Reviews, profiles and news about art in Chicago

Review: Nilima Sheikh/Art Institute of Chicago

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Nilima Sheikh, "Dying Dreaming," 2007–10. From the Lekha and Anupam Poddar Collection

Nilima Sheikh, “Dying Dreaming,” 2007–10. From the Lekha and Anupam Poddar Collection

New Delhi artist Nilima Sheikh has been applying the practices of traditional Indian painting to contemporary Indian life for more than five decades, and Kashmir is a beautiful mountain valley whose history has captured her imagination. It has also been in the path of many plundering armies and more recently the focus of a territorial dispute consequent to the 1948 partition of India and Pakistan. So it’s a good setting for the trouble-in-paradise theme that Sheikh has chosen for eight ceiling-hung banners.

In color, scale and beauty/violence, these cloth banners, with painting on one side and text on the other, recall earlier epic projects, like the Hamzanama completed for Emperor Akbar in 1577. Similar to those projects, the overall tonal patterns are beguiling, even otherworldly, and it is not the work of a single artist. Sheikh used patterned stencils cut by a member of a Mathura family of traditional Sanjhi paper cutters. Other details come up short. She could have employed skilled calligraphers and figurative specialists, as well. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Christopher Wool/Art Institute of Chicago

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Christopher Wool, untitled, 2010.

Christopher Wool, untitled, 2010.

Despite embodying the aesthetic qualities at the heart of my critical bias—heroic scale, painterly drips, bold gestures, a sense of existential struggle and even a little humor—I found Christopher Wool’s recently opened retrospective at the Art Institute depressing. Having enjoyed some of his pictures in the past, I genuinely expected to leave this show feeling tipsy, intoxicated from the visual excess that only a museum-scale exhibition can provide. Instead, I felt hung over.

Boston-born and Chicago-raised, Wool has been riding a wave of critical success that trades in the kind of nihilistic how-do-you-paint-after-painting-is-dead rhetoric that may have had some currency in the late 1970s and eighties, but is past its sell-by date in 2014. The various didactic panels in this almost antiseptically colorless show repeatedly emphasize words such as “sabotage,” “negation” and “obliteration.” Whether all this “eve-of-destruction” nonsense actually informs Wool’s studio practice is debatable, but its inescapable presence definitely informed my experience of the show. By the time I reached the halfway point, I was convinced that painting wasn’t just dead, it was the victim of premeditated murder. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Christopher Williams/Art Institute of Chicago

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Don’t look for earnest street photographs here. This art is based on research rather than on sentiment. Even so, an aesthetic emerges—cool, peevish and smart. Christopher Williams was born in Los Angeles in 1956, and is currently professor of photography at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. Although he has had several exhibitions in Europe, this is his first American museum retrospective. Williams is a second-generation Conceptualist; his teachers included masters John Baldessari and Douglas Huebler.

Despite the diversity of artworks (early photos, text panels and appropriated imagery) what ties everything together here is the theme of production—in industry, in photography and even in display. It should no longer shock that many of Williams’ photographs, including the famous image of a tipped-over Renault (shades of Paris in 1968), were actually taken by a professional at the artist’s orders. Read the rest of this entry »

Eye Exam: Too Many Privileged White Curators in U.S. Museums

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The Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago

By Jason Foumberg

A new initiative at five U.S. art museums intends to diversify the curatorial ranks at major art museums. A two-million-dollar grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation supports the initiative, the first of its kind in the U.S. The program connects college sophomores from marginalized backgrounds with curators at the five participating museums. Over four years, the students will receive professional mentoring and paid fellowships in an effort to make art museum curatorial offices as  diverse as the communities they serve.

The participating museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago, cite two reports on workplace diversity produced by the American Alliance of Museums, a museum advocacy group, from 2008 and 2010. Of the museum curators employed in the U.S., and the students enrolled in museum studies programs, over eighty percent are white, one study reported. “It is easy to see that curatorial and conservation staff in museums are not diverse,” said Mariët Westermann, vice president of the Mellon Foundation and an art historian, when reached for comment on the telephone. “We have more than enough evidence to know that underrepresentation is very real,” she said. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Dreams and Echoes: Drawings and Sculpture in the David and Celia Hilliard Collection/Art Institute of Chicago

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Jan Toorop, "A Mysterious Hand Leads to Another Path," 1893. Promised gift of Celia and David Hilliard.

Jan Toorop, “A Mysterious Hand Leads to Another Path,” 1893. Promised gift of Celia and David Hilliard.


“If Girtin had lived, I would have starved,” declared J.M.W. Turner, one of the iconic painters of the nineteenth century. But who was Girtin? One of his watercolors can be found in the collection of David and Celia Hilliard, longtime Chicago collectors and Art Institute supporters, now on display in the Prints and Drawings gallery at the museum.  Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Violence and Virtue: Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Judith Slaying Holofernes”/Art Institute of Chicago

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Artemisia Gentileschi, "Judith Slaying Holofernes," c. 1620. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

Artemisia Gentileschi, “Judith Slaying Holofernes,” c. 1620. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.


What artwork would you pick if the Foundation for Italian Art and Culture offered to facilitate the loan of a masterpiece from an Italian museum? Assuming that not everything is going to be on the table, the Uffizi’s “Judith Slaying Holofernes” (c. 1620) by Artemisia Gentileschi would be a damn good choice. Chicago once had its own feminist art gallery inspired by the proto-feminist Gentileschi, called Artemisia Gallery that ran from 1973-2003.

The victim of both a rape and a sensational trial-by-torture at the age of eighteen, Gentileschi painted her first version of Judith the following year, borrowing heavily from the explicitly violent version done by Caravaggio. It was a theme she would revisit four times in her career. About eight years later, she did a modification of that first version, aging the face of Judith just as she herself had aged, and moving the bloody sword to the middle of the canvas, triangulating it between the victim’s knee and the determined woman’s outstretched arms. Wow! The murderous action really falls off the wall. Even Caravaggio’s blood-spurting tableau seems peaceful by comparison. Read the rest of this entry »

Eye Exam: When Wearing Clothes Meant Something

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Édouard Manet, "Lady with Fans (Portrait of Nina de Callias)," 1873

Édouard Manet, “Lady with Fans (Portrait of Nina de Callias),” 1873

By Janina Ciezadlo

Americans, who come to museums in hoodies and jeans, may have trouble imagining the complicated restrictive class-based codes that determined dress in the nineteenth-century. The Art Institute of Chicago’s new exhibition, “Impression, Fashion, and Modernity,” extends the ideas of T. J. Clark’s influential book “The Painting of Modern Life” (1999), which examined Impressionism as the intersection of radical physical, social and technological changes in Parisian life. The exhibition focuses on the emergence of a public culture and the resultant flowering of couture in Paris, as painters from the 1860s to the mid-1880s recorded it, when fashion was a sign that encompassed the full scope of modernity. Paris was, as the critic Walter Benjamin retrospectively called it in 1939, the “capital of the nineteenth century.” Read the rest of this entry »

Art Break: Marginalizing Chicagoans’ Access to Culture

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I teach Art Appreciation at Olive Harvey, a community college on the Southeast Side of Chicago. Although Chicago claims to be a beacon of art and culture, none of my students at Olive Harvey, aged eighteen to sixty, had ever attended the Art Institute of Chicago until I took them this past semester. They have also never been to the Museum of Contemporary Art or to Theaster Gates’ Dorchester Projects, which is a quick bus ride from where most of them live. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Kara Walker/Art Institute of Chicago

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Kara Walker, "Rise Up Ye Mighty Race!" (detail), 2013.

Kara Walker, “Rise Up Ye Mighty Race!” (detail), 2013


If brand identity is crucial to the success of the contemporary artist, few have got one as strong as the MacArthur Fellowship recipient Kara Walker. But, nearly two decades on, Walker’s trademark silhouettes and antebellum grotesqueries are showing their age, and the artist, undoubtedly aware she has cut herself into a stylistic corner, has been making strides to broaden her approach to installation.

In her latest work “Rise Up Ye Mighty Race” commissioned specifically for the Art Institute, Walker anchors the show with several mural-scale drawings and a plethora of small, variously framed studies. The signature silhouettes are still present, though play less large a role in this homage to imaginary race war. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: They Seek a City: Chicago and the Art of Migration, 1910-1950/Art Institute of Chicago

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Walter Ellison, "Train Station," 1935

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 »