By Michael Workman
Despite a sloppy downpour, a good-sized crowd gathers outside the Page Brothers Building for Burtonwood and Holmes’ (my friends and coworkers at Bridge) installation, “PRODUCT Placement.” Outside, artists are clustered in groups beneath the construction platform that skirts the building, smoking, talking about Chicago art. Inside, the walls are covered with junk mail advertising everything from toothpaste to TVs, and in the middle of the smallish room sits a huge replica, constructed entirely of cardboard, of an Abrams A1 tank. It too is covered entirely in junk mail, little corners of the packing tape used to secure it to the surfaces curling in the humidity. Their installation is part of the Department of Cultural Affairs “Open Studio” project, a little too “artist in a fishbowl” in its conception, but an opportunity no artist in their right mind would turn down, given the location on the ground floor of the building at the corner of State and Lake Streets, right across from the ABC TV studio.
It’s an admirable project and for this husband-and-wife artist team, a real career booster. Diverging from their original project-sketch renderings in that junk mail was not actually applied to the floor and ceilings as well, the tank doesn’t actually fade “magic-eye” style into the background, but nests comfortably in the bosom of its commercial surroundings. Junk mail was left off the floor since there was no way to give it a protective covering, and it adds some weight to do away with such visual gimmickry in favor of the team’s more straightforward political statement. “When the nation was challenged by terrorist attacks,” they explain in their artist’s statement, “the government’s response to Americans was ‘Go shopping.’ They asked us to do something familiar and boost the economy, which in turn supported the war on terror.”
Everybody knows that wars cost money, and it’s a useful reminder to point out that governments raise that money from those it governs. It’s also laudable to see Chicago city government providing opportunities for artists to comment on the hypocrisies of its federal branch, given the demonstrations of intolerance and willingness to criminalize art reflected in the case of artists such as Steve Kurtz (arrested for possessing benign biological specimens for use in his Bio-art projects). Censorship and the willingness to criminalize speech and expression is a well-established tool of governments like ours, which have slowly drifted into a kind of “soft despotism.” At a time when pundits agree the center has shifted firmly to the political right, it’s worth noting that Chicago, world-renowned for its sometimes self-aggrandizing monumental public sculpture, is still willing to abet the degenerate stuff too. Matter of fact, there seems a real flowering of government willingness to back art, at a level not seen since before the NEA cultural-funding battles of the 1980s. This week, for instance, the Department of Cultural Affairs’ Public Art Program announced the first picks for their “Arts in Transit” program, a unique joint operation between the DCA and the CTA. It’s the first phase in a three-phase project, with twenty-five stations “along the Dan Ryan branch of the Red Line and the entire Brown Line” slated to benefit from the program. Artists have been picked for seven train stops from Sox-35th to 87th on the Red and five from Western to Kimball on the Brown Line. Notables in the first phase of the project include local success stories such as Cody Hudson, Sabina Ott and Josh Garber. A full list of artists announced for the project and more information on the Arts in Transit program overall, as well as a cornucopia of information on the Department of Cultural Affairs myriad Public Art initiatives, can be found online at www.CityofChicago.org/PublicArt.
At Thomas Masters Gallery last Thursday, French ex-pat artist David Gista stood with Tim Anderson before a modest crowd to discuss the interchange of influences and ideas between French and American artists. Paris was the center of the art world long before New York stole it away with the advent of Abstract Expressionism; New York galleries originally became successful by showing French artists, much like Chicago galleries must show New York artists now. It was hard to separate the experience of listening to this history from looking at Gista’s paintings from his “Stranger in a Strange Land” series, images of shadowy, almost noir-like figures wandering the aisles of bookshelves in what resembles a version of Borges’ infinite library. Geographic place, too will be the subject of the upcoming “Fool’s Paradise” exhibition at the School of the Art Institute’s Betty Rymer Gallery, curated by Murphy Dunn and former 1R Gallery cohort (and freelancing art critic), Madeline Nusser. It’s open now, though the reception takes place next week. The lineup includes excellent local and transplant artists such as Rashid Johnson, Jessica Labatte and jon.satrom, each participating in the stated goal of exploring ”the elusive geographic and metaphoric meaning of a particular place.” It should be well worth a visit.
Tom Burtonwood and Holly Holmes show at The Page Brothers Building, 117 North State Street, (312)455-1195, through March 11. “Fool’s Paradise” shows at the Betty Rymer Gallery, 280 South Columbus Drive, (312)443-3703, through September 22.