Reviews, profiles and news about art in Chicago

Review: Phantom Limb/Museum of Contemporary Art

Michigan Avenue, Painting No Comments »

Sigmar Polke, "Ashes to Ashes," 1992


Painting still has the power to quicken my pulse—Sigmar Polke’s huge “Ashes to Ashes,” 1992, hanging at the entrance to an exhibition of contemporary painting from the MCA’s own and private collections is a good example. Curator Michael Darling organizes this small show of large paintings with the conceit of a phantom limb. Contemporary painting discourse swings back and forth, from distrusting the gestures, skill and quality of the painter’s hand to privileging readymade, often industrial images or marks. This exhibition conflates the two tendencies, summoning the “phantom limb” of the technologically extended artist who both paints and uses non-painting processes. Polke, for example, created his work out of polka-dotted and screen-printed consumer materials without any gestures whatsoever. In the same gallery space but on a completely different scale hangs one of the museum’s Warhols, the long narrow “Jackie Frieze,” set off to good advantage in this exhibition where we can admire how Warhol’s subject emerges from the mixture of screened images and paint. Jack Kennedy peers up and out of the layered mix of cultural information in the Rauschenberg beside it. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Andy Warhol/DePaul Art Museum

Lincoln Park, Photography No Comments »


The polymath of Pop Art, Andy Warhol was big time into photography, along with everything else, pursuing it with his inveterate indefatigability through the late 1960s and early 1970s. Deploying a selection from a cache of images given to the DePaul Art Museum by the Warhol Foundation, curator Greg Harris shows us the artist-impresario’s studies of objects that he planned to paint, a sampling of thousands of snapshots intended to document his everyday life, and color Polaroid portraits. Unlike Malick Sidibe, across the seas in Mali, who turned his ordinary subjects into “stars,” Warhol was a celebrity shooting the social lions and lionesses who flocked to sit for him with a bit less of a glamorous sheen. Read the rest of this entry »

Eye Exam: Warholian Summer

Painting, Photography 1 Comment »

Andy Warhol, "Self-Portrait," 1986, Polaroid Polacolor print. Collection of Helyn and Ralph Goldenberg.

By Jason Foumberg

A pilgrimage to view all the Andy Warhol exhibitions around Chicago this summer will take you from tourist-laden Streeterville to tree-lined Hyde Park to the suburban flatlands of Glen Ellyn. There was no citywide master plan to the coordinated showing of Warhol’s works (unlike the recent thematic, “The Soviet Experience”), but the concurrence evidences the artist’s durable popularity. Warhol is a go-to name brand that bodes well for museums and sits well with the public. The three exhibitions, though, focus on his later work, from the mid-1970s through the 1980s, well after the Marilyns and soup cans. Unlike last year’s “Andy Warhol: The Last Decade,” presented by the Milwaukee Art Museum, which surveyed the artist’s uneven career in the 1980s, the current exhibitions do well to hone in on smaller bodies of specific work, such as his documentary street photography and the shadow paintings series. These boutique exhibitions refine Warhol’s over-prolific output to pointed theses, revealing that, although everything and anything could be the subject of a Warhol artwork, he is enjoyably digested in small doses rather than a glut of a retrospective. Read the rest of this entry »

Eye Exam: Actor Slash Artist

News etc. No Comments »

Abdi's painting

By Jason Foumberg

The lecture, “What not to paint and how not to paint it,” was cancelled. Art critic Barry Schwabsky was there, present behind the microphone, but he wasn’t going to deliver this lecture, not tonight. Schwabsky, who writes from London for Artforum and The Nation, baited me into the audience with the frisky lecture title and then switched it at the last moment for something about painting and Plato’s cave, a philosophy that’s been tossed around since Greek antiquity and which lives happily, if safely, in today’s grad-school seminars. Schwabsky left his courage in London, and I left the lecture shortly thereafter.

I wasn’t planning to revisit Schwabsky’s non-lecture but his misfire stirred in my memory while I watched a crash landing into the rules of painting, this time on a primetime televised art critique, on “Work of Art”—just another failed attempt to marry the art world and television. On episode eight, guest judge Ryan McGinness and artist contestant Abdi went head to head. Abdi defended his painting by deferring to that old story about Plato’s cave, although he misattributed it to Socrates. A forgivable accident, to be sure. Not buying it, McGinness got his blazer in a bunch. Abdi was getting a pretty negative review from the judges, and then this happened:

“What things would you like to see in the work,” Abdi asked of his painting, fishing for positive feedback. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Matt Saunders/The Renaissance Society

Hyde Park, Photography No Comments »


“Parallel Plot,” Matt Saunders’ solo show at the Renaissance Society, features photographic prints and rotoscoped animations by the Berlin-based American artist. Saunders’ process, making use of photography, collage and painting, starts with film stills, Mylar, ink and oil to create prepared negatives for the darkroom. These negatives are in turn used to produce original prints ranging from the very small to the very large. Trained as a painter at Yale, it is not surprising to see that Saunders’ work runs the gamut of painting’s genres: landscape, interiors and portraits are the focus of this artist’s portfolio, though pure abstraction is equally at home in the work presented here. Of particular interest are large-format contact prints made by taking original paintings, taping them down to large sheets of photographic paper, and exposing them to light in the darkroom, resulting in x-ray-like images that compress the painted image and its support into a single layer. Many of the works presented here are altered portraits of actors and actresses who have departed popular memory, appropriate for Saunders’ ghostly images. The subjects refer to the traditions of representational painting and cinema, like Warhol before him. However, Saunders is working toward the opposite end of the Warholian conceptual spectrum: away from endless reproducibility and toward uniqueness; away from the glamour of film and toward the obscurity of history. Beautifully installed and conceptually rich, this show surely warrants a visit. (David Emanuel)

Through April 11 at The Renaissance Society, University of Chicago, 5811 South Ellis, (773)702-8670

Review: Luke Dowd/Tony Wight Gallery

Prints, West Loop No Comments »

ld_untitled1Luke Dowd’s show “Happy Happy Sad Sad” is almost as simple as its title, comprised of a number of screen prints that depict close-ups of cut diamonds, mostly patterned but sometimes randomly placed in the composition. Perhaps the most impressive quality of these prints is the way they appear to reflect light, in a trompe l’oeil that draws attention to the artificial nature of a mechanically enhanced diamond (or at least its market value). Most of the prints appropriate a single color or two along with the black-and-white figures, but the most interesting ones make use of several bright hues in both foreground and background, where their placement can be additionally evocative—for example, one print includes the magenta, yellow, and teal of newsprint’s colored ink, evoking mass reproduction. Reproduction and the construction of uniformity in natural and man-made objects is of course the major trope of the show, so that the iteration and repetition marking the compositions is clever. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Finding Beauty: The Art of Lee Godie/Intuit

Outsider Art, Wicker Park/Bucktown No Comments »
Lee Godie, "Sweet Sixteen," c. 1973-74

Lee Godie, "Sweet Sixteen," c. 1973-74


A Chicago original, the self-described “French Impressionist” Lee Godie brought a breadth of personality to her work, subverting the art establishment with a passion and a lack of formal training. Since being discovered in front of the Art Institute in 1968, Godie, a vagrant, drew crowds with her innate ability to accentuate natural and fleeting beauty in an urban landscape. Crimson, maroon and azure birds accompany paintings of spiraling leaves on a wall at Intuit. A row of daisies repeats in the style of Andy Warhol against an alternating blue and red backdrop. Perfume vases fall on each other rather than stand in a row. A double self-portrait with wide eyes includes Chicago’s glowing street lights. Godie’s writings emphasize her unique personifications of nature: “Neath the tall spreading tree birds and squirrels drink there [sic] tea. Each one takes a dainty sup from a tiny a corn-cup [sic].” Photo-booth photography shows her wit, as Godie adds color to her lips and shows a range of accoutrements from frayed hair and paintbrushes to berets and scarves. The flare in her eyes and amused smirk is contagious, bringing viewers into Godie’s intriguing world whether she’s in her outdoor “studio” or fanning herself with five and twenty-dollar bills. (Ben Broeren)

Through January 3, 2009 at Intuit, 756 N. Milwaukee.

Instant Death

Photography 3 Comments »

By Jason Foumberg 

Polaroid announced in February 2008 they would cease production of both consumer and professional instant-developing film and cameras. Now, as the distribution line trickles to a stop and the price of the film has nearly doubled, photographers are beginning to feel the bite of loss. Two exhibitions in Chicago memorialize the medium’s heyday with fervent nostalgia.

The Polaroid brand is synonymous, or eponymous, with the instant photograph, like Coke or Kleenex. There were two lines of production. The mass-market variety was user-friendly and accessible, a one-of-a-kind snapshot with instantly gratifying results. Its continued popularity, even while other, cheaper snapshot technology existed, often implied retrograde fantasies (say, the 1980s) and was forever associated with amateur porn.

The other arm of production was focused on artistic innovations. Large-format Polaroids, such as the 20 x 24-inch camera, allowed artists to take exquisitely detailed and colorful shots of their subjects, and in an opposite way from the snapshot. These cameras necessitated the artist to slow down and refine their shot as much as possible before pressing the button. Unlike the “fun” cameras, the large-format cameras and film were very expensive, and the results immaculate. In the case of the 20 x 24 Polaroid, special studios were built for artists to rent, and they came with a skilled technician.

I cast a wide net in seeking artists’ reactions to the impending death of the Polaroid. Whereas the younger generation of photographers is swept away by the digital wave and its many manipulating possibilities, an older generation has expressed deep nostalgia and sorrow.

“I’m not sure what I’ll do without Polaroid,” says Chicago’s Barbara Kasten, whose seminal 1979 “Constructs” series pushed the boundaries of the medium. “Maybe I’ll start painting again,” she jokes, nodding to an even older medium that has withstood the photographic revolution. Kasten was one of the first artists to use the 20 x 24 studio to produce large-format, unique pictures along with New York artist David Levinthal, whose “Blackface” series was recently shown in part at The Renaissance Society. These shots focused carefully on racist figurines, such as Aunt Jemima-type characters, and asked viewers to look again and look closely at something we think we already know well. “The colors are far more rich and saturated than any other medium except for dye-transfer prints, which disappeared long ago,” Levinthal says. “Something will truly be lost when the last of the Polaroid film is gone.”

Los Angeles-based Catherine Opie developed much of her career using the Polaroid. She responds wistfully, “I have one case left, one case with a date of when it expires; that’s it. No more click and the sound of the motor and watching the image slowly appear.” In 2000 Opie made the largest known instant photographs, a whopping 40 x 104-inch series of artist Ron Athey, whose extreme performances included body modification and ruminations on AIDS. Like Opie, Dawoud Bey used the singular, unique print to mirror his subject—the singular, unique human. “What can I say? It’s a real tragedy. I’m traumatized!” Bey says.

For Bey and others, using instant technology is a choice pairing of medium and concept. Instant-film technology has a host of associations that is often exploited by artists for maximum effect. “I was fascinated by Warhol and how he brought it everywhere he went in the seventies,” says John Parot, who was inspired to use Polaroids to document party culture. Jason Lazarus and Jonathan Gitelson noted its importance as a sentimental device, but when making their images, they look to the digital. “Makes no difference to me,” says Greg Stimac, “it’s the way it’s always been,” referring to the continual cycle of new technology creating a class of the obsolete.

Two concurrent exhibits in Chicago marked the demise of the medium. “Death + Extinction via Polaroids” at the Chicago Art Department smartly wrapped memory loss, mourning and death within the medium’s demise. One project asked participants to complete the sentence, “Before I die I want to ­­­­­­____” and inscribed their response in the white space below their portrait. Another project played with images of rising condo developments as metaphor—the generic captured by the unique. “Outdated” at the Country Club Chicago, a small project space in Bucktown, showed a (proclaimed) 900 Polaroids over the span of one weekend. Amateur porn, snapshots and multimedia interventions covered the walls like a makeshift roadside memorial.

When asked if the Museum of Contemporary Photography would focus an exhibit on the theme of the dying medium, Director of Education Corrine Rose didn’t think it would happen. “There’s a long list of past-tense media,” she says. Like the Cibachrome and the cyanotype before it, Polaroids have been used as an aesthetic choice, Rose notes, “but the practical application is gone,” and artists cope with the change; many embrace it. Rik Garrett, an artist and curator of the “Outdated” show, thinks the change is “a terrible mistake,” but adds that an investment company owns Polaroid. Their focus is on emerging technologies, not antiques. The continued use of Polaroid is a fantastical regression akin to using candles instead of electricity, but for many that candle has been snuffed.

Review: Chris Dorland/Rhona Hoffman Gallery

Painting, West Loop No Comments »


Chris Dorland has been painting utopian architecture for several years now, creating pictures that indulge in gorgeously threatening baroque colorations, and that have a strange Piranesi-like splendor. And like most commercial architects’ renderings, they have those tiny little token people often seen going about their business—but in Dorland’s work the little people evoke dread, fear, fleeing crowds. Rhona Hoffman is showing a variation on this body of work in a series of “Simulations.” Appropriated photos are collaged and then painted, painstakingly, in the manner of Gerhard Richter. Complex arrangements of rectangular panels are painted in corrosive colors and bleached images. To call this series of paintings “simulations” nods to Baudrillard’s book of the same name, but this is not a recycled, art-school postmodernism; something different is going on here. These pictures have the aura of a performance, of technical experiments or tests. It is as if the artist has achieved Warhol’s desire of becoming a machine, and we are in the presence of some parody of the occult technical processes that lie behind the everyday world. (David Mark Wise)

At Rhona Hoffman Gallery, 118 North Peoria, through May 30.

Art Fair Hangover

Art Fairs, Installation, Multimedia No Comments »

By Jason Foumberg

It’s too tempting to not report “overheard at the art fair.” In front of a painting by Neo Rauch, one shopper said to another, “The thing about art is you don’t have to like it.” You don’t even have to see it, either; just order it by name. “Names, names, names, darling!” (Okay, that one was from “Absolutely Fabulous,” but the sentiment holds.) For one whirlwind weekend we had to put our care for meaningful art practices on hold in the hope that Chicago could contribute to the still-thriving art market. Inviting investment collectors and shopaholics to Chicago was to be the nourishment that would sustain thoughtful and quietly productive practices for the rest of the year. The shop-‘til-you-drop atmosphere was further emphasized by the mall-like layout of the fair with rows of boutiques and impeccably dressed gallerinas. The art was almost as good as the people-watching.

Not everyone was distracted by price tags and designer-wear. Justin Polera, curator of last year’s Queer Fest Midwest, rushed me over to see a painting by Keith Haring of Mr. Softy, the 1980s brand icon for ice cream, here turned into a muscled gay icon in Haring’s hand. In the Next fair, artist John Parot swooned over works on paper by Jason Fox. Copies of Proximity, a new art-criticism magazine founded by Version Fest originators Ed and Rachel Marszewski, was being distributed freely despite us being, according to its editors, “in the throes of a recession.”

Printed to coincide with the fair weekend, Proximity highlights some of Chicago’s best alternative spaces such as the Suburban, Vonzweck and Deadtech. These are non-commercial art spaces that hardly have any relation to the huge art-fair commercial enterprise. Surprisingly, several of Chicago’s apartment galleries found their way into the fair, especially in the Goffo-curated arena, organized by Mike Andrews and Noah Singer of Imperfect Articles, the limited-edition artist t-shirt company. So, Old Gold, Green Lantern and Alogon Gallery, known for their usually experimental presentations of art and opening-night celebrations, looked like professional business ventures. Some of the strength of these spaces was drained by their lack of character. For instance, I’m used to Caroline Picard’s cats rubbing against my legs as I look at art in her apartment, and Old Gold’s artists seemed estranged without the wood-paneled basement. But the effort to mingle with the masses was well received. Exposure and accessibility was key for these spaces that don’t sit snugly in the usual gallery districts. Even ThreeWalls, the non-profit artist residency, was given a castoff stairwell space to feature an artist project. This refreshingly giving gesture by the fair’s organizers muted the pay-to-play scheme, even if only momentarily. Elizabeth Chodos called her space the coffee bean in the perfume shop, calming noses between wafts of scent.

Next door to the Goffo section was the Old Country bar, arguably my favorite place in the entire fair. This functioning temporary installation of a dive bar, provided by the Old Gold gallery owners, replicated a quintessential Chicago bar frequented by so many artists. With TV tuned to Nascar, lights dimmed, cheap beer and nachos, old wooden bar and booths, and plastic red-and-white gingham tablecloths, this could have been Inner Town Pub or Skylark. It was a great place to calm the eyes and engage in non-stressful conversation. It was easy to forget that you were in the midst of an art fair.

In the Next fair, the newest addition to the Artropolis conglomerate, small solo artist exhibitions broke up the pounding rhythm of the stalls, as did film screenings interspersed between the galleries. The solo shows, including some by Chicago artists Robert Davis and Michael Langlois, Matthew Girson and Terence Hannum, provided in-depth perspectives where we are otherwise often overloaded with too much to see.

Art about the environment and about war was present, but thankfully not in overkill. Large-format photography, conceptual practices, “unmonumental” sculpture, skulls and skeletons were in attendance en masse. Even Jonathan Schipper’s kinetic sculpture, presented by Pierogi gallery, of two hotrods smashing each other in tense slow-motion, seemed hedonistic even if it was titled, “The Slow and Inevitable Death of American Muscle.” Profound? Perhaps. Decadent? Delightfully so.

While Andy Warhol’s dollar sign still holds up as the dominant signifier for this type of event, Mark Wagner’s reconfigured collages of actual dollar bills, presented by Western Exhibitions, speak more to the creative depth that artists are willing to plunge into when interpreting the art/money relationship. Perhaps it is a flat relationship where desire is represented as that which will fulfill it (the Warholian scheme). But increasingly more artists and viewers are looking to reenergize the market, and their desires, with objects worthy of their wallets as well as their senses.