Reviews, profiles and news about art in Chicago

Eye Exam: Butter Me Up, Mister Obama

Performance 1 Comment »

By Alicia Eler

In the Midwestern land of milk and honey stands a 600-pound cow made of butter. “Delicious” isn’t the best word to describe the manufactured butter beast, but it is a spectacle that keeps visitors returning to the annual Iowa State Fair year after year. A sculptor is chosen each year to meticulously carve hundreds of pounds of dairy fat into the shape of a cow. This has been recurring since 1911, for more than 100 years, making it one of those bizarre, tried ‘n’ true American traditions.

President Barack Obama will soon join the ranks of mammals crafted into buttery monuments—not for the Iowa State Fair but for the city of Chicago. On October 26, as part of the Industry of the Ordinary’s mid-career survey “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi: Industry of the Ordinary” at the Chicago Cultural Center, artists Mathew Wilson and Adam Brooks will wheel a life-sized butter sculpture of the president from Grant Park Packing at 842 West Lake Street to the Chicago Cultural Center. They call this piece “The Harvest” because, as Wilson explains in his quiet English accent, they are quite literally harvesting the responses or opinions of passersby who observe the parade. It is both spectacle and American tradition wrapped into one stick. Typical of IOTO’s populist, conceptual art approach—which actively engages audiences whether or not they have fancy art school degrees—the butter Obama will take its refrigerated place at the Cultural Center less than two weeks before the 2012 presidential election on November 6, 2012. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Home: Public or Private?/6018NORTH

Edgewater, Installation, Performance No Comments »


“Home: Public or Private?” at 6018NORTH is an exhibition built on a foundation of familiar dichotomies—public versus private, interior versus exterior, domestic versus social, sterility versus decrepitude, vacancy versus occupation, and bareness versus accumulation. Organized by Tricia Van Eck, the exhibition integrates installation and performance work by twenty-seven artists within an unkempt turn-of-the-century historic Edgewater mansion. Each artist has claimed territory on the property to occupy and respond, broadly, to their own dispositions regarding the home as a space at once private and public. While the prompt yielded divergent projects addressing domesticity, democracy, voyeurism and the history of the site itself, the momentum of this exhibition is found in Van Eck’s unostentatious framing of installations and performances within the remaining architectural idiosyncrasies of the mansion’s interior spaces, and in fleshing out the disrepaired skeletal structure of the mansion. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Art on Track

Installation, Performance, Public Art 1 Comment »


Transforming six El cars into interactive art installations, the annual mobile pop-up exhibition “Art on Track” turned the scramble to find a spot on the train into an elaborate game of musical chairs, wherein rushing from car to car was both part of the fun and the project’s prime hazard. This year’s fare included an ambient summer-camp-themed installation starring a giant Lite-Brite sunset, a walk-in cabinet of curiosities complete with palm reader, and a live fashion shoot. More like perambulatory theater-meets-theme-party than site-specific contemporary art, the scenes in each car read like tableaux vivants, plopped into the train without rhyme or reason—not exactly a bad thing, since any imaginative modification to the Blue Line’s scummy, droll interior counts as an improvement. However, given the countless examples of riveting site-reflexive art that, by definition, respond to the specifics of a certain place, exploiting its inherent characteristics rather than taking them for granted, “Art on Track” had a lot of unrealized potential. In fact, some of the most interesting parts of the whole experience, so ripe for further investigation, like the uncanny feeling of traveling to no particular destination, were mere accessories, or even hindrances, to the actual work.  Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Industry of the Ordinary/Chicago Cultural Center

Michigan Avenue, Multimedia, Performance No Comments »


If not for one offhand mention of Marcel Duchamp, I wouldn’t be sure that Eric Felten, the Wall Street Journal art critic who wrote a pooh-poohing preview on August 9 of Industry of the Ordinary’s retrospective, titled “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi,” had heard of conceptual art. Which is fair, since until then I hadn’t heard of art criticism in the Wall Street Journal. “We long to be astonished,” Felten writes, echoing the Ayn Rand ethos of his masthead. A participatory fishing tank, photographs of urine, pfaugh! Felten doesn’t want ordinary, he wants winners. Like a Bernini sculpture, he suggests, or the Olympics. Sadly for him, the Chicago Cultural Center show promotes group effort over individual excellence. Not only is Industry of the Ordinary a collaboration between Adam Brooks and Matthew Wilson, with the bulk of their lighthearted, ephemeral work based on interacting, borrowing, cooperating, or delegating, but the exhibition itself consists of dozens of objects, projects and events from creators throughout the local art world. The success of their populist approach was evident at the opening, which was the most thronged affair I’ve ever attended at the Chicago Cultural Center. Read the rest of this entry »

Beautiful Confusion: “Out of Site” Presents Public Art to Wicker Park/Bucktown

News etc., Performance, Public Art, Wicker Park/Bucktown 1 Comment »

By Harrison Smith

More often than not, public performance art is a confusion. The term itself is a necessary muddle, a combination of “public art,” which seems to imply an art for the uninitiated, in contrast to that “private art” that gets displayed at galleries and museums, and “performance art,” that vague category of art that could be reasonably stretched to include everything from Andy Warhol’s “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” to the street performance of a man painted silver and disguised as a statue—at which point the better label might be “outsider public performance art” or, alternatively, “busking.” Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Brain Frame Anniversary Party

Comics, Performance, Wicker Park/Bucktown No Comments »

Krystal DiFronzo performing at BF5/Photo: Gillian Fry


Amidst the flashy cultural clusterfudge of one-off events at Wicker Park Fest, a noteworthy, regularly scheduled local happening will be having its first=anniversary party. “Brain Frame,” a venue for comics artists to present multimedia readings of their work, will be gathering in the intimate confines of Happy Dog Gallery to, as they always do, spruce up the traditionally minimal context of a reading with, at the very least, props and PowerPoint. But you never know—there could be puppet or human extras, audio and/or video, anything that could move the experience away from beat-poet bleakness toward performance-art fabulosity; videos on the “Brain Frame” blog attest to the variety of approaches engaged by these events. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Alan and Michael Fleming/Threewalls

Installation, Performance, West Loop No Comments »

Alan and Michael Fleming are twins recently separated by residences in Brooklyn and Chicago. Attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago as a joint entity, the pair have exhibited work in a range of venues including the MCA and the Sullivan Galleries at SAIC. Reflecting on their various attachments and detachments as brothers and artists, the exhibition “GAME ON” introduces the Fleming Brothers construct as an in-joke.

Distributed throughout the gallery is a year-long archive of postcards, videos, household furniture, drawings and sculptures produced by Alan and Michael since their separation in 2011. Confronting their binded intuition as twins, the Fleming Brothers aim to “map their distance” through body molds and algorithmic sketches reflecting a “disjointed studio practice” drawn from phone calls and psychic conversations—a physical representation of an innate mental and emotional oneness. Read the rest of this entry »

Portrait of the Artist: Ellen Nielsen

Installation, Performance, Sculpture No Comments »

Ellen Nielsen pulled back the floral-patterned curtain at the entrance of her home and studio to reveal a rainbow-felted tree adorned with fake birds. A shadow box of sequin typologies, pinned like shiny dead butterflies, hung at her other side, framing her in a bright sleeveless dress with matching red lipstick. These creations, she explained with cerebral self-possession, act as a “queer, feminist celebration of ornament and kitsch.

“I’m confused about irony,” Nielsen confesses, “because I genuinely like the things that I like. I actually like disco.” As one of her many part-performance, part-object projects, Nielsen is involved with the Pyramids of Pluto, who throw disco-focused events at clubs in the city. At a recent event at Berlin nightclub, themed as a physical manifestation of the internet, Nielsen created a giant web that would hold images of cats, in reference to the popular memes, and hang from the ceiling above the dance floor. Her theatrical experiments extend to puppetry, too, through an ongoing involvement with the Baltimore Annex Theater Collective. Read the rest of this entry »

Eye Exam: No Picnic

Hyde Park, Installation, Performance, Sculpture, Video No Comments »

Daniel Spoerri, "Tableau piege, 17. Juni 1972," 1972.

By Jason Foumberg

The long black hair that I pulled from my Pad Thai confirmed that it was a lunch like no other. Rirkrit Tiravanija, who has made an international art career serving free meals, often Pad Thai, to museum goers, did not intend for the hair to disrupt my experience of his performance lunch in 2008—or was the hairy blooper a disturbing reminder that no matter what we eat, someone else, often many people, have touched, groomed and manhandled our food so that it appears, on our plates, so perfect?

The free lunch is now an established genre of contemporary art, and the Smart Museum’s exhibition, “Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art,” arrives right on the heels of the foodie revolution. But this retrospective exhibition of eighty years of food service is not about fresh, local, healthy, or even tasty food, nor is it about haute cuisine, world hunger, obesity, genetically modified ingredients, or organic farming. Instead, “Feast” identifies a strain of performance art, which climaxed during Happenings in the 1960s and feminist performance in the seventies, that uses a familiar setting—eating in the company of others—as a device of social confrontation and political disruption. Read the rest of this entry »

Art Break: Should a Fish Die for Art?

Performance, Wicker Park/Bucktown No Comments »

Joshua Kent warned the audience that there would be two deaths during his performance that took place February 3: one poetic and one actual. After passing around a human skull to iterate this fact, Kent raised a cleaver above a flopping fish, and the spirit of a collective gasp hung in the air. Heads turned and fists clenched. In the silence following the mortal blow, about five people stood up and left the performance space.

The fish, a small, dark Oscar, would not feed anyone that night, its death serving a purpose more symbolic than functional. Questions of ethics arose. Was the ending of a life necessary to realize the artwork’s goals? Should its death have been allowed, and, if not, who should have stopped it? If we accept that the death was warranted, at what level of the hierarchy of life (the order of which we might all disagree) should we draw the line—perhaps, at life bigger than a breadbox? Read the rest of this entry »