By Michael Workman, with Michael Weinstein
In a year marked by the tragic death of Ed Paschke, the demise of several key galleries and the frustrating confusion of the art-fair wars, we can only take solace in the quality of the work. Chicago remains a fertile field for emerging artists. In the nurturing spirit of Paschke, here’s to doing our part for helping “emerging” become “established.”
In Oleana, New York, this artist grew up knowing she was two people inside. “We see, feel, hear—we just knew that there were two of us,” explains CarianaCarianne, who changed her single name to legally designate the presence of two people—one Cariana, and one Carianne. Early on, art was a major element of her very personal, very tortured lexicon. “We were six and drawing and we knew then that we could do it, that we could draw. Both of us knew we were artists and that we could do that for some reason.” An avid reader of Nietzschean philosophy, her (their) core effort is to gain validation as two beings in the same physical body, a goal they describe as “not being governed.” If they are recognized as two beings in the same body, an effort CarianaCarianne describes in terms of civil rights, then they will have access to the freedom of an “unregulated body.” Until they are recognized as two, however, she explains, the government will not have an opportunity to give them rights and their single body will continue to define who they are more than the two beings who inhabit it.
If this sounds complicated, that’s partly the point: we of one being do not recognize her form of being as two people in the same body. But for CarianaCarianne, there’s also the problem of how one self gets to know the other self: while it’s a kinder situation in there, as she describes it, than most cohabiting humans are graced with, they are frustrated by their inability to stand outside of each other, something for which art has served as a useful tool. Her performance and installation works are an attempt to give each of her beings a chance to observe the other “performing the body.”
Waking up to milk cows as a boy on his parent’s farm in Shenandoah, Virginia, Dolan Geiman was happy as a clam. They’d spend all day tending to the typical farm work of mending fences and bailing hay. They also kept a Christmas tree farm where they raised 5,000 trees that they’d sell in the winter. In the summer, he’d work long days. “My friends would call me at one or two in the afternoon when they’d just woken up and I’d have been going since seven,” he remembers. His mother is a watercolor artist who paints “really bold animated watercolor landscapes, reminiscent of the area but in bold colors.” They were so poor, she taught him how to paint, and entertained him by “showing us how to make stuff.” His father was a phys. ed. and health teacher who had a summer job with the forest service as an administrator for the Shenandoah Lakes; every summer, he moved the family into a cabin in the woods and Geiman eventually took a job as an interpretive naturalist. He took people on tours of the forest, learning the names of every plant, tree, bird and bug. He’d catch bluegill and perch and show kids how to ink the skins and press onion-skin paper over them to make Japanese Gyotaku prints.
After he graduated high school in 1996, his mother pushed him to enroll at James Madison University, where he was suddenly exposed to a whole new social structure of acceptance as an artist. This life-changing event led him to move around to a few places: New York, where he sold paintings on the street, and then Chicago in 2002. His uncle had seen some of his paintings and invited him out for a weekend to try and sell them at a private reception at his loft on Ashland. The uncle’s friends came over to look and buy, and he started talking with a developer who owned a few properties down the street. “He tears down houses to make condos and I immediately wanted to be like, that sucks,” says Geiman. But they got to talking and soon he’d made a deal with his uncle’s developer friend to live in one of his abandoned houses, a real dive at 1313 Nelson Street, until it sold in exchange for a painting every month. Geiman immediately set to transforming the house into Gallery 13, where he sold paintings and assemblage art. It was at an opening there that he met Ali Walsh, his paramour and business partner who he says he “kind of tricked into helping me out a little bit” with PR, business and promotional work for his art. She called galleries, sent slides out and they split all the art sales down the middle. “It was just dope,” he says, reflecting a relief at his newfound direction that has perhaps influenced his successful line of “rescued clothing.” Making things and making things new marks the difference for him between art and crafts, two distinct types of creative work that he’s long sought to merge. By approaching clothes as he would painting or other mediums, he rejuvenates old clothes with a flair for the effects of aging on their material, applying stitching or a collage that adds new life. That process of natural rejuvenation, the substance of his focus in painting and collage-making, has marked a realization of his own eagerness to save what he can of the things that define him.
The Renegade Tradesman
Cody Hudson recalls his hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin, one hour north of Chicago, as the “home of the outlet mall.” “People say that at least,” he says, taking another swig from his Budweiser 40-ounce. “I don’t know if it’s true or not.” As a kid in Kenosha, Cody was into drawing and skating, even remembering avidly the Pushead illustrations in Thrasher magazine. He made photocopied collages and zines, and when he graduated high school, had to make a decision. College? “When I found out I had to pay $100,000 to go to college,” he recalls, “I thought, no way. That was like rob-the-bank size money.” Instead, he stuck it out at his Piggly Wiggly for three years, drawing and developing his artistic vision, eventually landing a job painting cells for Animagination, an animation studio that produced training videos such as “Sparky the Firedog’s ABCs.” A girl he met while working there suggested he take graphic-design classes at MATC (Madison Area Technical College). “They had commercial-art classes alongside stuff like cooking classes and GED classes, and even mortuary classes where they teach you how to embalm people,” he recalls. That education helped him land jobs that paid enough for rent, but he had bigger plans than Kenosha. Growing up in this town with a population of 100,000, he’d seen the American Motors and other factories in town shut down, their displaced employees leaving to seek work in Madison or Chicago. He moved to Vermont instead, and got bit by the travel bug. In six years, he lived in six different places: from Vermont he came back to Chicago, then to Miami, then Chicago again, San Francisco, Chicago and then New Jersey and then, finally, one last time back in Chicago. “I just kept coming back here,” says Hudson. “It’s close to my family, and it’s the Midwest, I’m just comfortable here.” He’s been here ever since.
But that wanderlust, that ranging, telescoping vision of place and simple embrace of personal experience as its own marker has a reflection in his art. Known simultaneously as an artist and graphic designer, Hudson has also slipped into the role of street bandit, usually in collaborative projects with artists like Mike Genovese or Chris Silva. His graphic-design company, Struggle, Inc., has allowed him to displace the focus of design customers on his “fine art” (as he calls it for lack of a better term), and the anonymity of his street work has allowed him to displace any associations with either. All the visual art that Hudson practices, whether it’s drawing up a logo for a corporate client, coating a panel-mounted archival laser print, transferring decals onto a pair of football helmets, or drawing with a chisel-tip sharpie marker on a doorway or building façade, are all the same to him. But separate somehow, divided and discrete. And maybe that’s the point. “I don’t know if I have any real goal for all this work,” he says. “I’m just really happy to be able to do what I’m doing right now. I’m just really enjoying my life.”
In Kansas City, Jason Lazarus grew up the son of a man who “made the non-nuclear components for nuclear weapons” as an engineer with Honeywell. His family’s emphasis on the practical may have contributed to his decision to enroll in studies for a marketing degree at DePaul University, but at the same time, he also took a job working at the Court Theatre on Ellis Avenue. Though “intensely boring,” he had a chance to put his marketing studies to work, and the day-job nature of his work gave him time to start taking photographs at the Hyde Park Art Center. “I didn’t want my life to be about my 9-to-5 job, but what was cool about Court was how they made contemporary adaptations of classic plays,” recalls Lazarus, who relished the opportunity to watch rehearsals and previews and sit in on business meetings with the theater’s artistic director, Charles Newell. He started to explore the inner workings of his own creative process and realized that he was in need of a conceptual framework, a way to look “not only at what’s outside the window, but at the window frame itself.” He decided to apply at Columbia College and threw together a portfolio for review. With his history as a marketing major and limited photography background, he barely made it—but later, the head of the photography department, Bob Thall, validated his decision by confiding in him that he was “usually on the fence with grad students, but with you I don’t regret it.”
At Columbia, Lazarus found the conceptual framework he’d been seeking, “leveraging ideas and concepts from my studies as self-portrait, and a kind of poetic cultural critique.” But that was just the start. He points to the work of Lee Friedlander as influential, a documentarian whose images always include his own shadow, an element that Lazarus has transposed to the front and center of his own images. His nude self-portraits standing before other artists and art-world figures, such as gallerists, were a way of breaking the taboo of including his own body as the subject of his photographs. Even more recently, he has replaced his body in the images with a concept of himself, often titled “Self-Portrait of the Artist as….” And just filling in the blank: as “the Artist on Vacation,” or as “The Artist Making Something Contemporary.” He has even begun to pull away from including any representative object at all, describing a recent encounter in which he offered to shoot the view out the window of a collector living in the John Hancock building. “It’s a way for me of taking the shadow back out again,” says Lazarus, who has turned his focus instead to everyday objects, such as paper towels. It’s a shift that’s significant for Lazarus in terms of a need to seduce the viewer into the image, something he didn’t have to think of when he was using his camera to transcribe his own life story. It’s for him a simple shift in the window frame needed for a great view, with a criteria for success that pretty much says it all: “My theory is that a great piece of art is something you’ll be able to hang in your bathroom, because you’re going to sit and look at it every day.”
The daughter of a math-teacher father and homemaker mother from Luddington, Michigan, Rena Leinberger never thought art would dominate her life. It was more something she just did, a nagging impulse that lingered in the background. She majored in graphic design at Anderson University in Anderson, Indiana, but realized after only six months in the field that she wasn’t cut out for it. After a stint at a bookstore, she ended up in grad school at SAIC in 1999, finishing in 2002. After that, she tried to stay in touch with it, building walls for the School’s Gallery 2, freelancing design work and teaching classes at Harper College. It was during this time that she turned her full attention to finding her groove with site-specific installation art. “It was kind of a weird time span the year or two after college—I felt people approaching me to give work for shows faster than I could make it. The work didn’t have time to develop on its own.”
She toyed with artist’s books and sculpture and then started translating interior spaces into different materials, doing things like mapping hardwood floors into chewing gum and then into duct tape, pushing against this intuition that somehow her work was grounded in this notion of interior architectures. “I got interested in these little oddities that were overlooked, psychic residues that were left over. In a show I did at Gallery 400, I cast the old door hinges and things sticking up from the floor. I was trying to alter and tweak these aspects of common ordinary domestic objects—I wanted to make these objects darkly comic.” At one point she looked up from her work, however, and realized that she had $60 left in her pocket and all the temp jobs she’d been working were about to end. She packed her things and left Chicago for upstate New York, a town called Tivoli, where she stayed with friends of friends “house-sitting and doing stuff,” then took a job in a day school in Woodstock, where she lasted until she was let go when the school fell on hard times.
That long line of disasters ended with her living in a rented cabin “with squirrels living in the walls” where she fell ill with vertigo and recurring migraines; then, suddenly, her potato series of installations seemed to start making sense. In her installations, they’re tucked under the blankets on a bed or piled in a closet. “I plan to keep going with this potato thing—it’s connected somehow to the earlier installations or investigations into common objects, like with socks and blankets—but potatoes, you put these things in the ground and you’re not sure what they’re going to turn into. They’re just very dependent on the darkness in a very literal way.”
The Activist Decorator
Krista Peel’s first real job, when she was 16, was helping her dad with the work he did for the Frontier Taxidermy Company in Wyoming. Born in Saugatuck, Michigan, her father had met her English-teacher mother when he was stationed in Wyoming with the Air Force. Peel helped him prepare the preserved animal carcasses as a finisher, brushing their eyes, noses and teeth with paint and shellac. “We used lots of burnt umber,” she recalls, noting that Frontier was a company that did displays for the Field Museum, which established a connection for her with Chicago early on. But it took her a while to get here: she first went to study painting and drawing at Casper College while living with her boyfriend, who couldn’t afford to move to Chicago with her so she could attend the School of the Art Institute, where she really wanted to go. In 1994, she made the leap anyway, graduating in 1996. She took a few hiatuses from art-making, even moving back to Wyoming for six months where she lived in a camper in the back of her father’s house and worked as a maid in a hotel called Little America, a job she took “because I liked that movie, ‘Bottle Rocket.’” After another stint in Bloomington, Indiana, where she was considering grad school at Indiana University, she enrolled in an artist’s-residency program where she began to reconsider her notions about painting.
She took a keen interest in art interiors; her work with large-scale painting, after her favorite painter Alex Katz, had proven exhausting in terms of simply moving them from place to place. “Instead, I shifted to tiny paintings on a dollhouse scale, and I was trying to show what I’d do with a room if I had the means.” Her favorite places to visit in the city include Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle at the Museum of Science and Industry and the Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute. In her own miniature work, her goal is to control the viewer’s point-of-view, offering payoffs for taking time to study the details in her box-room constructions, often informed by her interest in light as used by artists such as Robert Erwin and James Turrell. Her goal? “I want to inspire and enchant people, and start them thinking about where they live. It’s great for people to have cool lamps, but everybody should own original artwork too. It’s easy for most people to go out and spend a thousand bucks on a couch but they’ll whine about spending $300 on a painting. Instead of somebody buying a pillow and saying ‘hey, I’ll arrange my whole room around this pillow,’ I want them to buy art and make their whole room about that piece of work.” She cites the recent spate of home-improvement shows, where they’ll “frame a piece of burlap” as obvious culprits in the spread of tastelessness.
Disturber of the Peace
At the present moment of art photography, where everything goes, the most promising tendency is the revival of the documentary. Among the young Chicago practitioners of the new documentary—most of them products of Columbia College—Brian Ulrich is unique in his critical passion, wit and edge. Like other new documentarians, Ulrich uses the modern genre that aims at a comprehensive view of a subject as a base from which to perform operations that expand upon the meaning that he finds in it. The target of Ulrich’s skeptical and sometimes contemptuous eye is the contemporary American individual, locked in a senseless round of work and consumption that appears joyless and absurd through his lens. Ulrich gained visibility through his “Copia” series featuring color shots of dazed shoppers in big-box retail outlets that showed at Peter Miller Gallery and the Museum of Contemporary Art this year. Behind that work were earlier series on commuters, people in the vicinity of trashcans, and shoppers loading their booty into their cars in mall parking lots. Tirelessly productive, inexhaustibly imaginative and always generating new projects, Ulrich is a born situationist rebel, whose work has been published in Adbusters magazine and sometimes pops up in the streets of Chicago when he decides to disturb the cultural peace.