Galleries in the Chicago art scene have been stuck in a rut for quite some time, as they try to display art that is appealing to those who appreciate the expression and creation of art in addition to those who want to purchase collectable contemporary art. Then there are galleries that have decided to display the odd, the quirky and the kitschy and target a different audience entirely. Two fairly new galleries come to mind on this last point: DvA Gallery in Lincoln Park and Rotofugi’s gallery in West Town.
A brief jaunt through DvA’s exhibit this year is like a trip on the brown acid. February’s “Valentine’s Day Massacre” show featured Warholesque pop art, mixed-media sculptures with construction paper and baby dolls, paintings of aliens and screen prints of gangsters. The following month’s show, “My Ink Runs Cold,” featured comic-book style prints and ink drawings. Fast forward to August’s “Alter Ego Show,” and it’s hard to decide if the gallery has digressed or found its niche. Erin Norlin’s paintings of celebrities, including a Dali-style Angelina Jolie and George Clooney eating a hot dog, almost seem as if they belong in the poster section of Spencer’s Gifts rather than in an art gallery with a $350 price tag. But maybe it’s that three-digit price tag, combined with the absurdity of the themes, which make this art so approachable to the art-phobic public. Or maybe it’s the keg beer that owner David van Alphen always serves at his openings. Whatever the case, he has successfully created an atmosphere for people who like art but don’t necessarily know what they like about it. A visit to DvA’s Web site shows that the public is definitely responding. At least half of the pieces in each show have sold.
Across town, designer toy store Rotofugi’s gallery stands out among the alternative West Town art spaces. Aesthetically it’s similar to any other small gallery; it is located in a single storefront adjacent to the store’s retail space and has stark white walls for art to be displayed. But openings here are far from normal. Hipsters and toy enthusiasts cram into the space and spill out onto the sidewalk along Chicago Avenue. Some are there to view the art, but most are there to support their artist friends, who are usually young, involved in the graffiti and/or hip-hop scene and fairly unknown. The art varies from custom-painted toys, such as this past summer’s “Teddy Troops” show, to the gangster clown paintings at November’s “MAD” show to last week’s “Love Bites!” plush-toy release. You’d think among all of the chaos, no one would even notice the fact that there is artwork being displayed, but the best pieces are always sold within the first hour of an opening. Rotofugi’s art may be geared toward a specific genre, but toy collectors aren’t the only customers. There’s something about the universal appeal of a toy that opens up the gallery’s demographic much wider than any other genre-specific gallery, and much like DvA, it is functioning as a space to reel in people who didn’t necessarily know they were interested in art.
Without posing ancient philosophical questions about what defines a piece as “art,” let me ask you this: Is the quality of art undermined by its medium? Is a custom-painted toy, with a phenomenal color palette, extreme attention to detail and a cohesive concept a lesser piece of art? Or more importantly, is the quality of art undermined by its location? Because galleries such as DvA and Rotofugi are considered “lowbrow” by some due to their kitschy concepts and love of the absurd, does that determine the worth of the works of art they display? If one of Norlin’s paintings were hanging at any one of the West Loop galleries, would the price tag double, if not triple?
Asking these questions is like playing a game of Devil’s Advocate, though, because these galleries exist to a) display art that may not be found elsewhere in Chicago and b) provide an outlet for alternative artists who may not feel their art fits properly with other galleries around town. And for now, both galleries are riding a wave of success that shows no signs of waning any time soon. When was the last time you saw a line wrapped around the corner to get into a gallery on Franklin? DvA Gallery had one in July.