Reviews, profiles and news about art in Chicago

Eye Exam: Black Curious

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Cauleen Smith, "Performance view, The Solar Flare: Arkestral Marching Band Project #3: Meat Packing District," 2011. Photo: Orla McHardy, courtesy of the artist

Cauleen Smith, “Performance view, The Solar Flare: Arkestral Marching Band Project #3: Meat Packing District,” 2011. Photo: Orla McHardy, courtesy of the artist

By Anthony D. Stepter

“I wonder if he’s heard of Chet Haze?” I thought, as Kodwo Eshun, one half of the UK-based art collective The Otolith Group, took the first question at the Black Collectivities conference (May 3–4) from a “gentleman with the backwards cap.”

The event’s organizers, Northwestern University professor Huey Copeland and MCA curator Naomi Beckwith, insisted that each question asker share their name and affiliation before proceeding. This is how I came to realize that the Northwestern student asking for clarification on “hermetics and hermeneutics” was Chester Hanks, better known as the middle son of actor Tom Hanks, and perhaps even better known as Chet Haze, aspiring rapper and the subject of snarky gossip blogs across the internet.

A deeply academic gathering of artists and scholars focused on black art collectives is an unlikely place to cross paths with an internet celebrity. At least it seemed so at first. During opening remarks, Copeland mentioned that the conference’s specific topic allowed for a “fuller understanding of black collectives” specifically and the field generally. This idea of looking at broader vistas from specific perspectives was a common thread throughout the two days of discussions, screenings and performances. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Amalia Pica/Museum of Contemporary Art

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Artist Amalia Pica operates within our communications-saturated milieu. In her first large-scale solo exhibition in the U.S., Pica presents observers with sculptures, installations, drawings and films that explore the intricacies, failures and challenges of communication.

Some of these efforts are carried off with the subtlety and grace of a ballerina on benzodiazepines; “Babble, Blabber, Chatter, Gibber, Jabber, Patter, Prattle, Rattle, Yammer, Yada, Yada, Yada,” with its carousel slides of semaphore flags spelling the work’s title, is a touch on the nose—literal visual communication! Image as language, ponderous, slow and practically unreadable in its esoteric nature!—but isn’t that the intrinsic fate of messages about messages? Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Jason Lazarus/Museum of Contemporary Art

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18e8eJasonLazarus_20130318_02A flash of light. You close your eyes. The bright glow lingers for a moment, no longer there, but not yet vanished. The voices of the ninety-nine percent reverberate in the galleries of the Museum of Contemporary Art—an afterimage of the tumultuous demonstrations of 2011. “If you are not angry, you are not paying attention.” “You should be here #OccupytheHood.” “Class war ahead.” “This is a universal revolution.” “Wake up.” The cardboard protest signs hang silently on the wall. A museum plaque announces that, if interested, you may check out a sign for the duration of your visit. Please just notify an attendant.

But few people seem to do so.

The protest-sign archive, titled “Phase I/ Live Archive,” is one part of Jason Lazarus’ multimedia solo show at the MCA. Lazarus began “Phase I/ Live Archive” as an artist-in-residence at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Moved by the revolutionary zeal of Occupy Wall Street, the artist invited students to re-create the handmade protest signs. Collecting images from Facebook and Twitter, the participants traced the activist slogans with black marker and spray paint. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962/Museum of Contemporary Art

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Kazuo Shiraga, "Work BB 45," 1962. Private collection, courtesy of Paul van Esch & Partners

Kazuo Shiraga, “Work BB 45,” 1962. Private collection, courtesy of Paul van Esch & Partners


“Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949–1962” is an exhibition forged in the fires of the Second World War. Assembled by former Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art chief curator Paul Schimmel, this globe-spanning assortment of works establishes the mutually defined conditions of creation and destruction as a novel, cohesive and, until now, underappreciated approach to postwar art-making.

There’s tremendous depth of feeling present in this show’s stunningly diverse offerings. Whether in the slashed and scarified surfaces of Italian artist Lucio Fontana’s monochromatic “Spatial Concepts” or in the blood-red entrails of Kazuo Shiraga’s “Wild Boar Hunting,” the physical and psychic devastation wrought by the war’s inhuman ravages are writ large upon the gallery walls. But beneath palpable anguish and desperation there lays a considerable amount of hope. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Color Bind/Museum of Contemporary Art

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Rudolf Stingel

“Color Bind: The MCA Collection in Black and White” is like a room full of brilliant introverts: the party doesn’t get interesting until each is engaged on its own terms. The premise is simple: all artworks contain black, white or both, in MCA curator Naomi Beckwith’s first thematic exhibition culled from the museum’s permanent collection. It seems the guests at this gathering don’t have much to talk about beyond the black-tie dress code. Segregated are the sociological-minded artists—Adrian Piper and Kerry James Marshall—from the aestheticians—Robert Ryman and Ad Reinhardt.
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Eye Exam: Top Art Picks for 2012 in Chicago and the Midwest

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By Pedro Vélez

1. The Museum of Contemporary Art

From Heidi Norton’s impressive glass herbariums of common houseplants buried in layers of colored wax to an accessible yet highly competent, and somewhat melancholic, revisionist survey of art made during the culture-wars era in “This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s,” the MCA has placed itself right at the center of the national conversation. And they have done it by transforming what used to be a forgotten elitist institution into an exemplary multicultural operation. It seems the MCA can turn anything it touches into gold these days. Think of satirist Jayson Musson and his first-ever museum performance or the urban excitement produced by Martin Creed’s public kinetic sculpture “MOTHERS,” which has become the most talked-about piece of public art in this city since the dreadful Marilyn—in a good way, of course. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few years from now the MCA is leading the pack. Follow their addictive Twitter handle @mcachicago, which is one of the coolest among all the other museums in the nation. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Paul Cowan/Museum of Contemporary Art

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Papyrus fragments scribbled with writing from over two millennia ago were found in ancient landfill dumps, and stuffed like yesterday’s newspaper into the jaws of mummified crocodiles. These fragments were attributed to a Greek poet named Sappho. Because of the material nature of papyrus, over time her poems split into long vertical strips, dividing sentences into halves and thirds. We don’t know the entirety of most of her poems, but we can see how particular parts of a sentence fit within what remains of the sentences above or below. The rest is speculation, intuition, or invention. Scholars and poets have worked to piece together the fragments into complete poems. In many ways, when we read Sappho now, the translator is given as much credit as the poet herself. In the introduction to one book of Sappho’s poems, a scholar writes of the translator, “It is exact translation; but in its composition, the spacing, the arrangement of stresses, it is also high art.”

And this is the brilliance of the fragment. A fragment can grab at much more than the mass of itself. It is distilled, and moonshine-strong. Paul Cowan’s “Sign Paintings” are mostly primed white canvases where each sparse swath of color or shrugged brushstroke is a fragment, plucked from the whole and tenuously dangled into place. As viewers, we are left with perilous guesswork. Our eyes and brains work at full throttle to fill in the gaps and sync the whole thing together.

There is a particular style present in contemporary painting which one sees a lot of in Chicago. It’s a style that a friend and I have termed: “Squiggle-fits.”

You’ll recognize it when you see it: quick, meaningless fits of colorful hieroglyphics pushed around on canvas in layers of varying density. Many of them are stunning, but almost all of them are reminiscent of the decoy artworks in New Yorker cartoons, where someone is at home or in the office and there are drawings of paintings on the walls behind them. These drawn paintings are squiggles and dots that imply an artwork is on the wall. They are stand-ins for actual paintings, or “paintings” of “paintings.” Read the rest of this entry »

Eye Exam: Handmade Art for the Holidaze

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By Jason Foumberg

I’m a fan of skipping the line at Old Navy and buying from local artists for the holidays. Even atheists can partake.

For the Kitchen

Placemat by Karolina Gnatowski

ThreeWalls, one of Chicago’s best showcases of local emerging artists, offers a chance to creatively dress up your dining-room table while supporting its dynamic programming. The holiday edition of their Community Supported Art series includes a placemat, a bowl, a cup and a plate, all created by Chicago-based artists in a limited edition of thirty. Karolina Gnatowski’s placemat humorously takes into account the role of “place,” with arms and hands that reach toward the floor, thereby completing the circle among diner, dinner and home. Mindy Rose Schwartz’s dribble cup cheekily pokes a hole in the concept of “functional objects,” whereas a bowl by reclaimed-wood worker John Preus and a plate by noted sculptor Christine Tarkowski are so visually stylized they may end up on a collector’s shelf rather than a kitchen cabinet. In 2004, the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum produced an exhibition titled “Design(does not equal) Art: Functional Objects from Donald Judd to Rachel Whiteread.” ThreeWalls’ current CSA adds a chapter to that alternative history of contemporary art/design. Try out your new place-setting at a ThreeWalls holiday meal on December 15 at the Stew Supper Club. $400 for the complete place-setting, and $100 for the holiday meal, at

Lillstreet’s thirty-seventh annual holiday exhibition focuses on ceramic objects and sculptures by more than twenty-five artists, ranging from traditional to experimental takes on classics like plates, mugs and teakettles. Through December 31 at Lillstreet, 4401 North Ravenswood. Read the rest of this entry »

Old Glory: EXPO Chicago Plans to Return Chicago to the Art Fair Majors

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Tony Karman

It’s been some time since Chicago was a major player on the international art fair scene. First the International Art Exposition and, later, Art Chicago, were standard-setters in the eighties and nineties, though as Art Chicago moved out of its longtime home in Navy Pier’s Festival Hall, a gradual decline led to its cancellation, under the name Next Art Chicago, earlier this year. EXPO Chicago, the product of longtime Art Chicago administrator Tony Karman, is now attempting to tap some of Art Chicago’s early prestige with a return to Navy Pier and a set-up that is, as Karman says, “respectful to the work that’s put in it.”

“Festival Hall at Navy Pier was built in large part because the art fair meant so much there was no way they could replace it,” says Karman. “So with that as a foundation there’s a way to tap a bit of nostalgia and to put a new varnish on what an art fair or an art exhibition looks like for 2012 and beyond.” Studio Gang, the architecture and design studio of MacArthur “genius grant”–winner Jeanne Gang, has designed an interior for the festival that is modeled off of the city’s urban grid, with the 120 booths of participating galleries bisected by walkways and a wide diagonal “avenue.” Karman says that capping dealers and galleries at 120 was done to maintain “quality over quantity” and prevent EXPO from turning into a mega-fair. Read the rest of this entry »

Art Break: Chicago Art News Bites

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By Jason Foumberg

Galleries Open

Gilad Ratman at Aspect Ratio

AdventureLand (1513 North Western) was co-founded by artist Tony Fitzpatrick and his new series of etchings inaugurated the exhibition program, which is managed by Perry Casalino. AdventureLand will open Mariano Chavez’s solo show in October.

Aspect Ratio (119 North Peoria, unit 3D) opened in the former Spoke Gallery space. Co-founders Jefferson Godard and Jenna Feldman will feature a program dedicated to contemporary video art. Work by Gilad Ratman (will represent Israel in the 2013 Venice Biennale) inaugurates the program, and will be followed by Bryan Zanisnik, Xavier Cha, Chelsea Knight, Glen Fogel and Guy Ben-Ner.

Queer Thoughts (1640 West 18th) opened in Pilsen and is dedicated to promoting “a post-identity practice.” Co-founded by Luis Miguel Bendaña and Sam Lipp, the program includes, so far, work by Drew Olivo, Alexine Haynes and Pia Howell. Read the rest of this entry »