zender. For the public, art in bars beats the hell out of TVs. For those in the art world, the inherent flexibility of the bar venue offers opportunity for experimentation and acknowledgment. And in some cases, cold hard cash in a buckling economy.

“Art is now an atmosphere that people are embracing,” Novich says. “People’s interaction with it and with each other is the entertainment.”

After the Deluge: Wu Hung puts the flood of contemporary Chinese art in context

Curator Profiles, Hyde Park, Multimedia, Painting, Photography, Video No Comments »

By Jason Foumberg

Every year, Wu Hung returns to Beijing for the summer months. China’s capital city is his place of birth; while there, he visits family, mingles with old friends, and champions the nation’s contemporary art scene. By now the world knows that whatever China does, it does on a massive scale. The arts are not exempt; “the magnitude is difficult to imagine,” says Wu Hung of the boom in galleries and art centers. He characterizes Beijing’s art production as ten times that of SoHo or Chelsea. The analogy to New York City is apt if the market is your indicator.

Yet, as an intellectual—Wu Hung is a Harvard-schooled art historian, curator and professor—he does not look solely to China’s economic successes to chart art’s accomplishments. Anyway, everyone already knows how that story goes. While it’s easy to get hung up on record auction sales and power collectors, Wu Hung hopes that he can expose Western audiences to a deeper understanding of Chinese culture.

As a professor of Chinese art history at the University of Chicago and the director of the Center for the Art of East Asia, Wu Hung is a devout academic and scholar. He has fashioned his curatorial career, though, as a cultural diplomat. He’s been curating exhibitions since the 1980s, but his breakthrough exhibition in Chicago was 2004’s “Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China,” a mammoth show of new media art that filled galleries at both the Smart Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art, and toured to several other cities. The exhibition introduced Western audiences to the Chinese avant-garde that, in many ways, resembled established Western contemporary art practices. Familiar tactics included durational performance art, buzzwords such as “the abject body” and experimentation with video as a medium. These and other conceptual practices are already canonized in American and European art from the sixties through the nineties. It’s not that China is a nation of Nam June Paik revivalists; rather, the neon god, smokestacks spewing pop culture and a government hell-bent on modernization—not to mention the newfound possibility for dissention and critique—produced counter-cultural responses that paralleled the Western approach. Wu Hung’s survey showed us that China is ready to join the dialogue in a serious way.

Subsequent thematic exhibitions, including “Displacement: The Three Gorges Dam and Chinese Contemporary Art,” now open at the Smart Museum, move beyond the broad view. Thanks in part to Wu Hung, viewers are equipped to understand contemporary Chinese art in the context that it is made, so an exhibition such as “Displacement,” which focuses on a very specific time and place, has relevance for a Chicago audience. In many ways the world is already attuned to China’s pull on life, from the Olympic spectacle to the objects we touch and digest daily. “Actually,” says Wu Hung, “we know so little about each other.”

“Displacement,” like many temporary exhibitions, is the product of several years’ worth of research, writing, travels to artist studios and coordination with other curators and institutions. While summering in Beijing, though, Wu Hung is able to curate three-to-four shows in a single season. “There’s a different speed of life,” he says. Discrepancies in the sensation of time passing are everywhere apparent in a nation riding hard on industrial and corporate progress while simultaneously carrying the weight of millennia-old heritage. The project to dam China’s Yangtze River, which will provide up to ten percent of China’s citizens with clean energy, has been in conception for at least eighty years, yet residents living on the river’s banks witnessed the newly constructed reservoir swell one foot every two hours, dividing the past and the present by a sheet of water.

The controlled flooding of the 1,400 villages and towns along the Yangtze this time was, at least, the good type of flooding, that is, it was planned and controlled. These towns had been susceptible to horrendous natural floods for as long as people called the Yangtze and its valleys home. Torrential flooding kills people by the thousands each time: 1911, 1931, 1935, 1954 and it is said that 1998’s flood was on par with the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina. The Three Gorges Dam, which will finally cease natural flooding in the area, comes as a great boon to the region’s population, even if it means that more than one million people have had to resettle their lives in government-built cities up the mountainside.

The flooding of the river valley has been so persistent, and its toll on life so profound, that the very idea of rushing water is a staple in Chinese mythology. Flooding, similar to the Noah story, carries with it all the associations of creation bound up with destruction—that if the world is washed away, a clean slate brings a chance for renewal, spiritual or otherwise. Such an ancient, epic and ultimately tragic tale is recorded in a recently published book, “The Flood Myths of Early China” by Mark Edward Lewis, and in fascinatingly recondite essays such as Qiguang Zhao’s “Chinese Mythology in the Context of Hydraulic Society.” One need only visit “Displacement,” though, to get a sense of how floods permeate the cultural and historical psyche of the riverbank’s inhabitants. Wu Hung accentuates the four contemporary artistic perspectives by including two scroll paintings, both painted hundreds of years ago, and both depicting man’s struggle with the river. One scroll, painted by an unknown artist from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), records the story of Yu, who won China’s throne by ably controlling the legendary flood. The King Yu myth comes from the Xia Dynasty, 2070-1600 BCE—an incomprehensibly long time ago.

Yu’s ancient story of saving the villagers by controlling the flood couldn’t be more relevant to present government intervention; Yu moved a mountain, and today, the largest dam in the world is being built. The 4,000-year-old myth and the five-year-old dam are both manifestations of “good government,” the workings of authoritarian government in the service of the peoples’ happiness.

As Wu Hung sees it, the artist reactions in “Displacement” are also political—simply by way of participation. I asked Wu Hung if contemporary Chinese artists were responding to the environmental crises, just as many American artists are, say, in the vein of the 2005 exhibition held at the Smart Museum, “Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art,” and especially since coal-burning power plants are being built at ten times the rate (or more) as clean energy dams. He replied that no, Chinese artists aren’t ready to take on these issues, but an oil painter such as Liu Xiaodong, who made three gigantic canvases at the site of the dam project, just wanted to be there; that was his way of responding politically. Wu Hung admits that it’s “hard to call it political art,” but the artist’s involvement might make it so.

While the resettled communities are giving up a lot—their native homes, their land, their way of life—and suffering a bit for the good of the whole, neither Wu Hung nor the four artists in the show seem to be passing judgment on the project. The hardships of resettlement, labor and loss—all the human elements—are represented through an even-handed approach. It’s well-documented that the displaced residents, having lost their old way of life, but gaining modern dwellings, and many living with running water for the first time, widely accept the building of the dam as beneficial to the whole.

The four artists in the exhibition selected by Wu Hung all approach their art with a strong narrative arc, and all make art on a monumental scale, just like the dam. It’s epic art for a massive engineering project. In a way, this is a comfortable sort of packaging. Those familiar with Chinese art know well the long scroll paintings with stories that develop as the viewer moves across its surface. Yun-Fei Ji’s “Water Rising,” from 2006, uses this traditional format to tell the contemporary story of residents packing up their homes and moving. Painted with inks on paper, the work could very well be of the same class as the antique scrolls just around the gallery’s corner, except, of course, for the minivans and bicycles.

Liu Xiaodong’s oil painting is also approachable. His popular realist style may be the reason for his status as one of China’s most well-respected and highly praised painters. Realistic portraiture, once a propagandistic tool, is now widely used to portray daily life, and its popularity remains high despite, or perhaps because of, edgier, more conceptual practices that cater to underground or intellectual audiences. The five-panel canvas “Hotbed,” from 2005, shows the dam’s laborers resting outdoors on discarded furniture atop a roof. Behind them stretches the picturesque steppes of the Gorges and the construction of the dam. The nine-by-thirty-three foot painting is huge considering that Liu Xiaodong painted it on site. It is somewhat of an epiphany, though, to realize that the figures in the painting are scaled to roughly life-size, so our view is, again, one of realistic access into the scene.

Liu Xiaodong chose to leave the bottom left corner of his painting unfinished, with only roughly sketched lines demarcating where the dam is being built. This corner of space hangs suspended between construction and destruction, between something taking shape and another thing falling to ruin. So, too, do we get this sense of in-between-ness in Chen Qiulin’s video art. In the four works that Wu Hung has configured into a narrative cycle about the destruction of the artist’s hometown and, later, her family’s movement into the new cities, sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether a structure is being built or if it is being torn down. In one scene, workers struggle to raise a building’s wooden frame, and when they slip, it comes crashing down. As if a primer on Eastern philosophy, the yin and yang of construction and destruction are held in perfect harmony.

Chen Qiulin loves to play with opposites existing simultaneously. Traditional Chinese opera characters in colorful garb roam the mounds of brown mud and rock along the riverbanks, an angel treads the recent ruins, and everywhere the new is clashing with the old. Above all, her videos, made from 2002 when her hometown was being destroyed to 2007 when her new home was settled, provide a privileged view into the street life of the various towns. Although she is trying to push the narrative in an artistic or metaphoric manner, viewers benefit most, I think, from seeing the documentary-like footage of labyrinthine stairwells, moss-covered stone walls, kites, hanging laundry, street vendors and, of course, the river. This is the resettled city as the Chinese see it.

The fourth artist, Zhuang Hui, ponders the dam project using a so-called conceptual method. He tries hard to push an objective or non-emotional stance by making use of maps and black-and-white photography to document his project. The outcome, though, is wholly emotional—to the work’s benefit. Zhuang Hui visited several sites along the Yangtze River that he knew would soon be under water from the new reservoir. In what was perhaps the last instance of human mark-making upon these pieces of land, Zhuang Hui punched holes in the dirt using a tomb raider’s stick. With such a stick, a thief could plunge through the topsoil and see if the ground responded with a noise, or else they could peer into it. Presumably Zhuang Hui’s tool is incidental to his kilometer-long drawing in dirt, but the metaphoric implications of the tool are too powerful to ignore. In a sense he is simultaneously digging the river’s grave and plundering its treasures. To complete the project he sent a photographer to the spots where holes were punched, and only water was found there, as the river had risen to its final height.

Zhuang Hui presents his work as a grid of black-and-white photographs that show the cavities he made in the earth. Their starkness is doubled given the occurrence of an unrelated project. In the late 1990s, Chinese archaeologists made an emergency dig in the Three Gorges region, realizing that once the reservoir filled in the valley, any buried objects from centuries past would be as retrievable as the sunken city of Atlantis. Several books cataloging their excavations and findings have been published, and their bounty includes ritual objects, jars and pots from ancestors’ daily lives, writing tablets, jewelry, knives—everything from societies long gone whose livelihoods depended on the river. Likewise, ancestors appear as ghosts in the world of the living in Yun-Fei Ji’s scroll paintings. Final visits are made to relatives’ graves before they, too, become doubly buried beneath the new lake.

This past summer Wu Hung curated the well-received show “Portraying Food (and the Absence of It)” at Walsh Gallery, one of Chicago’s commercial galleries dedicated to representing art from the East. Like “Displacement,” here Wu Hung chose four Chinese artists in order to pair the human experience with a specifically Chinese perspective. Food, with all its attendant associations of sensuality, economics and mortality, proved to be a fun show to curate, and it was also another appeal to audiences to experience, in Wu Hung’s words, “life, emotion and struggles—the human element.” Soon Wu Hung will work with Shen Shaomin, an artist from the food show, to install public sculptures in Millennium Park, and later, he will publish a source book with the Museum of Modern Art on Chinese art and literature—all while graciously hosting the Chinese way in Chicago.

“Displacement: The Three Gorges Dam and Chinese Contemporary Art” shows at the Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave., through January 25, 2009.

Eastern Unorthodox: Artists in search of a post-Soviet Ukrainian reality

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By Jason Foumberg

Ukraine has been in a constant state of transition since declaring its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Seventeen years of sovereignty have been marked by periods of deep poverty for many and robust wealth for few, political upheavals and mass protests, and a thrust toward modernization. As Chicago contains the largest population of ethnic Ukrainians in the United States, all eyes are on the homeland as a new batch of corrupt politicians threatens to set a course for turbulence. An exhibition opening September 12, “New Print Politik: Post-Soviet Politics and Contemporary Art,” at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, depicts the situation from the artist’s viewpoint. Alongside the Ukrainians, the Russian, Slovakian and Cuban perspectives are considered in the exhibition, as all were previously under the rule of, or dependent on, the U.S.S.R.

“Sometimes it’s painfully obvious that art can’t be made how it was made before the Soviet collapse,” says the exhibition’s curator Roman Petruniak. While the elements of traditional national culture, such as food and religion, embroider the identity of a Ukrainian, it’s the high-rise condos and the grab for the West that’s both worrisome and worth criticizing. Much of the new political work, as framed by the exhibition, didactically and directly engages the problems facing citizens and artists. Any heavy-handedness is excusable, for these are heavy times.

The limits of artistic expression are an indicator of individual autonomy within a society. It’s what we can get away with that defines the forces bordering our actions. In a video titled “Lay and Wait,” Nickolay Ridniy lays down on the sidewalk in front of the German embassy in Ukraine to perform his continual frustration with being denied a visa. Gaining permission to travel outside the country is a common problem. Ridniy’s act of laying down in a public path, and his subsequent arrest, interrogation and threats of forced hard labor highlight the stale taste of brute power that has remained all these years after the Soviet pullout.

In other artworks with strong political messages, the artists are able to make their statements unmolested by the law’s strong-arm. Again, Ridniy, together with fellow artists Ann Krivenzova and Sergey Popov, calling themselves SOSka Group, wear masks of the most famous politicians in Ukraine and panhandle on streets and the subway. It’s a not-so-subtle hint that political promises of change are impoverished.

One mask worn by the SOSka Group represents Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko. As a stalwart of Ukraine’s bid to enter both the European Union and NATO, Yushchenko seeks to push the country far into westernized territory—in the opposite direction of Russia, which still looms large over the former Soviet republic by providing resources such as oil and other energy supplies. The recent war between Russia and Georgia exemplifies the interest that the Russian giant still invests in its castoff countries. Newsweek called President Yushchenko’s prospects with NATO an act of “Russian roulette.” Dick Cheney’s visit to Ukraine in early September epitomized the country’s march on the fast track to privatization and capitalist rule, which, for many Ukrainians, marks a step toward progress, and for others a visitation from Cheney is tantamount to a prospector surveying untouched land, or a fat man fingering fruits for their ripeness.

“New Print Politik” is the outcome of Petruniak’s travels this summer to such far-flung locales as Ukraine, Slovakia, Cuba and Russia. Although the Institute has exhibited heavily politicized art in the past, such as 2005’s “Ukrainian Art and the Orange Revolution,” Petruniak expects his exhibition will be an eye-opening experience for Chicago’s local population of Ukrainians. How one understands the Ukrainian situation differs depending on whether one dwells beside Lake Michigan or the Black Sea. The divide concerns middle-class prosperity—widely available in America, but severely lacking in Ukraine. In an example of the disparity between Ukrainians and Ukrainian-Americans, Petruniak took some immersion language classes during the beginning of his trip in Ukraine, where he found the phrases he had picked up in his childhood from his father sounded to the natives as if he were living in the 1920s. Perhaps Ukrainians who are outside Ukraine, safe from the political and economic upsets, live at a comfortable remove from the reality of what brothers and cousins in Eastern Europe might be experiencing. Petruniak calls Chicago’s Ukrainian Village, with its shawl-clad grandmothers and quaint borsch-and-dumpling cafés, a “living history.” He hopes to connect the exhibition’s visitors to the living present.

The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art (UIMA), founded in 1971, boasts two large gallery spaces. One holds the permanent collection and features mostly painting and sculpture from post-1945 to the present that takes cues from Abstract Expressionism and Cubism. These works directly challenged Stalin’s state-imposed style, Socialist Realism, which permitted only glorious representations of the nation, its leaders and workers. In its heyday, Ukrainian Modernism was avant-garde and threatened polite society; today, these styles have become traditional and formalized. In the other gallery, Petruniak’s exhibition contains no abstract art. Here, everything is told on certain terms and each work tells a specific story. There is no place for ambivalence in the next avant-garde.

Before setting foot in Eastern Europe and Cuba, Petruniak sent out a call about the exhibition to artists. In Kiev, two largely influential institutions, the Center for Contemporary Art and the Edios Foundation, picked up the notice. They put Petruniak in contact with artists whose work contains equal part activism and political commentary. The idea of exhibiting specifically printed work, that is, serigraphs and photographs, seemed logical given the steep cost of shipping artwork and the near-promise that Customs would make things unnecessarily difficult. Once he began visiting artists’ studios, though, Petruniak found that reproducible media prompts a host of meaningful associations. The possibility of reaching a wider audience through mass dissemination perfectly mirrored much of the works’ themes—that the public should be made aware of, and can actively participate in, the direction of their lives. Petruniak returned to Chicago with posters, ‘zines and many digital files of the photographs he wanted to have in the exhibition, which he printed here, and which undercut the singular preciousness of the art objects and affirmed the necessity for broad access to the political message.

The SOSka group delights in the possibilities that arise from changing a unique object’s context, an experiment made possible by reproduction. “Barter” is a video showing high-art reproductions (likely unlicensed)—including some of the contemporary art market’s best-selling darlings Neo Rauch, Cindy Sherman and Chuck Close—traded for livestock and vegetables in a small rural village in eastern Ukraine. A small exhibition is installed on the side of a shed, and local farmers and villagers are invited to pick their favorite work of art. Barter is then negotiated. Cindy Sherman dressed as a clown fetches one live chicken. A work by Komar and Melamid—painters who mocked the Socialist Realist style by replicating it to saccharine heights of kitsch—is selected by a farmer. No doubt Komar and Melamid would find ironic delight in the peasant’s lack of taste. The garish landscape goes for two buckets of potatoes.

The bartering video not only highlights the ridiculous divide between the rich and the poor, or high and low tastes; it is also quite an accurate depiction of the daily economy in Ukraine where bartering is a fact of life. As the government tries to veer the economy to a capitalism that works for itself and for its rich allies, people are still having to make do with what they’ve got. Here, do-it-yourself isn’t just a political stance; it’s also a survival tactic. By the end of the bartering video, one feels that the villagers were deceived, for they’d be better off keeping their dozen eggs than owning a bit of wall art, and so the value of their labor versus the value of art becomes very clear.

Or, it’s a certain type of art that is devalued by this exchange, namely art that addresses only aesthetic questions. Contemporary American art is a luxury that’s as politically effective as cake decorating. For artists living in post-Soviet states, however, if there is a privilege worth expanding, it is the issue of personal and political freedom. Surely they have the freedom to paint an ugly abstract picture if they care to, but formal and aesthetic concerns are not the contested terms. Where Stalin’s Socialist Realist style sought to seed the public’s consciousness with agit-prop—where “You” were always being addressed—so too does the new public art ask its viewers to become participants. Critical pedagogy combines education, outreach, collaboration and activism for common people and the common good. Public interventions, workshops and street posters work well toward this goal.

In addition to his work at the UIMA, Petruniak is a founder, with Ben Schaafsma and Abigail Satinsky, of the Institute for Contemporary Understanding Between Art and The Everyday, or InCUBATE, in Logan Square. Like similar institutions in Chicago such as the Stockyard Institute and Mess Hall, programming at InCUBATE provides outreach for marginalized groups—including artists. A residency program gives artists the space to work freely, and a grant-giving program redistributes money to artists collected from subscriptions to a weekly soup luncheon. They also recently launched a touring exhibition titled “Other Options” that, in part, self-reflectively calls into question the “Nonprofit Industrial Complex.” While in Eastern Europe, Petruniak met an artist who showed him his backyard shed and introduced it as an alternative artist-and-community-based center. “Here I was thousands of miles from Chicago,” says Petruniak bemusedly, “and looking at InCUBATE’s Eastern European twin.”

The spirit of collaboration carries through from the arts organizers to the artists themselves, from the SOSka group to R.E.P. group, and from mail art collaborations to Cuban artist Eduardo Marin’s Nudo S.A., an artist group comprised of Marin and the public who views his art. Marin’s silk-screened posters on display in “New Print Politik” are advertisements for group activities, such as a demonstration or an art exhibition. “La Plástica Joven Se Dedica Al Béisbol (Young art dedicates itself to baseball),” from 1989, commemorates an event where many artists felt their creativity stifled under Castro’s regime, so they gathered to play a game of baseball. The poster shows Michelangelo’s iconic David—the little guy who conquered the giant Goliath—wearing a baseball glove. Another work, “MEARTE en la pared,” announces an art exhibition. The phrase is a play on the word mearte, which can be read as both my art on the wall and shit on the wall. Given the unavailability of expensive art supplies, one likely would have seen the artist’s figurative waste on display—the only creative solution.

While Cuba was always a sovereign state, notes Petruniak, it did rely heavily on the U.S.S.R. for food and oil, so the Soviet pullout caused tremendous economic hardship. Petruniak visited Cuba for two weeks this past summer, and he described its culture as “romantic but scary; gritty but tenacious.” The icons of revolution hold a strange place in Cuba’s heart. Che Guevara, hero to the last generation, represented hope for a better life. Yet, as much as Che’s face floated from billboards to t-shirts, the promise went unfulfilled. “Artists began to ask the question, ‘What is the nature of revolution?’” says Petruniak, when the revolution doesn’t deliver. “‘Why continue Che’s revolution when we are poor and hungry?’”

Petruniak found young artists posing this same sentiment in each place he visited. Given the new freedoms granted to the public and artists after the Soviet collapse, artists asked, what do we do now? What does it mean to make political art today? Who is going to pay for it to be made?—certainly not the state. These are key questions about the exhibition, says Petruniak, and they’re difficult to answer. “If it was easy,” he says, “I wouldn’t have put on the exhibition.”

“New Print Politik: Post-Soviet Politics and Contemporary Art” shows at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, 2320 West Chicago, (773)227-5522, through November 9.

Portrait of the Curator: Allegoric

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Lauren Feece,  Acrylic paint on 24" x 36" canvas.

Lauren Feece, Acrylic paint on 24" x 36" canvas.

Allegoric, the curatorial force of Kim Hoffman and Matthew Hoffman (no relation), encourages the growth of artistic integrity and sincerity beyond the boundaries of the gallery establishment. Their method is to bring awareness to both emerging artists and alternative spaces.

The unique stylistic disparities between the near thirty artists who show regularly through Allegoric as a community form a cohesive body that at least inspires questions, and at most offers an exciting look at what is new, possibly what is next. “Aesthetic is not necessarily the most important aspect we are looking for,” says Kim Hoffman. “We are interested in the genuine nature of the work and the story behind it, the why and/or how it was created. The idea is to pass these stories on to the public or the collectors and make the artist and the artwork more than just another pretty picture.”

Contributing artists such as Michael Genovese and Chris Silva make honest attempts to address the need for positive social change in a culture willing to be easily distracted. Their graffiti-infused lyrical pieces are urban distillations that ward off desolation. Sighn, an artist for whom typography and the modes with which we communicate form the foundation of his work, reassures us with wood-cuts that simply tell us “it’s OK,” while Erika Somogyi creates soft, psychic remembrances as sentimental as they are satisfying.

Each artist stays true to their voice, and Allegoric hopes to broadcast that voice. “Our dream,” Kim continued, “would be to enable even one artist to be financially secure from their artwork, as well as emotionally separated from the commercial art world, and at the same time, to guide new collectors into the intriguing world of the artist and inspire them to not just buy an object, but to get to know a fellow human being.”

The two Hoffmans, both artists, designers and curators, had been running into each other for many years. Kim met Matthew through Ai Gallery, where they both curated shows, and which she directed. When Ai closed, they decided to launch their own forum based on their joint views about the value of truthful artistic expression. Since then, Allegoric has been hosted by several galleries, and will be exhibiting the work of seven of their artists at The Architrouve through the month of September. Both have found the curatorial process enriching for themselves as artists, but also as humans surviving on their creativity through the support of an equally creative social network. Kim goes on to say, “it is fascinating to follow a piece of artwork throughout its journey and see how its significance and/or meaning can change. This can happen in the artist’s studio while still in progress, on the exhibit wall or when someone decides to purchase the work.

Also, the people we work with are amazing and it’s just a lot of fun too.” (Damien James)

Allegoric shows at The Architrouve, 1433 West Chicago, through September 26. Opening reception is September 5, 7pm-9pm.