Founded by former slaves in 1867, Talladega College, in Alabama, commissioned six murals for their new library in 1939. Three panels tell the story of Africans aboard the slave ship Amistad, their successful revolt and legal aftermath. The other three panels commemorate the Underground Railroad, the founding of the college, and the building of the library in which the murals were installed. It’s an epic that begins with violence and ends with constructive cooperation toward higher education. The artist was Hale Woodruff (1900-1980), professor of art at a historically black college in Atlanta. He had attended art schools in Indianapolis, Chicago, Cambridge and Paris, and spent a summer in Mexico with Diego Rivera. Read the rest of this entry »
photo by Soohyun Kim
The brass rods shudder as the wind sweeps through the prairie. Steel grasshoppers click in the tall grass. A small mole cricket snaps its wings. And rain falls metallic on black soil.
In the sound installation “Prairie,” currently on exhibit in the Yates Gallery at the Chicago Cultural Center, artist Shawn Decker composes an abstract symphony of microcontrollers, computers, motors and recycled cellphone speakers. Subtle algorithms echo the dynamic movement and rhythm of the Illinois grasslands.
Decker grew up at the end of a dirt road in Western Pennsylvania. He remembers canoeing down the Susquehanna River, camping in the hills of the Allegheny Plateau, and watching the flutter of cardinals and blue jays in the trees outside his window. His artistic practice involves making meticulous tape and phonograph recordings in order to deconstruct rhythmic and spatial patterns of sound. He says, “The algorithms I compose are derived from natural processes. I often use configurations of Brownian motion of particles or fluctuations of 1/f noise to translate and reimagine the sound of leaves falling on the ground or raindrops hitting a blade of grass.” Read the rest of this entry »
Walter Ellison, “Train Station,” 1935
The flight from oppression makes such a compelling, if predictable, story; it has been made the primary theme of this exhibition about the art of Chicago’s immigrants in the first half of the twentieth century. Since Jews have been fleeing oppressors ever since the time of Pharaoh, Chicago Jewish artists dominate the exhibition. Thanks to loans by local collectors, especially Bernard Friedman, there are many fascinating works by Todros Geller, Morris Topchevsky, Misch Kohn, Max Kahn, Aaron Bohrod, David Bekker, Rifka Angel, Fritzi Brod, Emil Armin, Leon Garland and Moholy-Nagy.
The eye-opener for me was the prints and paintings of Bernice Berkman. Her career in art was brief, but she really had a fiery spirit and a remarkable empathy not only for her own people but for displaced African Americans as well. (She ended up marrying one and running a wallpaper company with him in NYC). Read the rest of this entry »
You might not guess that Herbert Ferber (1906–1991) was a dentist by looking at his paintings and sculptures, yet it’s not hard to see the impact of one career upon the other. His metal sculptures have twisting sharp edges that slice through space, and his ominous paintings feature large saw teeth that seem immersed in a viscous, red or yellow streaked liquid. You couldn’t call him a hobbyist. He pursued an education and practice in both careers simultaneously from the very beginning, and since he was interested in gestural, abstract sculpture decades before it could become lucrative, he needed another source of income. Read the rest of this entry »
Project Projects’ “Test Fit”
By Jason Foumberg
A new method of curating diverges from the standard model of curator-as-expert, but instead of watering down the practice by crowd-sourcing, this new train-of-thought curating culls from the seemingly endless stream of digital images in order to casually organize them. The exhibition is infinite. Image-sourced exhibitions, whether in real gallery spaces or online, tend to flatten the collected images and emphasize their logic of connections. It’s a loose logic. The organizational flow emphasizes the personality of the organizer, as well as the conditions of browsing and receiving images in a fast-paced viewing environment, rather than the slow contemplation of single images or masterpieces.
This is the case in “Test Fit,” an experimental exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, facilitated by the museum’s curatorial department of design in which the NYC-based graphic design team Project Projects (composed of Rob Giampietro, Prem Krishnamurthy and Adam Michaels) plucked images from the museum’s permanent collection database and arranged reproductions of art objects—paintings, drawings, decorative objects and more—into an idiosyncratic display in the Modern Wing. No original art objects are included, the walls are painted mental-institution blue, and the reproduced images are all printed in black-and-white, at their original sizes. The effect of the associative image collection is almost convincing as a romp through Project Projects’ brain, but it’s their object labels that are most original. Accompanying Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s “Nuclear 1, CH,” the label reads: “This is a painting of the end of the world. What is your strongest memory of the sky? In the city, it always looks like an illusion.” Each image is appended with these daydream narratives. The real Moholy-Nagy painting can be viewed downstairs, in another exhibition. Read the rest of this entry »
“The Old Guitarist,” 1902–04.
In 1926, the Art Institute of Chicago was the first American museum to place a painting by Pablo Picasso (“The Old Guitarist”) on permanent display, so it’s a bit surprising that forty years after his death “Picasso and Chicago” is the first major retrospective for what the museum’s director calls “the most transformative artist of the twentieth century.” The current show is mostly items from the museum’s own collection, enhanced by several loaned artworks from private Chicago collections. But with more than four-hundred pieces to draw from, it still offers a memorable stroll through that exceptional artist’s seventy-year career. Read the rest of this entry »
“Planting and Maintaining a Perennial Garden III,” Faheem Majeed’s contribution to the Industry of the Ordinary’s collaborative exhibition, uncovers a significant artifact of Chicago art history. Majeed presents a striking but deteriorating mural by Bill Walker from the 1960s, titled “Hate and Confrontation,” and contributes a set of bleachers made from repurposed cedar boards from which to survey the work.
Bill Walker worked from the 1960s until the eighties and has murals all over the South Side. Many have been destroyed but several have been restored. Walker was an ordinary man who worked in the post office yet did what we might call extraordinary things. He founded the Organization for Black American Culture and participated in the founding of the Chicago Public Art Group. The wall-sized graphic mural depicts a series of receding black profiles lit by the harsh light of anger, recalling representational work by Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett and Margaret Burroughs. It is a stirring, authentic expression of an African-American artist’s direct, untheorized engagement with the turmoil of race relations in Chicago, a fragment of social and overlooked aesthetic history, which does not seem at all ordinary. Read the rest of this entry »
Bust of Athena (detail), c. 2nd century a.d.
As the earliest visual expression of rational and democratic ideals, the art of the Greco-Roman world was cherished by the European civilization that overran North America a thousand years later and built the Neo-Classical temple of culture that’s called the Art Institute of Chicago. The Periclean golden age was well represented by casts of the sculptural frieze that once encircled the Parthenon—they can still be seen up near the ceiling above the grand staircase. A plaster bust of Athena was hung above the front entrance on Michigan Avenue. Read the rest of this entry »
The Magnificent Mile is not what it used to be. Although the site of prestigious and historic architecture like the Wrigley Building, Tribune Tower and Drake Hotel, the pseudo-boulevard now seems more suburban than urban, with so many inward-turned shopping malls. In the mid-1990s, architecture critic Blair Kamin lamented the avenue’s “descent from exquisite ensemble of beaux-arts buildings to a crass visual jumble,” dubbing it the “Mediocre Mile.” Today, there is a budding renaissance happening on the strip, most vividly illustrated by the new Burberry flagship store, the best architectural addition to the district since the John Hancock Center nearly forty years ago.
The Burberry building is stunning, in that it fuses fashion with architecture. At five stories tall, dressed in black with an ornamental chrome tartan check, it stands like a model on the runway of Michigan Avenue. In contrast to the blank facades and anonymous awnings of neighboring competitors like Chanel and Gucci, the Burberry store demands attention and draws the eye—like anything exemplary among the ordinary. The structure has two massive, forty-foot vertical windows set back into the face, breaking up its mass and offering glimpses inside. A waterfall of light serves as backdrop for a sleek minimalist staircase rising on Ontario Street. The building’s elegance escalates when darkness falls as LED lights softly illuminate the chrome plaid from the rear, producing an outfit change into the enduring black-on-black. Read the rest of this entry »
Anonymous Los Angeles-based street artist HOMO RIOT got on a plane from Los Angeles to Chicago. Once he landed, he began roaming the streets, pasting stickers of two bearded, bearish men with masks over their eyes kissing, onto newspaper stands and streetlight poles everywhere. I came across one in my not-so-radical gay neighborhood Andersonville, took a photo of it with my “It Gets Better”-endorsed Apple iPhone, and picture-texted it to a fellow queer friend. “Cool!” she texted back. What happened afterward involves normal day-to-day activities like writing, drinking coffee and paying bills. Not really a radical intervention, but at least it broke up the monotony. Read the rest of this entry »