Reviews, profiles and news about art in Chicago

Review: 35 Years of Public Art/Chicago Cultural Center

Public Art No Comments »
Nick Cave "Garden Plots" (design proposal) for West Chicago Branch Library, 6140 W. North Ave., 2007.

Nick Cave
“Garden Plots” (design proposal) for West Chicago Branch Library, 6140 West North, 2007.

“What are the first three things you think of when you think of Chicago?” asked artist Zack Wirsum, as part of his public art proposal, of one hundred Chicagoans in 2008. The answers averaged out to hot dogs, pigeons, skyscrapers and Old Style beer. Can public art ever relate to civic identity without being utterly banal?

The exhibition “35 Years of Public Art” offers many attempts to thread that needle subsequent to the 1978 “Percent for Art Ordinance” which earmarked 1.33 percent of municipal construction costs be devoted to original public artwork. Most of the pieces on display are the proposals or scale models that the artists submitted for approval, and often it’s difficult to imagine the final results.

The pencil sketch that Irene Siegel submitted for a 1985 mural in the Sulzer Library looks like it might lead to a fresh, intriguing vision of Virgil’s epic “Aeneid,” but immediate public outcry over it in the Chicago Tribune, of “elements of graffiti and horror,” led to a lawsuit and the complaint that “full and complete description of the work” had not been submitted. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Terraformer Advancement Towards Interspecific Communication

Public Art No Comments »
Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford

Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford


“If you build it, he will come.” This infamous line from the movie “Field of Dreams,” prophesying the arrival of baseball players to an empty playing field, sums up the exhibition now installed at Terraformer’s outdoor exhibition space in Bridgeport—except, in this instance, “he” refers to feral cats.

“The Terraformer Advancement Towards Interspecific Communication” is the brainchild of Medicine Cabinet and Sofa King galleries founder Christopher Smith. According to the project’s manifesto, the show is “an initiative focused on expanding the audience for art from a specifically human one to an audience that transcends species.” After careful “ethnographic” research, seven artists constructed and installed their architectural solutions for the sheltering and feeding of feral and stray cats. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir/Solti Garden

Public Art, South Loop No Comments »



Squeezed into a narrow stretch between Michigan Avenue and a ten-foot embankment, and dominated by the hawk-like gaze of Dame Elisabeth Frink’s monolithic bust of Sir Georg, Solti Garden was never an inviting urban space until filled this month with the life-size figure sculptures modeled by the Icelandic artist Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir. Standing, sitting or kneeling throughout the park, the elegant, mysteriously introverted figures transform the lawn, paths and benches into a performance space that offers endless opportunities for interaction, especially with a camera. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: “As You Are: A Decade of You Are Beautiful”/Green Exchange

Installation, Public Art, Sculpture No Comments »
State Street

State Street


Do you remember the enormous mural with orange letters on plywood that spelled out “You are beautiful” on State Street? It ran along Block 37, Randolph to Washington, from 2006 to 2009. The installation, along with new pieces displaying the same, now iconic, slogan has moved inside to the Green Exchange. Throughout the month of February, “As you are: A Decade of You Are Beautiful” will imbue the raw spaces of the West Diversey office building with its optimistic mantra in a retrospective collection of works by numerous artists, including Matthew Hoffman, Nick Adam and Chris Silva.

The movement began in 2002 when Matthew Hoffman shared 100 You Are Beautiful stickers among friends. Requests for more stickers started flowing in, and a decade later half a million stickers have traveled around the globe. The message went from stickers to murals, to public installations and exhibitions here and abroad. Read the rest of this entry »

Portrait of the Artist: Ian J. Whitmore

Artist Profiles, Photography, Public Art, Wicker Park/Bucktown No Comments »

Artist Ian J. Whitmore knows “nowhere” quite well. Growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he also completed his undergraduate degree, and then moving to Bloomington, Indiana for an MFA in photography, the Midwesterner can quickly spot the public, commercial landscape of malls, industrial parks and corporate offices that feel eerily familiar yet completely void of meaning. In his solo exhibition, “Nowhere” at Johalla Projects, he explores the ubiquitous nature of those spaces emptied of meaning. His solo exhibition coincides with the unveiling of his photographs at the Damen Blue Line stop in Chicago’s Wicker Park area, which in and of itself is a “nowhere” space—a portal that people move through on a regular basis, yet forget even exists outside of the utilitarian function it serves. 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 »

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 »

Eye Exam: Color Spam

Loop, Public Art No Comments »

By Jason Foumberg

Last autumn I asked Jessica Stockholder if she wanted to contribute, along with twenty-six other Chicago-based artists, to “Imaginary Monuments for Chicago,” an artists’ project of radical, experimental and non-disappointing designs for public sculptures, to be published in Newcity. I wondered if the new chair of the University of Chicago’s Department of Visual Arts might have an early viewpoint of her new home, but Stockholder politely declined. Now we can see Stockholder didn’t need to create an imaginary public art proposal, as she was soon to be working on a very real one. “Color Jam,” commissioned by the Chicago Loop Alliance, selectively covers the streets and buildings at State and Adams with enormous sheets of colored vinyl. The realization of “Color Jam” demonstrates an exact issue that the “Imaginary Monuments for Chicago” project interrogated: Artists dream bigger than the city can deliver.

The early sketch for “Color Jam” depicts a dynamic sculpture on the scale of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s infamous wrapping works. Stockholder’s ambitious sketch shows a site-specific, hard-edged abstract painting that both obliterates and enhances the streets, sidewalks and buildings. On site, “Color Jam” is an entirely different type of spectacle, more parade than perceptual rupture. For what is being billed as the largest public artwork ever installed in Chicago, “Color Jam” is simply too small. One is not immersed in color, but dips a toe in it. The colors—blue, green and red—are ordinary. Too many elements—planters, windows, asphalt, signs—are left uncovered. Read the rest of this entry »

Imaginary Monuments for Chicago: An Artists’ Project

Public Art 2 Comments »

Alberto Aguilar: Proposal for “Working Class Uprise.”

By Jason Foumberg

On the heels of Marilyn Monroe’s burlesque appearance on Michigan Avenue, a citywide debate ignited over the value of our public art. Should public works send a meaningful message to the entire city and tourists alike, or should they be (merely) entertaining? Should public art challenge our taste levels—and whose taste levels, theirs or ours? That the Marilyn colossus opened up this discussion, once again, proved that our public art is an important slice of our city’s culture. And yet, many artists and art lovers felt defeated, even excluded, from the Marilyn worship. If public art is for all, why is it selected by a secret few?

In response to this increasingly polarizing situation, I asked Chicago-based artists to create an ideal public artwork.
These twenty-six responses are unpolluted by the committees, private interests and politicians that usher public sculptures to their often-neutered realization. Most of the artists featured here do not typically make traditional or monumental public artworks, so the submissions take the format of conceptual designs, sketches, and drawings posed as questions and critiques. Read the rest of this entry »

Eye Exam: Special Collections

Art Books, Public Art No Comments »

Andre Malraux

By Jason Foumberg

Three unique library collections and archives sparked my interest this week. Such collections grow slowly and quietly over the years. Here, two are at least seventy years old and one is a fledgling five. The collections described below are maintained by individuals who clearly gain pleasure from their hoarding, and welcome the public to do the same.

The Imaginary Museum

In a well-known photograph from 1950, the French writer Andre Malraux stands before a small sea of images spread before him on his office carpet. His “imaginary museum” remixed the history of art as a virtual collage, one that could be re-ordered at will. “An art book is a museum without walls,” said Malraux, and this statement is writ large, like a rule, on the entry wall of the eighth floor of the Harold Washington Library, in the visual and performing arts division. A visitor to the library’s Picture Collection, located on this floor, could easily recreate Malraux’s style of temporary exhibition. The Picture Collection contains an estimated million-and-a-half images clipped and filed by category. There are over 10,000 subject headings organized alphabetically, for searching or browsing, and the images can be checked out like a book, taken home and pored over. Read the rest of this entry »