Tony Tasset, “Robert Smithson (Las Vegas),” 1995
By Jason Foumberg
The exhibition begins on the left, and ends nowhere. The MCA’s expansive new group show, “The Way of the Shovel: Art as Archaeology,” bores wormholes through the Rocky Mountains, to Baghdad and Belarus and over the North Pole, through the psyche and into the past. “The past is a foreign country,” wrote L. P. Hartley, and artists are explorers. This is the guiding theme of curator Dieter Roelstraete’s exhibition, which tasks itself with explaining nothing less than the history of the Western world—and who has access to it. The ambitious exhibition with an international roster of artists is “a philosophical speculation,” explained Roelstraete at the media preview. Roelstraete’s show proposes that artists create art, and make meaning, in a new way. That is, artists dig, uncover, exhume, mine, bring to light (and other “digging” synonyms) issues and characters from the past. What artists find (artifacts, secrets, ghosts) is of equal importance to how they found it (research, inquiries, investigations). There are no accidents in this show, only strategies. Read the rest of this entry »
Chelsea Knight’s twenty-three-minute short video, “The Breath We Took,” is a completely absorbing experience. Shot earnestly in documentary style, the work weaves its matriarchal narrative around four generations of Knight’s family, exploring differing views on marriage and motherhood and how those notions—and their attendant trepidations—inevitably affect their relationships with each other. The pastoral New England setting, the intimate, confessional style interviews, and an abiding sense of authenticity envelope the viewer in this vivid, emotionally rich portrait. Read the rest of this entry »
Chris Jordan, from “Midway Message from the Gyre,” 2009–2010
A gamut of environmentalist photography cataloging the depredations that our species has wrought on planet Earth is on display here, ranging from Terry Evans’ series that make destruction look seductively appealing (usually not the shooter ’s intent), through images that aestheticize spoliation with a disturbing undercurrent, to outright assaults on the eye that leave us in no doubt that we are witnessing something awful. Of the seven practiced artists here, working predominantly in color and in different corners of the world, only Chris Jordan dares to lacerate our sensibilities to the max, with his series, from the Pacific Midway Atoll, depicting dead albatrosses, their guts open revealing a mess of plastic garbage that they have snarfed up in their quest for a meal. Read the rest of this entry »
By Jason Foumberg
The smell is unavoidable, and it’s distinct: a brew of dust, armpits and dried urine. Strangers’ old clothes just smell that way, especially when they come from a thrift shop like the Salvation Army. Artist Heather Mekkelson compiled hundreds of these used, pale-colored garments to build a retaining wall nearly ten-feet high and twenty wide, referencing a mass grave but also death’s wholesale opportunism: everyone must go.
After it dries, a portrait painting in a museum has no scent at all, but the stink of secondhand clothes is difficult to ignore. Here, the clothes are a reminder that history is like food: it constantly needs to be freshly killed or else it is no good. The stench of Mekkelson’s artwork is a convincing theatrical stand-in for the stench of rotting corpses in “Embracing the Farb: Modes of Reenactment,” a group exhibition that’s populated with new ideas about death and how people die, from lynching to old age.
It’s not just artists who have the keen skills needed to re-imagine historical facts; educators and scholars and journalists—even observers—keep the clay ball of history wet with the labor of their sweaty hands. Everyone must keep pressing and passing this clay thing we call history. Otherwise, it dries out and falls apart. “Embracing the Farb” was convened to keep that ball rolling, but also to breed the dust bunnies of history. The more that historical “facts” get multiplied, the better we can see and understand them. This isn’t simply a symptom of our age of creative nonfiction, but a necessity of being a curious, engaged citizen. Read the rest of this entry »
As a child growing up in London, Steve McQueen—not the deceased film star, but the contemporary film artist—says that seeing the 1981 Irish hunger strike on television was one of those “impressionable moments,” the kind that carries with you into adulthood. In 2008, seventeen years after that initial haunting, he released his first feature-length film “Hunger,” a hyperrealistic, oft-times completely gruesome look at the 1981 hunger strike inside the HM Prison Maze. McQueen captures the demise of Bobby Sands, a member of the British Parliament and volunteer of the Provisional Irish Republican Army who starved himself to death between the prison’s cinder walls. McQueen followed up on this breakout movie with his 2011 film “Shame,” about an attractive thirty-something New Yorker named Brandon through the tunnels of his sex addiction. But McQueen did not start out as a feature-length filmmaker; rather, this newfound vision came out of more than twenty years of shorter works in mediums such as 8mm film, 16mm, 35mm slides and color video, all of which are represented in this stunning survey of his work to date. Read the rest of this entry »
Josh Mannis, “Fashion,” video
The self-proclaimed “godfather of the reggaeton sound,” El Chombo’s video for the amazing gibberish track “Chacarron Macarron” features rhythmic jump cuts between colorful, sparkly settings, yet centers on the mugging and gyrating MC—much like Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy wit It,” Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is In The Heart,” or any number of Bollywood movies. These precursors, however, are magical for the ordinary viewer, whereas “Chacarron Macarron” is now enshrined as one of the all-time standout YouTube meta-memes because El Chombo (nicknamed “El Mudo,” or “The Mute,” owing to his nonsensical mumbling) exemplifies the miracle of universal access to new media. His video seems to have had a production budget, and real backup dancers, but anyone with a green backdrop, decent software and maybe some chemical enhancement could make something comparable… and they have. Read the rest of this entry »
Cauleen Smith, film still from “Nicolai and Regina Series 01″
Cauleen Smith’s solo show at the MCA is the best contemporary art exhibition in Chicago this summer. While watching her short videos, which feature Chicago cityscapes and local musicians, I easily mistook Smith as a Chicago-based artist. I’m used to seeing only Chicago artists mine the city’s cultural history with such deeply personal insights. In fact Smith lives and teaches in San Diego, and has spent considerable time in Chicago doing research on local music history, facilitated by Threewalls in 2010 and a Black Metropolis Research Consortium grant in 2011. The fruit of her Chicago residency is a series of new videos and a multimedia installation that waken civic pride. Before the MCA exhibition closes in mid-September, Smith will open a solo show at Threewalls, a spot usually reserved for Midwestern artists. Read the rest of this entry »
Stacia Yeapanis, "Stairway to Heaven" (detail)
By Jason Foumberg
We are given time but it should be hard won. That is the reigning philosophy of artists who fill time with traces of their existence, with towering piles of process-laden materials. When an artist accumulates time and produces a labor-rich object, that object can be sent out into the world to do the work of time—a proxy self who, if it can stand up, succeeds in not just measuring and filling one’s time but extending it.
A standard wall clock is placed in Stacia Yeapanis’ solo exhibition as a reminder that art spaces, like failed time machines, are not time-exempt. Time is an insistent collaborator in “Over and Over Again,” Yeapanis’ showing of eight durational sculptures, collages and videos from a recent studio residency. The studio is certainly one place where time is dense, and Yeapanis treats it like a sculptural material, and questioningly, for she positions food and entertainment distractions into stacked columns, swirled patterns, loops and grids, evincing the emptiness that can come from so much accumulation. If ritual is supposed to give meaning to life, it is obsession that wears it down. Yeapanis inhabits this void to see if it can be a positive, productive space. Loneliness is a major theme here, manifest not only in the solo clock (an imperfect lover?) but also excellently in a pop-TV montage in the style of Christian Marclay. Titled “Solace Supercut,” dozens of fictional characters repeat the sobering phrase, “You don’t have to go through this alone,” and it is looped so that the lone warrior’s quest of self is eventually revealed to be absurd, even clichéd. Yeapanis toys with re-arranging familiar objects to transcend their sad banality—she stacks McNuggets into a “Stairway to Heaven”—confessing the fun of self-transformation burnout. Read the rest of this entry »
still from "Trail"
Lining the hall of the second level of the Hyde Park Art Center, slices of geometric shapes and paper pieces coated with saturated and muted tones announce the latest exhibition of Melissa Oresky’s work. For almost a decade, Oresky has created mixed-media pieces that explore the body’s interior workings and cognitive processes through scientific and landscape metaphors. This exhibition, titled “Trail,” attempts to guide the viewer through the artist’s dense visual language through new works on paper and the artist’s first work in animation.
The setup of the show, however, does not allow the path toward enlightenment to be an easy one. Larger pieces with assemblages of abstract shapes hang together in the front portion but share no similar point of reference or scheme. Read the rest of this entry »
The fundamental (non-)color of French modernism was white. Plein-air Impressionists used oils like watercolors, sketching landscapes on canvases primed white, and renowned descendants like van Gogh, Bonnard, Chagall and Delaunay used gestural simplicity and a light undertone to lend images vibrancy. Unified in its whiteness, Lilli Carré’s current exhibition at Western Exhibitions is beholden to this legacy; she gets the most from it in her animation “Everything Must Go,” a cycle in which, against a field of white, a flailing figure comprised of watercolor brushstrokes impersonates the inflatable mascots atop struggling car dealerships, an existential riff on the pagan cavorting of a Matisse dancer. The vignetted Cubist-ish ink wash drawings, “Debris,” are delicately rendered and pleasing to the eye, but not representative of Carré’s evocative past narrative work in both comics and animation. Read the rest of this entry »