Reviews, profiles and news about art in Chicago

Eye Exam: A Night in Bohemia

Prints, Rogers Park 3 Comments »
Anti-War Dance poster, Artist Unknown, Undated Dill Pickle Club Records, Newberry Library

Anti-War Dance poster, Artist Unknown, Undated Dill Pickle Club Records, Newberry Library

By Jason Foumberg

In photographs from the nineteen-teens and twenties, all the men wear blazers, ties and hats, so it can be difficult to tell which are the young gentlemen and which are the hoboes, but one group shot, labeled “Typical Young Hoboes,” makes it clear that the room of fresh-faced men in black garb are not the high society set. One hundred or so years ago Chicago was a major stopping point for hoboes (migrant workers), tramps (migrant non-working) and bums (both non-migratory and non-workers), filling nickel-a-night flophouses on Madison Street and congregating in speakeasies in the evening.

Today the term “hobo” may simply mean a beggar or homeless person, but back then hobohemia was a lifestyle, and Chicago embraced its tramps. Although they are not as romanticized as the beat poets of the fifties and sixties, the hoboes of the twenties and thirties (really, the beats’ protégés) formed a subculture—perhaps America’s first counter-culture—by actively engaging such outlaw topics as women’s rights, birth control, homosexuality, vegetarianism, labor laws, World War I protests and other socially aware topics. At venues such as the Dill Pickle Club a lecture would be followed by dancing, dinner, an art show and some theater. “Do you like to be Preached to? Do Statistics appeal to you?” reads one poster announcing a lecture by Dr. Ben Reitman, the Dill Pickle Club’s publicist, historian, frequent lecturer and physician. “Tuesday Nov. 6 the subject is VIOLENCE,” says the handbill, which also lists the most common methods of suicide (number seven is “run over by trains”). Such self-help seminars would not have been rare, especially for the free-thinking Dr. Reitman.
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Eastern Unorthodox: Artists in search of a post-Soviet Ukrainian reality

Curator Profiles, Multimedia, Ukrainian Village/East Village No Comments »

By Jason Foumberg

Ukraine has been in a constant state of transition since declaring its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Seventeen years of sovereignty have been marked by periods of deep poverty for many and robust wealth for few, political upheavals and mass protests, and a thrust toward modernization. As Chicago contains the largest population of ethnic Ukrainians in the United States, all eyes are on the homeland as a new batch of corrupt politicians threatens to set a course for turbulence. An exhibition opening September 12, “New Print Politik: Post-Soviet Politics and Contemporary Art,” at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, depicts the situation from the artist’s viewpoint. Alongside the Ukrainians, the Russian, Slovakian and Cuban perspectives are considered in the exhibition, as all were previously under the rule of, or dependent on, the U.S.S.R.

“Sometimes it’s painfully obvious that art can’t be made how it was made before the Soviet collapse,” says the exhibition’s curator Roman Petruniak. While the elements of traditional national culture, such as food and religion, embroider the identity of a Ukrainian, it’s the high-rise condos and the grab for the West that’s both worrisome and worth criticizing. Much of the new political work, as framed by the exhibition, didactically and directly engages the problems facing citizens and artists. Any heavy-handedness is excusable, for these are heavy times.

The limits of artistic expression are an indicator of individual autonomy within a society. It’s what we can get away with that defines the forces bordering our actions. In a video titled “Lay and Wait,” Nickolay Ridniy lays down on the sidewalk in front of the German embassy in Ukraine to perform his continual frustration with being denied a visa. Gaining permission to travel outside the country is a common problem. Ridniy’s act of laying down in a public path, and his subsequent arrest, interrogation and threats of forced hard labor highlight the stale taste of brute power that has remained all these years after the Soviet pullout.

In other artworks with strong political messages, the artists are able to make their statements unmolested by the law’s strong-arm. Again, Ridniy, together with fellow artists Ann Krivenzova and Sergey Popov, calling themselves SOSka Group, wear masks of the most famous politicians in Ukraine and panhandle on streets and the subway. It’s a not-so-subtle hint that political promises of change are impoverished.

One mask worn by the SOSka Group represents Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko. As a stalwart of Ukraine’s bid to enter both the European Union and NATO, Yushchenko seeks to push the country far into westernized territory—in the opposite direction of Russia, which still looms large over the former Soviet republic by providing resources such as oil and other energy supplies. The recent war between Russia and Georgia exemplifies the interest that the Russian giant still invests in its castoff countries. Newsweek called President Yushchenko’s prospects with NATO an act of “Russian roulette.” Dick Cheney’s visit to Ukraine in early September epitomized the country’s march on the fast track to privatization and capitalist rule, which, for many Ukrainians, marks a step toward progress, and for others a visitation from Cheney is tantamount to a prospector surveying untouched land, or a fat man fingering fruits for their ripeness.

“New Print Politik” is the outcome of Petruniak’s travels this summer to such far-flung locales as Ukraine, Slovakia, Cuba and Russia. Although the Institute has exhibited heavily politicized art in the past, such as 2005’s “Ukrainian Art and the Orange Revolution,” Petruniak expects his exhibition will be an eye-opening experience for Chicago’s local population of Ukrainians. How one understands the Ukrainian situation differs depending on whether one dwells beside Lake Michigan or the Black Sea. The divide concerns middle-class prosperity—widely available in America, but severely lacking in Ukraine. In an example of the disparity between Ukrainians and Ukrainian-Americans, Petruniak took some immersion language classes during the beginning of his trip in Ukraine, where he found the phrases he had picked up in his childhood from his father sounded to the natives as if he were living in the 1920s. Perhaps Ukrainians who are outside Ukraine, safe from the political and economic upsets, live at a comfortable remove from the reality of what brothers and cousins in Eastern Europe might be experiencing. Petruniak calls Chicago’s Ukrainian Village, with its shawl-clad grandmothers and quaint borsch-and-dumpling cafés, a “living history.” He hopes to connect the exhibition’s visitors to the living present.

The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art (UIMA), founded in 1971, boasts two large gallery spaces. One holds the permanent collection and features mostly painting and sculpture from post-1945 to the present that takes cues from Abstract Expressionism and Cubism. These works directly challenged Stalin’s state-imposed style, Socialist Realism, which permitted only glorious representations of the nation, its leaders and workers. In its heyday, Ukrainian Modernism was avant-garde and threatened polite society; today, these styles have become traditional and formalized. In the other gallery, Petruniak’s exhibition contains no abstract art. Here, everything is told on certain terms and each work tells a specific story. There is no place for ambivalence in the next avant-garde.

Before setting foot in Eastern Europe and Cuba, Petruniak sent out a call about the exhibition to artists. In Kiev, two largely influential institutions, the Center for Contemporary Art and the Edios Foundation, picked up the notice. They put Petruniak in contact with artists whose work contains equal part activism and political commentary. The idea of exhibiting specifically printed work, that is, serigraphs and photographs, seemed logical given the steep cost of shipping artwork and the near-promise that Customs would make things unnecessarily difficult. Once he began visiting artists’ studios, though, Petruniak found that reproducible media prompts a host of meaningful associations. The possibility of reaching a wider audience through mass dissemination perfectly mirrored much of the works’ themes—that the public should be made aware of, and can actively participate in, the direction of their lives. Petruniak returned to Chicago with posters, ‘zines and many digital files of the photographs he wanted to have in the exhibition, which he printed here, and which undercut the singular preciousness of the art objects and affirmed the necessity for broad access to the political message.

The SOSka group delights in the possibilities that arise from changing a unique object’s context, an experiment made possible by reproduction. “Barter” is a video showing high-art reproductions (likely unlicensed)—including some of the contemporary art market’s best-selling darlings Neo Rauch, Cindy Sherman and Chuck Close—traded for livestock and vegetables in a small rural village in eastern Ukraine. A small exhibition is installed on the side of a shed, and local farmers and villagers are invited to pick their favorite work of art. Barter is then negotiated. Cindy Sherman dressed as a clown fetches one live chicken. A work by Komar and Melamid—painters who mocked the Socialist Realist style by replicating it to saccharine heights of kitsch—is selected by a farmer. No doubt Komar and Melamid would find ironic delight in the peasant’s lack of taste. The garish landscape goes for two buckets of potatoes.

The bartering video not only highlights the ridiculous divide between the rich and the poor, or high and low tastes; it is also quite an accurate depiction of the daily economy in Ukraine where bartering is a fact of life. As the government tries to veer the economy to a capitalism that works for itself and for its rich allies, people are still having to make do with what they’ve got. Here, do-it-yourself isn’t just a political stance; it’s also a survival tactic. By the end of the bartering video, one feels that the villagers were deceived, for they’d be better off keeping their dozen eggs than owning a bit of wall art, and so the value of their labor versus the value of art becomes very clear.

Or, it’s a certain type of art that is devalued by this exchange, namely art that addresses only aesthetic questions. Contemporary American art is a luxury that’s as politically effective as cake decorating. For artists living in post-Soviet states, however, if there is a privilege worth expanding, it is the issue of personal and political freedom. Surely they have the freedom to paint an ugly abstract picture if they care to, but formal and aesthetic concerns are not the contested terms. Where Stalin’s Socialist Realist style sought to seed the public’s consciousness with agit-prop—where “You” were always being addressed—so too does the new public art ask its viewers to become participants. Critical pedagogy combines education, outreach, collaboration and activism for common people and the common good. Public interventions, workshops and street posters work well toward this goal.

In addition to his work at the UIMA, Petruniak is a founder, with Ben Schaafsma and Abigail Satinsky, of the Institute for Contemporary Understanding Between Art and The Everyday, or InCUBATE, in Logan Square. Like similar institutions in Chicago such as the Stockyard Institute and Mess Hall, programming at InCUBATE provides outreach for marginalized groups—including artists. A residency program gives artists the space to work freely, and a grant-giving program redistributes money to artists collected from subscriptions to a weekly soup luncheon. They also recently launched a touring exhibition titled “Other Options” that, in part, self-reflectively calls into question the “Nonprofit Industrial Complex.” While in Eastern Europe, Petruniak met an artist who showed him his backyard shed and introduced it as an alternative artist-and-community-based center. “Here I was thousands of miles from Chicago,” says Petruniak bemusedly, “and looking at InCUBATE’s Eastern European twin.”

The spirit of collaboration carries through from the arts organizers to the artists themselves, from the SOSka group to R.E.P. group, and from mail art collaborations to Cuban artist Eduardo Marin’s Nudo S.A., an artist group comprised of Marin and the public who views his art. Marin’s silk-screened posters on display in “New Print Politik” are advertisements for group activities, such as a demonstration or an art exhibition. “La Plástica Joven Se Dedica Al Béisbol (Young art dedicates itself to baseball),” from 1989, commemorates an event where many artists felt their creativity stifled under Castro’s regime, so they gathered to play a game of baseball. The poster shows Michelangelo’s iconic David—the little guy who conquered the giant Goliath—wearing a baseball glove. Another work, “MEARTE en la pared,” announces an art exhibition. The phrase is a play on the word mearte, which can be read as both my art on the wall and shit on the wall. Given the unavailability of expensive art supplies, one likely would have seen the artist’s figurative waste on display—the only creative solution.

While Cuba was always a sovereign state, notes Petruniak, it did rely heavily on the U.S.S.R. for food and oil, so the Soviet pullout caused tremendous economic hardship. Petruniak visited Cuba for two weeks this past summer, and he described its culture as “romantic but scary; gritty but tenacious.” The icons of revolution hold a strange place in Cuba’s heart. Che Guevara, hero to the last generation, represented hope for a better life. Yet, as much as Che’s face floated from billboards to t-shirts, the promise went unfulfilled. “Artists began to ask the question, ‘What is the nature of revolution?’” says Petruniak, when the revolution doesn’t deliver. “‘Why continue Che’s revolution when we are poor and hungry?’”

Petruniak found young artists posing this same sentiment in each place he visited. Given the new freedoms granted to the public and artists after the Soviet collapse, artists asked, what do we do now? What does it mean to make political art today? Who is going to pay for it to be made?—certainly not the state. These are key questions about the exhibition, says Petruniak, and they’re difficult to answer. “If it was easy,” he says, “I wouldn’t have put on the exhibition.”

“New Print Politik: Post-Soviet Politics and Contemporary Art” shows at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, 2320 West Chicago, (773)227-5522, through November 9.

The Five-Year Plan: Breakout Artists 2004-2007: Where are they now?

Artist Profiles, Breakout Artists No Comments »

By Rachel Furnari and David Mark Wise

To mark this fifth edition of Breakout Artists, we decided to check up on the artists we’d featured in the past and see where their careers have taken them. Read the rest of this entry »


Glen Ellyn, Logan Square, Outsider Art, Public Art, Street Art No Comments »

By Jason Foumberg

Community-based actions and collaborations are distinct traits of Chicago art’s scene. As the new form of public art, bearing no resemblance to the hulking steel monsters that preside in our municipal plazas, they include practices fermented in the grassroots political era of the 1960s and continue today under the banner of pedagogy, which is a strangely academic term for something that involves many beyond the ivory tower. Social sculpture became the key phrase in the 1960s, initiated by German artist Joseph Beuys, to provide the theoretical groundwork for an art form centered on people and actions, not materials and aesthetics. The art of inclusion swiftly took hold in Chicago with the help of several key figures, and many today teach at our universities, for socially engaged art often features an educational effort. One trailblazer in this arena was Michael Piazza, who, for close to thirty years until his death in mid-2006, spurred community initiatives in prisons, with the mentally disabled, in parks and on the streets.

The record of Piazza’s varied projects, spanning decades, is currently collected and on view at the College of DuPage, and the legacy of his actions and collaborations ripple through the lives of his friends, collaborators and students. In one of his workshops, at the juvenile detention center, Piazza helped the participants explore their newfound bound way of life in conceptual terms, beyond painting or drawing. For instance, the sculpture “Lot” from 1995 is a round poker table with handcuffs drilled around the perimeter standing in for the prison poker players. Such objects were exhibited in the first-ever art reception held in the detention center and attended by the public. “Lot” helped the prisoners think through what exactly constitutes the notion of fun while incarcerated, and it also presented outsiders, or the public, with an idea of what “community” meant on the inside.

Piazza’s collaborators did not always take the form of his family, friends or fellow artists. Jim Duignan, co-curator of the retrospective exhibition, called Piazza’s life and art “a seamless, uninterrupted action.” For Piazza, living in Logan Square also meant making art there, which meant connecting with the neighborhood’s residents, some of whom were in the juvenile prison where he vitalized the art programming. He inspired the idea that living can be artful by simple creativity, such as creating a connection where none had previously existed. This could include initiating conversation and making introductions, or a festival in the park. Most of the art objects on view also push this notion of readymade objects that simply need to be brought together. Collage and assemblage are the results of this process, a literal fusion of art and life.

Piazza’s longtime colleagues, including Duignan, Bertha Husband, Brian Dortmund (all co-curators of the exhibit) and wife Laura Piazza came to loathe the term “collaboration,” sensing that it was a misused idea among artists. From then on they would refer to their projects as “log-rolling,” an activity that required the same amount of balance from all workers in order to keep afloat. It was around this time that Piazza took part in founding Axe Street Arena, a gallery and social space at the Milwaukee, Diversey and Kimball intersection. This served as home base for Piazza’s projects—which he would probably never term “his” projects, but rather the community’s—including an exhibition for graffiti artists that brought together many of the city’s taggers, most of whom were familiar to each other only by their tags, not faces. Axe Street Arena is remembered as a hotbed for the new type of social sculpture. In 1998, nine years after Axe Street closed, the newly formed collaborative art group Temporary Services, now based in Rogers Park at Mess Hall, kicked off their exhibition program with a memorial to Piazza and company’s old Logan Square space.

It seemed Piazza was always a sort of revolutionary of the disenfranchised, giving voice to those who many would rather never hear from, such as prisoners and graffiti artists, and those who have no platform. One project was simply making a copy machine available to people producing zines and other DIY literary ventures. The cost of copying was their only overhead, and so Piazza erased that burden. Duignan explained that through these communal interactions, Piazza was breeding the type of city he wanted to live in; like an underground alderman, he picked up the community’s interests and facilitated their progression into shapely, lovely things.

Piazza’s subjects—gangs, prisoners, graffiti—may seem beyond repair, and his projects may seem counterproductive to the practice of “art.” But it was exactly this quality of stroking against the grain that turned on other like-minded artists, and in the end produced more and more self-motivated individuals. Much of his writing and his legacy deal with overthrowing the deathly trappings of consumer capitalism, and in this way he was a theorist of punk attitudes, and a composer of mute voices. In Piazza’s own words: “It is best to listen to the many voices that until now have been silenced.”

The Work of Michael Piazza shows at the Gahlberg Gallery at the College of DuPage, 425 Fawell, Glen Ellyn, (630)942-2321, through April 19. 

The Bookish Type

Multimedia, River North, Rogers Park No Comments »

By Jason Foumberg with Lisa Larson-Walker

Is the act of reading a book on par with using candles instead of lightbulbs, or as George Orwell terms it, a “sentimental archaism”? There’s a charm to reading a novel, poem or essay that isn’t felt when glancing at images, our days’ true medium of meaning. It’s as if to read is to lift the lines off the page with the eyes, thus to receive a transmission from the past and bring it to life in the present. Sentimental, indeed.

In fact there really isn’t anything much less contemporary than reading a book, no matter the vogue of antiquing or retro-fashions. Books, like deep containers of a distant past, are fairly emblematic of the search for cosmic order, universal emotions, Truth and eternity—values that barely make any sense today. We are no longer a literary breed—does that mean we no longer care to knock on the door of posterity? “Remember me is all I ask/And if to remember be a task: Forget me,” mournfully sings Laurie Anderson. It’s okay to resign yourself to oblivion, safe in the knowledge that today’s actions are important—but only for today.

Every dying breed has its share of enthusiasts. Buzz Spector is widely regarded as an upholder of the faith. The Chicago-born artist often makes sculptural stacks using books as building blocks, then photographs them. In one, a semi-circle of stacked books invites the viewer into its center like a fortification or safe room against fast-paced culture. Another work is a simple stack of books opened to their middle and placed atop each other. The curvaceous form is a small monument to the very thing it is produced of. It is not reference-desk librarian elitism that composes the general feeling of Spector’s book works, but, as a (shirtless!) self-portrait amid his own collection of books attests, it’s the charming nerdiness of the bookworm.

One work, a structural stack of books all by and about the poet W.H. Auden, evokes the book collector’s delight in hoarding and displaying his favorite author. In his famous essay “Unpacking my Library,” Walter Benjamin writes that the unique cross-section of titles in his collection defines himself as a collector and a reader. Arcimboldo’s portrait comes to mind, where a pink chapbook is a man’s cheek, the spine of a big red book is an arm, bookmarks compose the fingers, and so on. Writes Benjamin: “The most profound enchantment for the collector is the locking of individual items within a magic circle…” In the early history of art, a picture served as the perfect illustration of a text, Biblical or otherwise, for an illiterate audience. Here, now, Spector’s magic semi-circle uses the book itself to illustrate a bookish concept.

Sandra Perlow’s new painting cycle gains inspiration from TS Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday” from 1930, written after the poet’s conversion to the Church of England. The poem is laden with the conflicts of finding oneself in religion and the subtle harmonies that emerge from a wrecked self. So, too, in Perlow’s paintings. They are composed of old decorative papers and pieces of painted paper collaged together, all painted over again, often with a central symbolic motif, such as saltimbanque-like hats or a geodesic structure. Abstract meanings build up to an un-definitive result, and that’s their power: they are personal in the search for the universal.

Perlow has been painting for over forty years. She is of the same generation as the Chicago Imagists, so personal iconography is second nature for her. Over time she developed a collage/painting style that blends the trickiness of paint (its ability to cover any surface) and the good nature of collage (its ability to play well with others). As if by luck or by faith, the parts click. Is it possible for abstract painting to contain narrative elements? “What is actual is actual only for one time/And only for one place,” writes Eliot. In one “scene” Perlow fits many elements of the time-based art of story telling so that both process and product are simultaneously visible.

On Saturday, January 12, Marc Fischer will allow viewers to explore a decade worth of correspondence shared with French artist Bruno Richard. Artwork is so abundant that the sum of the exhibition is only quantifiable by weight—over sixty pounds of writing, CDRs, magazines, photocopied drawings and whatever other errata Richard could fit into an envelope are fully accessible. Some materials on view had been included in last year’s “Exalted Trash” at Columbia College, but only within untouchable vitrines. Richard’s letters, often featuring adult content and taboo subjects like suicide, torture and talking about one’s income, will surely provide generous access to the world of friendship shared between himself and Fischer.

Buzz Spector shows at Zolla/Lieberman, 325 West Huron, (312)944-1990, through February 2. Sandra Perlow shows at Alfedena, 434 West Ontario, (312)944-4340. Bruno Richard and Marc Fischer show at Mess Hall, 6932 North Glenwood, (773)465-4033, January 12, 1pm-6pm.