Reviews, profiles and news about art in Chicago

Eye Exam: Familiar Object

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Joseph Yoakum, "Pleasure and Club House on Lake Placid near Sebring Florida on Indian Prairie Canal," 1964, ink and colored pencil on paper

By Jason Foumberg

In the 1990s, a huge range of contemporary art was categorized into some simple themes. There was a quick consensus that “the body” and “identity,” “memory” and “home” defined the queries and struggles of our contemporary era, as if the big world was so complex—and overburdened by art theory—that we needed to recompose ourselves using these basic building blocks of human life. These efforts at categorization promoted some excellent art works. In the “home” or “place” thematic category, Rachel Whiteread’s 1993 “House” and Gregor Schneider’s “Totes Haus ur” (1985-2003, in various iterations) defined a new genre of residential manipulation, with roots stretching back to Gordon Matta-Clark’s 1974 “Splitting” of a suburban home right in half, although Whiteread’s and Schneider’s large-scale installations were more of an effort to reconstruct the single-family home rather than destroy it.

The symbolism of the single-family home is resurging amid the American real estate bust, and a particular derivation is on view today in Chicago galleries. Where Whiteread and Schneider (and a host of others, including Do Ho Suh) investigated the site-specific qualities of “home,” the houses of today are generic and reduced to icons in the style drawn by children: a square with a triangle roof. As symbols, these houses are reductions to a universal essence of “home”; they speak about the safety of familiar objects, the comfort of domestic rituals and the fantasy of contained happiness. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Stephanie Syjuco/Gallery 400

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There is a formal elegance to Stephanie Syjuco’s installation at Gallery 400, despite the awkwardness of the objects on display. Each object was designed online by users of Google’s 3D modeling program, SketchUp, and then reproduced in the gallery by Syjuco using basic materials, such as cardboard and foam core, cut and taped together into geometric shapes. The gaps between the real and the virtual, between the designer and fabricator, add tension to this seemingly simple, visually appealing installation. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Eun Hyung Kim/Gallery 400

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We’re in the habit of talking about site-specific installations, but time-specific would be a more appropriate tag for Eun Hyung Kim’s new exhibition at Gallery 400. The artist’s ever-increasing catalog of images is equally journalistic, confessional, and allegorical: a man urinates on his own face (decapitated, in the toilet), a person grows from a tree, a brain swells with Marsden-esque linework, a man drowns in his own water-filled chest, a makeshift machine dislocates a man’s arms and legs. In each short sadistic narrative there is no conclusion, only a video loop.

Kim’s imagery is both cryptic and accessible—perhaps uncomfortably so. This dynamic is the strength of Kim’s multimedia installation, titled “Designing Eros.” Eros, from the Greco-Roman pantheon, is sexual desire, and literally translates as madness from the gods. Twentieth-century psychoanalytic theory paired expressions of Eros with Thanatos, or the death drive. Here, Kim is not, assuredly, presenting us with the expression of the maddened artist, but reminds us that our viewing habits thrive—and are threatened by—pleasure. (Andrew Blackley)

Through June 12 at Gallery 400, 400 S. Peoria

Eye Exam: Making Art Work for You

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By Nate Lee and Jason Foumberg

Art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson’s recently published book “Art Workers” looks into how artists, critics, museum guards and art professionals consolidated in protest, in the 1960s and seventies in New York City, against the Vietnam War. In process, a short-lived Art Worker’s Coalition successfully increased the opportunities for “art workers,” a term that was animated to perform heavy political and cultural work, circa 1968.

Art workers incite action, and challenge the armchair status quo. Provocative techniques abounded, like Piero Manzoni shitting in a can in 1961 and selling it on the art market for its weight in gold. Less cynically, the feminist movement acted as labor unions to push for progress.

Today, the legacy of art-as-work, of art in the service of social good, continues. The publication of a new newspaper, titled Art Work, by the Chicago-based group Temporary Services, celebrates and rallies the community to continue the spirit of the sixties. But this is not a call to radicalism, nor does it promote the gallery-dependent and depraved Manzoni approach. Rather, the art workers ethic concretely targets the assumption that artists are only nourished and edified by their search for eternal beauty, and therefore do not require monetary compensation. The late-sixties ideals are once again galvanizing artists to reassert professionalism in the arts, demand fair compensation and work opportunities, in light of the current economic decline and the bloated art market. The newspaper Art Work is this movement’s updated manifesto. Read the rest of this entry »

At Zeroes End: Art in Chicago, 2000–2009

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By Jason Foumberg

Jin Lee, "Ice 2," 2008. Courtesy devening projects + editions, Chicago

Jin Lee, "Ice 2," 2008. Courtesy devening projects + editions, Chicago

Art is long, but institutional memory is short. In many ways, Chicago’s art history is written as it occurs, in situ, by the people who produce it. Artists toil in their studios, heads-down. Apartment galleries open and close as briskly as the seasons change. We consume one-night-only events by the half-dozen, like so many bottles of free Grolsch beer. Even as new art blogs proliferate, with more scenes being represented than ever before, the snapshot commentary and weekly content often feels dated by week’s end. And yet, paintings aren’t bubblegum summer jams; they’re codified slabs of culture, philosophy and style. We seek dialogue, inspiration and long-term change. In short, we seek longevity, with lasting importance for our work and our peers’—but who has time to write contemporary history while we’re in the midst of making it?

That said, Chicago loves its art history. Outsiders, Imagists, Modernists and firebrands—memorize their precepts and you’re halfway to an MFA degree (however, please don’t leave Chicago once you earn the other half). Our traditions always feel in danger of becoming tinder for the next great fire, so we hand-cobble our history and share the stories orally like a rite of passage. This is to our strength and our detriment. History is our bind. We don’t trash Paschke or cold-shoulder Mies because we’ve worked so hard to carry their legacies. In many global art centers, successive generations of artists break with the past like rebellious teenagers, but Chicagoans do not. Here, innovation comes from influence and education. Doing otherwise, it would feel as if the whole thing could unravel.

As we approach the end of the century’s first decade, it’s time to take census of our situation. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Gnathonemus Petersii/Gallery 400

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In college I saw Christian Marclay’s 1989 “Tape Fall,” a piece that features a ladder supporting a reel-to-reel tape recorder, which plays the sound of a waterfall while unspooling a ribbon of tape into a pile on the floor. Then in August 2008 at Vega Estates I saw David Moré’s “THIS MEANS SOMETHING! Close Encounters with Barbara Streisand,” a basement installation in which 8-track cassette tapes shuttled around pillars throughout the space, playing both Streisand and the soundtrack to “Close Encounters” on sixteen speakers, eight of which were adorned with that film’s iconic mashed-potato model of Devil’s Tower. The progression from Marclay to Moré gives me the feeling that the attempt to resolve cultural technology with technological culture is finally maturing into something lots of people can richly appreciate. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Kay Rosen/Gallery 400

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In artist Kay Rosen’s exhibition at Gallery 400, the play between the visual and verbal structures of language, and the meaning derived, is of primary concern. The exhibition will evolve over the next three months from its current selection of collages and a video to a wall painting and an accompanying essay titled “The Center is a Concept.” Despite its incomplete state, the pieces on view now are intelligent and playful examples of Rosen’s conceptual aesthetic.

In “HIJACKED,” from 2002, Rosen created a collage of book covers using the Kinsey Millhone series by crime thriller author Sue Grafton. Grafton’s covers, ripe for Rosen’s art, make a simple game with words. “L is for Lawless,” is one title; “M is for Malice” is another. As the alphabet plods along, so does Grafton’s series. From this stream, Rosen plucks a few titles and arranges them in a crossword-puzzle style on a wall. Rosen barely more than re-presents these covers because in their current state they are like readymade Rosen pieces, complete with the artist’s signature punning style.

In “W,” from 2003, Rosen appropriates an image from the New York Times on beige card stock with a capitalized W placed on top of the image. One can easily draw conclusions. The photo shows a complete state of decay and destruction. A group of soldiers ascend stairs in a building. The specifics of the image, coupled with the letter W, reference former President George W. Bush and the unending Iraq war that first began in 2003. The letter, now typecast, is no longer a building block for other words. It is a whispered curse. (Britt Julious)

Through November 21 at Gallery 400, 400 S. Peoria St.

Art School Unconfidential: What the city’s burgeoning MFA programs mean for the future of artists in Chicago

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Matthew Metzger, "Re-release: Discourse." Acrylic and Oil on Panel.

Matthew Metzger, "Re-release: Discourse." Acrylic and Oil on Panel.

By Rachel Furnari

I’m a romantic about everything else in my life, but not about art school,” says Erin Chlaghmo, who begins her MFA program in Fiber and Material Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) this fall.  Romanticism, though, may be exactly what’s required to assume the burden of debt that comes with a degree that can cost upwards of $40,000 a year for a two- or three-year program. Chlaghmo is one of an increasing number of artists to pursue their graduate degrees in studio-arts without the guarantee of a lucrative career (or even a living wage) to pay off their student loans. Most students have a surprising and unmitigated enthusiasm for their graduate work despite being aware of the low odds for successfully working full-time as an artist—of being chosen out of the 300-plus yearly graduates for a show with one of a few commercial galleries in Chicago—and the attendant financial risks that have been exacerbated by the current economic environment.

In interviews with students from five local studio-art MFA programs—Columbia College, Northwestern, SAIC, the University of Chicago (U of C) and the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC)—descriptions of access to faculty, visiting artists, financial aid, professional development programs and limited material resources reveal how these artists make use of their programs to create art; to think, to network, to teach and, most importantly, to have a stake in an ongoing, critical conversation about contemporary art—though the quality of this conversation was definitely up for debate. While these schools have their differences, their students and graduates make up an undeniable segment of the contemporary art scene in Chicago and in a real way represent its future. Their institutional alignments, then, are crucial in determining how and in what direction the Chicago scene develops. By identifying those alignments it may be possible to better understand how the energy and creativity of these students might be expended in order to transform contemporary art in Chicago. Can the arts community undo the institutional biases in order to acknowledge the means by which art schools shape the Chicago art environment for practitioners, curators, dealers, audiences and critics? Read the rest of this entry »

The Forecast: Fair or Foul?

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art-chicago-08-crowds-1Compiled by Jason Foumberg

I asked art fair participants and insiders to make predictions for this year’s fair. At turns grim and hopeful, the responses present a slice of Chicago’s varied interests.

Brian Sholis, Art Critic: I suspect this year’s fair will be a cake of apprehension and worry frosted with taut smiles and outward expressions of hope.

Britton Bertran, Curator and Dealer: Commodity expectations are at their lowest and artists will do whatever they can to be heard in the loudest possible way. But what might be more interesting is when galleries and other enablers (non-artists) start to rear their own heads in protest and anger without repercussions from their own enablers (those that run these fairs). But what are they protesting against?

Carl Baratta, Artist: Everything will be at least competent except the free drinks. They will be perfect. Read the rest of this entry »

Eye Exam: The Future Is Right Behind You

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Douglas Emory

Emory Douglas

By Abraham Ritchie

The exhibition “Paper Trail” at Gallery 400 is not a typical art exhibition, and it doesn’t claim to be one. Instead, it recreates the gallery as a gathering place, bringing together ephemera, mostly photographs, newspapers and books, from the late 1960s and early seventies related to various American radical political groups. The hope—now that “hope” is in vogue again—is to have visitors consider solutions to social problems that have existed in Chicago for more than four decades.

What are these persisting problems from four decades ago? Consider Marvin Gaye’s 1970 sonic masterpiece, “What’s Going On.” Gaye sings, “Brother, brother there’s far too many of you dying”—still shamefully true as Chicago closed out 2008 with 507 homicides. “We don’t need to escalate, war is not the answer”—the US continues war on two fronts. “Don’t punish me with brutality”—unbelievably, police brutality is still a problem, a recent shocker being that a CPD officer beat a man handcuffed in a wheelchair.

The problems Gaye immortalized in song are given visual form here in a large group of anonymous and untitled photographs from about forty years ago. They display the visual history from the protest era; concerns about community welfare and livelihood, and efforts to abolish violence. There are images of communities organizing and banding together: a rally for a playground, children playing on bare asphalt and lots of speeches, protests and raised fists. Two images indicate that era’s racial solidarity against “The System” and “The Man.” In one, Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton strongly clenches a fellow radical’s hand. The other shows a press conference attended by both whites and blacks, and all are dressed in typical revolutionary gear of black berets and dark sunglasses.

papertrail1The underground newspapers of the time, Seed and The Black Panther Community News, featured artistic illustrations on their covers, and both are on view here. Whereas the designs for “Seed” were often psychedelic and anonymous, The Black Panther Community News featured work by Emory Douglas, Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party from 1967-1980. Douglas was the subject of a retrospective at LA MOCA’s Pacific Design Center last year, and his images use photocollage techniques, certain elements of Chinese Communist propaganda and the artist’s own hand-drawn illustrations.

One of the most powerful images that Douglas created was a poster for the August 21, 1970, issue of Community News. Headed with the phrase, “We shall survive. Without a doubt,” the image depicts a brilliantly smiling young African-American child wearing glasses and, in place of lenses, are images of the young being educated—we assume in Black Panther community schools. Atop his head is a floppy, zoot-style hat, emanating red rays quoted directly from Chinese revolutionaries. Douglas’ consistent use of Communist propaganda techniques appropriates the galvanizing force of that style. Typically in the Chinese source images, one would see the red rays emanating from behind Mao, the leader, but in his works Douglas links them to the children, granting them agents of change. Douglas’ image posits hope and optimism in stark contrast to an era characterized by violence, racism and uncertainty.
The children depicted in Douglas’ work, and in many other images throughout the exhibition, are an unexpectedly repetitious motif, yet they successfully invoke “the future.” With the election of Barack Obama, it would seem that one of the objectives from the 1960s has been fulfilled, but this exhibition shows us that individuals and communities have the power to affect change, perhaps even more so now that our leader speaks the same language. “Paper Trail” comes at a time to keep the momentum from the election-elation going, and explicitly cites issues of affordable housing, health care and poverty—all these battles need warriors.

“Paper Trail” takes the stance that, above all, education is central to solving these issues, and visitors are presented with a large, well-stocked reading room full of revolutionary and alternative literature. Here you can learn the history not told in school, such as the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, which was aimed at dismantling radical political organizations like the Black Panthers and the Latino Young Lords.

“Paper Trail” fits into an unofficial series of exhibitions that have taken place all over Chicago this past year, marking the fortieth anniversary of the radical sixties. Other exhibitions have focused successfully on the period’s art, such as the DePaul University Museum’s excellent “1968” exhibition and the University of Chicago’s “Looks Like Freedom,” so “Paper Trail” uses an educational strategy in line with AREA’s special issue, “1968/2008” which is available in the reading room. The exhibition’s approach relies on the initiative of the viewer to read the books and study the newspapers, which can be daunting because of the mass of materials on hand. But the creation of an historical continuum, alongside many of Chicago’s alternative organizations behind this exhibition, prompts us to create the future by learning from the past.

“Paper Trail” shows at Gallery 400, 400 S. Peoria, through March 7