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 »

Art Break: Luftwerk Shines a Light on Modernist Architecture

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Shift 1

The sun hung low in the sky December 10, 1777, as German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe descended from the shroud of mist that enveloped the highest peak of the Harz mountain range. For a fleeting moment, he observed his shadow cast blue on the white snow. Isaac Newton had theorized shadows as the absence of light but Goethe perceived within the darkness a myriad of hues. Color was born in the space between darkness and light.

The new media exhibition, “Shift,” by the collaborative Luftwerk at the Chicago Cultural Center, extends an exploration into the phenomenology of color. During a residency at the Institute for Electronic Arts at Alfred University, artists Petra Bachmaier and Sean Gallero studied the science of light. “We immersed ourselves in research into the color theories of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Johannes Itten and Josef Albers,” Bachmaier says. The additive color system mixes primary colors red, green and blue to create cyan, magenta and yellow. “It is painting 101,” she laughs. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Paul Natkin/Chicago Cultural Center

Photography No Comments »
Pete Townshend

Pete Townshend


All the hype and excitement that attend a massive rock festival are in full force at this exhibition celebrating the thirty-seven-year career of Chicago’s very own world-class rock photographer Paul Natkin, who has shot all the stars from every genre, always seizing them at their most energetic and vibrant, even when they are posing for celebrity portraits. The show is dominated by large-format mega-posters of Natkin’s performance shots, which are his forte; he not only puts the viewer into the heat of the action, but he does so by capturing expressive moments which create a sense of intimacy. The lavish curating is well deserved; the images deliver on the hype. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Paint Paste Sticker: Chicago Street Art/Chicago Cultural Center

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“I bet most of the people here,” including most of the artists, “have been to lock-up at some point. And I bet there are a lot of undercover cops here,” remarked an acquaintance and one of the participants in “Paint Paste Sticker: Chicago Street Art” at the opening of the exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center. That remark points to a big part of the success of the exhibition: the palpable tension among the art on view, the anti-vandalism laws of the city, and the intensely official civic institution that hosts the exhibition.

The exhibition’s entrance greets visitors with one of the city’s recognizable bus shelters completely covered in spray-paint executed with a recognizable Zore design. Inside is a long wall covered in artist’s stickers, tags, paste-ups and other objects that you usually see on private property across the city. It’s a virtual who’s who of Chicago sticker art with artists adding their calligraphic, tagged signatures, quick sketches or small drawings to a variety of stickers that were intended for more mundane tasks like shipping, or gathering dust at the Post Office. The wall also includes signs from the CTA such as third-rail high-voltage warnings and public service messages. These might come off as cheesy in a street art exhibition, but in the context of a city-sponsored show, the appropriated signs have a sharp edge.

Displayed neatly framed on the chaos of the sticker wall, an anti-vandalism ad sums up the tension of the street art exhibition’s site on city property. Read the rest of this entry »

Art Break: Project Onward Moves On to Bridgeport

Bridgeport 1 Comment »
Rob Lentz

Rob Lentz

Project Onward is “finally completely independent” from the City of Chicago’s cultural programming office, says Rob Lentz, executive director of the gallery and studio that supports adult artists with mental and developmental disabilities. Project Onward “deserves to have its own identity,” he says, after being housed on the first floor of the Chicago Cultural Center since 2004, and fully funded by a variety of city affiliates over those nine years.

Visitors to the first-floor studios and gallery at the Cultural Center could wander in and watch the artists at work in their open studios, get a portrait drawn by a resident artist, or buy some of their work in the shop. And they did, in droves. At the Cultural Center, “we had lots of foot traffic,” says Lentz; “tens and tens and tens of thousands” of visitors. Any artist would love that kind of exposure, but if it seemed like Project Onward were a zoo exhibit, then “the visitors were the animals,” says Lentz. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Stefan Sagmeister/Chicago Cultural Center

Design No Comments »
Photo: City of Chicago

Photo: City of Chicago


Light, melodic music reaches the ear while you are still ascending Chicago Cultural Center’s grand staircase to “The Happy Show.” The Austrian-born, New York-based designer Stefan Sagmeister, famous for designing album covers for Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones, has been ruminating happiness for over a decade, and he presents his findings inside. At the exhibition entrance, Sagmeister warns in a handwritten text that you will not find happiness here, but he does provide a hint, one of his discovered wisdoms on reaching happiness: “Low expectations are a good strategy.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College/Chicago Cultural Center

Michigan Avenue, Painting No Comments »



Founded by former slaves in 1867, Talladega College, in Alabama, commissioned six murals for their new library in 1939. Three panels tell the story of Africans aboard the slave ship Amistad, their successful revolt and legal aftermath. The other three panels commemorate the Underground Railroad, the founding of the college, and the building of the library in which the murals were installed. It’s an epic that begins with violence and ends with constructive cooperation toward higher education. The artist was Hale Woodruff (1900-1980), professor of art at a historically black college in Atlanta. He had attended art schools in Indianapolis, Chicago, Cambridge and Paris, and spent a summer in Mexico with Diego Rivera. Read the rest of this entry »

Portrait of the Artist: Shawn Decker

Installation, Michigan Avenue No Comments »
photo by Soohyun Kim

photo by Soohyun Kim

The brass rods shudder as the wind sweeps through the prairie. Steel grasshoppers click in the tall grass. A small mole cricket snaps its wings. And rain falls metallic on black soil.

In the sound installation “Prairie,” currently on exhibit in the Yates Gallery at the Chicago Cultural Center, artist Shawn Decker composes an abstract symphony of microcontrollers, computers, motors and recycled cellphone speakers. Subtle algorithms echo the dynamic movement and rhythm of the Illinois grasslands.

Decker grew up at the end of a dirt road in Western Pennsylvania. He remembers canoeing down the Susquehanna River, camping in the hills of the Allegheny Plateau, and watching the flutter of cardinals and blue jays in the trees outside his window. His artistic practice involves making meticulous tape and phonograph recordings in order to deconstruct rhythmic and spatial patterns of sound. He says, “The algorithms I compose are derived from natural processes. I often use configurations of Brownian motion of particles or fluctuations of 1/f noise to translate and reimagine the sound of leaves falling on the ground or raindrops hitting a blade of grass.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Shelly Jyoti and Laura Kina/Chicago Cultural Center

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INDIGO KinaApplied to a contemporary art exhibition, the saying about a tree falling in a forest might go something like this: If an artwork’s political or ideological import isn’t palpable in the work itself, does it have any repercussions? If the viewer can’t sense it, is it really there at all? Such questions have become increasingly important as artists who engage global capitalism and its discontents make the ethical dimensions and political ramifications of artistic production integral to their work, as do Shelly Jyoti and Laura Kina.

Jyoti a textile artist, and Kina, primarily a painter, tackle identity politics and post-colonialism through their respective mediums. They teamed up for “Indigo,” a collaborative exhibition of work featuring that particular murky shade of blue, named for the natural dye from which it’s derived. As the exhibition text explains, indigo has a rich, layered cultural and socioeconomic history. For Jyoti, the color signifies the struggles of Indian indigo farmers oppressed by British rule back in the nineteenth century. Her “Indigo Narratives” series adapts ancient embroidery and printing techniques in wall textiles and one giant, cascading mobile to contemporary images that symbolize India’s struggle under colonialism and subsequent non-violent rebellion. Kina’s “Devon Avenue Sampler Series” a “sampler” of both needlework and appropriation, combines textiles from Indian and Jewish traditions with text and commercial iconography native to Devon Avenue, a street that Chicago magazine once called “the most beguiling commercial strip in the city” due to its dizzying array of ethnically diverse restaurants and shops. While “Indigo” is billed as a collaboration between two professional artists, the gallery didactics acknowledge other hands at work—much of the material labor that went into the art on display was performed by Indian artisans belonging to a fair-trade women’s collective. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Paige Cunningham and Anna Kunz/Chicago Cultural Center

Multimedia, Performance No Comments »


Watching Paige Cunningham and Anna Kunz’s performance, “One Careless Gesture Away From Destruction,” was like getting a six-course dinner when you’re expecting just an entrée. It was a feast of varied cultural forms that held together as a kind of conversation about creative production.

There were essentially three distinct shows on view: a sculptural tableau with a video component, situated right in the middle of Industry of the Ordinary’s (IOTO) retrospective exhibition; a vogue-ballet mash-up choreographed by Cunningham; and a voguing presentation and workshop, led by the Chicago chapter of the House of Ninja, a local queer dance collective, or “house,” in the parlance of the voguing community. Read the rest of this entry »