Reviews, profiles and news about art in Chicago

Eye Exam: Forging a Frontier

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By Jason Foumberg

The closing of summer marked the end of ACRE’s inaugural season of artist residencies in rural Wisconsin. The ripening of autumn, though, brings ACRE’s residents back into the city for a yearlong exhibition program at the ACRE home base, a storefront gallery in Pilsen. Of the many local, national and international residency programs that swell with artists each summer, like Ox-Bow, Ragdale and Skowhegan, few offer solo exhibition opportunities for their participants. For ACRE, the exhibition component is part of a package deal, and built into the program’s name: Artists’ Cooperative Residency and Exhibitions.

Directors Emily Green and Nicholas Wylie founded ACRE on the premise that shared experiences and resources can help build an artistic community, and they’ve professionalized the experience. Residents must apply for a spot in the program, and applications are reviewed by a panel of art professors and curators (this year included Tricia Van Eck, Jason Lazarus, Lorelei Stewart, Anthony Elms and Steve Reinke). The exhibition component is another layer of professionalism. For many of the emerging artists who attend the summer sessions, this will be their first solo show. ACRE provides a clean, white-walled space and is partnering with other local galleries for the solo shows, including Mess Hall, Johalla Projects, No Coast/Roxaboxen, The Hills Esthetic Center and others. Read the rest of this entry »

Art Break: Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’

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Jason Lazarus likens his latest project to marriage. “There’s compulsion, but it’s not easy,” he quips. At the time of our conversation, he is hard at work organizing a fifty-vehicle memorial procession to be held on June 25, the one year anniversary of Michael Jackson’s passing. It will begin at the pop icon’s childhood home in Gary, Indiana, and continue to downtown Chicago. The vehicles, bearing silk-screened orange flags, will blast a retrospective playlist from a pirate radio station rigged by Lazarus. Participants are asked to document their experiences through photography and video to contribute to a “repository of documentation.”

“I’m interested in the complexity of trying to mourn somebody who had a complex life,” Lazarus elaborates. This occasion marks the first time that the photographer has worked on such a large scale. His plans are grand by most standards, even his own. He concedes, “I envision fifty cars, but I don’t know what count we’re on.” As with any other project of this magnitude, there are issues that need to be resolved, some more pressing than others. There are the logistical issues, like route planning and accommodating a growing “small critical mass of energy,” including last-minute participants and those without transportation. Additionally, the pirate radio station isn’t working well enough just yet. He hopes his back-up plan, burning the playlist to CDs for each car, does work. For a while, his car battery was dead, jeopardizing his own participation in the event. Fortunately, he managed to find one within thirteen minutes of pleading on his Facebook page. He hopes the replacement is functional. Read the rest of this entry »

Eye Exam: Inspiration from Cremation

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Study #19

By Jason Foumberg

After his death, in 2006, the artist Robert Heinecken’s ashes were collected in salt shakers, the kind you see in a diner. This was not inconsistent with the artist’s irreverent sense of humor, and his widow, Joyce Neimanas, distributed the salt shakers to more than a hundred friends and relatives. The remaining undistributed salt shakers were placed in possession of the Heinecken Trust, in Chicago, directed by Luke Batten, the artist’s former studio assistant, who gives them away as he sees fit, in consultation with Neimanas, to artists who may not have known Heinecken personally but who find inspiration from his body of work. After receiving one such salt shaker as a memento, photographer Jason Lazarus asked Batten and Neimanas for their blessing to use Heinecken’s cremains in a new photo project, now called “Heinecken Studies.” Lazarus recently debuted the twenty-five prints on his website, and in email and Facebook announcements.

Where some people choose to have their cremains scattered over scenic cliffs, or buried with seedlings, or cast into outer space (such as Timothy Leary’s), Heinecken left no specific last wishes for his bodily remains. The contents of Lazarus’ shaker were brought into the darkroom, dusted over photographic paper and exposed as photograms. Lazarus made the twenty-five prints in succession, in a single sitting, in what he calls an “aesthetic daisy chain,” where each image is a response to the previous one. Unlike a black-and-white darkroom, where red safety lights guide the hand, a darkroom for color exposures must be pitch-black. Lazarus toyed with the color dials, leaving much to chance, and used special flashlights to “burn” the exposures with light—a wink to the cremation process itself. The results are luminous gradations of saturated color, from blood red to sky blue to somber black, with the chalky white bone fragments cast about in little piles. It’s not as grotesque as it sounds; in fact, as a photographic process, it’s quite fun and improvisational, characteristics of art-making that Heinecken himself would approve. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: On the Scene/Art Institute of Chicago

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Jason Lazarus

Jason Lazarus


Death made the rounds this summer, feeding a national pastime of voyeurism with almost weekly sacrifices of major and minor celebrities. And Death continues to be very much on the scene in the newest photography exhibition to open in the Modern Wing. The impressive show features three talented artists: the unabashed Zoe Strauss with her straightforward documentary look at urbanism; the recondite Berlin-based Wolfgang Ploger with his abstractions of Internet searches; and Jason Lazarus, who may well be Chicago’s most incisively witty photographer.

Lazarus presents a collection of castaway snapshots collected over a number of years from flea markets. But he presents their backsides only, each with personally scrawled messages, as mothers are wont to do. The intentional refusal of the photographs’ image side may frustrate a viewer at first, but with a little patience it rewards with a form of tactile, open-source concrete poetry rivaling Found Magazine or a Joseph Grigely installation. Like little tombstones, the fading versos memorialize the fleeting physical interaction of handwriting. Read the rest of this entry »

Eye Exam: Money Matters

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Jason Lazarus, "Lavina's surprise party (turning 90)"

Jason Lazarus, "Lavina's surprise party (turning 90)"

By Jason Foumberg

It’s usually around this time of year that I look forward to finding out the winners of The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation’s artist grants, an unrestricted gift of $15,000 (up from $10,000 in years past) to three Chicago-based artists. Since 2002, the foundation awarded money to two dozen artists simply for being good artists. This year, though, the individual artist grant will not be handed out, nor will it be given in coming years, as decided by the foundation’s board late last year.

The Driehaus grant was somewhat controversial because it was unsolicited. Artists need not, and could not, apply for the money. A group of nominators (including myself in 2008) chosen by the foundation in turn each selected three artists whose practices were weighed and judged by three jurors. All participants were active in the visual arts in Chicago, so it’s likely that everyone was not only aware of each other’s art practices, but for better or worse, also their personalities and politics. This is unlike the Artadia grant that comes through Chicago and other cities annually. Artadia asks arts professionals from outside Chicago to judge the award, whereas the Driehaus grant was completely contained within Chicago. This led to some criticisms that the award process was subject to favoritism. Ideally, though, the tiered process was entrusted to people who care for the long-term development of certain artists and types of practices. That one type of artistic program (say, academic conceptualism) benefited over others was the will of the collective group of tastemakers.

The boon of the Driehaus artist grant was that it was unrestricted. Artists could use the money to buy supplies and fund a new project, or they could simply use it to garnish their living expenses. Philip von Zweck (2007) bought a car. Jason Lazarus (2008) paid off student-loan debt. Inigo Manglano-Ovalle (2008) purchased video-editing equipment. Even if an artist didn’t spend their funds on items related directly to their art practice, the implication was that a space was cleared for them, and a small amount of financial freedom granted, so they could do what they do best.

Some artists live from grant to grant. Although Manglano-Ovalle, who also recently won a Guggenheim fellowship, says, “I use these grants for making art. I don’t rely on them for living,” the build-up of several years’ worth of grants makes being an artist possible. The granting of unrestricted funds especially places trust in the notion that artists are engaged in producing a cultural good, not a commodity. “Grants help you stay fluid in the continuum from idea to exhibition,” says Lazarus. “Repeating this cycle constantly creates growth in an artistic practice.”

The Driehaus Foundation, which currently supports notable architects and the performing arts, such as dance and local theater, as well as many non-arts community organizations, will no longer directly support individual visual artists. Instead, they’ll continue to give money to “funders,” such as the Arts Work Fund, which in turn grants funds to nonprofit groups that support specific organizational and developmental missions. The Arts Work Fund adds an additional filter to the trickle down process. For instance, a recent grant of $10,000 was given to ARC Gallery, an artist-run space, “to undertake a comprehensive examination of the organization in order to improve effectiveness and efficiency.” Such money finds its way to administrators first and artists second. “Strengthen the business side,” says Arts Work Fund director Marcia Festen, “so that the art can stay strong.” (The Driehaus Foundation did not replace individual artist grants with agency grants).

In Chicago, Artadia will still make its annual round, and with the money comes prestige, like winning an Academy Award. The newly founded 3Arts agency also made individual grants of $15,000 each in 2008 to two Chicago visual artists (out of six total), and their grant, like Driehaus, is unsolicited and unrestricted. 3Arts is now the only major granting agency in Chicago that is not government-affiliated. Many Chicago artists have come to rely on the City of Chicago’s CAAP grants, which awards funds of $1,000 or less to individual artists. This year 185 people received this grant through an application process.

Alternative and do-it-yourself granting agencies have come up in the past few years in opposition to the often bureaucratic and oblique granting process. (Bad at Sports covered one such agency, InCUBATE, on May 24). One new grant comes from Chances, a queer-focused monthly dance party organized by several artists. Door fees have been collected and will be given to an artist to help fund a project. In the last round, Rebecca Kling was awarded $500 for her monologue project that marked her transition from male to female. The next winners will be announced in mid-July.

Eye Exam: Indoor Voices

Galleries & Museums, Suburban, Wicker Park/Bucktown No Comments »
The Franks, "I Heart Art Critics," 2008

The Franks, "I Heart Art Critics," 2008

By Jason Foumberg

Recently, in conversation with a painting and drawing professor, the subject of skill, and the long quiet hours required to refine those skills, arose. Woe to he who pursues art for monetary gain, said the professor with his usual dramatic flair; it’s rather like a monastic pursuit, he said, extending forefinger skyward for oratorical emphasis. Hoping to improve my own basic drawing skills, I turned to Betty Edwards’ classic manual, “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain,” wherein she writes that learning to draw can help bring about “creative solutions to problems, whether personal or professional.” In this light, Edwards’ otherwise charming book could spawn a hundred dreary corporate professional development seminars. So which is it—is drawing, and hence the pursuit of creativity, a means of self-purity, as the monkish professor would have it, or is it a utility with social aspirations?

Let’s not be too idealistic. The practice of art is afforded by free time. If you don’t have any, then you make some by pinching from the corners of your life. In time, a space is made and a circle is drawn within which to be a little hermit. It’s in here that you make, consider, re-make, and reconsider something that may not move outside of your little hermitage until it reaches the art gallery—the hermit conference.

Jamileejpg49The question of artistic productivity is at the heart of this month’s installment of Twelve Galleries, the nomadic exhibition project slated to last for one year, and which takes place at a different space each month. The January Gallery strays from the traditional solo-show structure. Here, organizer Jamilee Polson created a situation where gallery-goers could collectively plan a year of activities. Large monthly calendars on the walls provided the blank squares for viewers to write both real and fictional events based on personal, political, whatever art world dreams and desires they cared to share (but the actual development of these activities is left to the individuals). The effort was an exercise in seeing the big picture, getting organized and mapping goals—presumably things that we need to practice.

“Are We There Yet?” is the name of an essay from the New Art Examiner, published in May, 1995. Critic Ann Wiens wrote that if the Chicago art world was to survive the mid-90s economic slump it must create “a vital artistic community” external to the needs of the commercial gallery system. “Nomadic galleries, temporary spaces, or shows in homes” (read: unencumbered by rent) must be embraced, Wiens wrote, as if presaging the Twelve Galleries project, which opens in art and non-art spaces alike and, as far as January was concerned, successfully raised no cash.

Jason Lazarus

Jason Lazarus

“Chicago galleries still want a room of their own,” warned Wiens. Still, a space such as Lloyd Dobler Gallery, which hosted Twelve Galleries this month, is an apartment gallery that aspires to otherwise. The apartment’s front room—the gallery part—emulates the white cube model—an unfurnished room with clean walls and bright lights. For many, this is the most comfortable arrangement to view and discuss visual art.

Likewise, a new group exhibition at Dominican University, wittily titled “Untitled (Field Work),” features several artists who consider their role as Artist in light of The Art World. The “field” in the show’s un-title refers to the common field—the shared roles and rules—where artists work and play. Two photographs by Jason Lazarus, from the artist’s self-portrait series, propose contrasting artistic personae. A 2004 piece shows the artist spreading gasoline on the front steps of the Museum of Contemporary Art. This is the artist-as-revolutionary persona, which isn’t exactly revolutionary because Ed Ruscha did it in 1968, but presumably this is the joke: the production of originality is mired by the past. Lazarus’ other photo, from 2006, reveals an incandescent moon behind a cloudy sky at night. Titled “Standing under the same moon as Barack Obama,” it shows the artist as documentarian of the present, gifted with special insights to distill our collective myths (for without the title, it’s just an image of the moon). This is still a potent and viable position for an artist to inhabit, although no less constructed than the others.

Conrad Bakker

Conrad Bakker

The playing field, according to Conrad Bakker, has problems. In the gallery he casually flags cracked, water-damaged and unpatched holes in the white cube patina. Bakker also made a replica of Artforum that sits on a replica of the iconic sleekly designed gallery bench alongside other gallery paraphernalia. Thus Bakker presents a cautionary tale of gallery realism: beware of your art’s context. It could get trapped in the everlasting circular relay where it exists only to prove that it exists. Eventually, only the white cube will remain, while the artist disappears like so many layers of dried white paint.

January Gallery shows through February at Lloyd Dobler Gallery, 1545 W. Division, second floor. “Untitled (Field Work)” shows through February 28 at The O’Connor Art Gallery, Dominican University, 7900 W. Division Street, River Forest

Review: Bad Moon/Andrew Rafacz Gallery

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The three photographers in this early and welcome effort to position art in an age of political and economic crisis deploy postmodern moves to shift our response from superficial realism to a deeper and more nuanced awareness of distress—an inward realism. Greg Stimac appropriates shots of seedy foreclosed houses from real estate flyers, prints them as grainy as can be to make them look even more forlorn, places them in a grid, and then puts a symbolic red diamond in the middle of his composition to suggest or maybe to scoff at a possible conspiracy behind the boulevard of broken dreams. Curtis Mann appropriates photos of conflict zones, fragments them and fills in the gaps with fiery reds and yellows to produce compositions that communicate the desolating excitement and searing beauty of violent antagonism. Lazarus went down to the banks of the river on a late, leafless autumn day, lay down and wrapped himself like a mummy in a tiger blanket, and shot the scene of ultimate abject camouflage. (Michael Weinstein)

Through January 24 at Andrew Rafacz Gallery, 835 W. Washington, (312)404-9188.

Review: Made In Chicago: Portraits from the Bank of America LaSalle Collection/Chicago Cultural Center

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If anyone was ever in doubt that Chicago has been a world center of photographic creativity for scores of years, their misgivings will be dispelled by the lavish display of images in this generous selection from the famous Bank of America LaSalle collection. Covering the period from 1930 to the present, the show is most of all a history of the generations of masters (Walker Evans, Harry Callahan, Barbara Crane and Brian Ulrich, to name just a few) who have practiced their art in our sweet home through the modern, modernist and postmodern eras in every conceivable genre, always innovating and never simply following the fashions of the day. With more than sixty artists represented and more than a hundred images on view, the show regrettably has no center and no theme, and it lacks sufficient wall text to provide meaningful context, forcing a focus on the individual images, which are unfailingly powerful. To get your bearings, find Jason Lazarus’ color shot of a wall in a Cabrini Green apartment on which a poem has been scrawled: “I’m leaving my love here and taking it also to my new home.” We might all say that, even if we have not literally been evicted. (Michael Weinstein)

Through January 4 at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, (312)744-6630

Review: Off the Beaten Road/A+D Gallery

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Greg Stimac, "Bottle of Piss, Illinois," 2006

Greg Stimac, "Bottle of Piss, Illinois," 2006


In this Kerouac-inspired show, artists respond to, and push the boundaries of, the travel narrative. In a cohesive mix of audio, photography, video and paintings, several artists offer their interpretations of Jack Kerouac’s influential work, “On The Road.”  The original manuscript, a 120-foot typewritten scroll, can be viewed at Columbia College. Photographers Greg Stimac and Jason Lazarus provide immediate accessibility with their work, taking direct influence from the novel. Stimac’s series “Bottle of Piss” represents Kerouac’s method of relieving himself while traveling. Stimac, a photographer who takes to the road to complete portraits of Americana, states, “My car at times becomes my studio.” Similarly, Lazarus’ “Dead Bug” presents the visual through a windshield that any traveler can identify with. The mixed-media art provided by Jeff Gabel, Dylan Strzynski, and Diana Guerrero-Macia offer a less direct connection to the novel, but tie in major themes of narrative and the process of journey. Strzynski’s mixed-media paintings are full of detail and color. Gabel’s series of sketches are rough, but designed as self-contained narratives that read like diary entries. Guerrero-Macia’s use of found objects creates a new perspective on the expendable. Selections from The Third Coast International Audio Festival thoroughly round out the exhibit with narratives that are beautifully produced, episodic, intriguing and, at times, funny. The recorded conversations, titled “Julie and the Amtrak God” remind the listener that a journey can be personal, but also accessible. Kerouac would be proud. (Shama Dardai)

Off The Beaten Road shows at A + D Gallery, 619 S. Wabash, through November 8.

Instant Death

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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.