By Michael Workman and Jason Foumberg
It’s purely by accident that this year’s edition of our annual showcase of Chicago’s emerging artists ended up focusing almost exclusively on such “newer” art forms as photography, video and curation. Accidental, but entirely appropriate, since the newly reborn Art Chicago and associated shows at the Mart will offer no shortage of painting and sculpture as the city surges with communal art appreciation, at least for a week.
Along with COMA co-director Annika Seitz, E.C. Brown may have single-handedly kept alive the original spirit of the venerated Chicago apartment gallery—not as a cynical way to exploit the “avant-garde” aura by posing anti-commercial for mainstream success, but as a place of communal joy and experimentation among fellow artists and like-minded lovers of the imagination. Born in San Diego, Brown stayed until his early twenties, attending San Diego State, where he studied as a painter. It was a school, he jokes, on “Playboy’s top ten party school list.” He came to Chicago for graduate school on the recommendation of professors who thought he could use the exposure of living in a different part of the country. The multidisciplinary elements of the University of Illinois’ program were also a strong draw. It wasn’t long before his appetite for art led him beyond his academic interests to establishing connections in the local art culture. A grad student whose studio he took over recommended him to one of the “Uncomfortable Space” galleries for work. “Once I got in, I gallery-sat at [the now defunct] MWMWM. Originally, I was planning on becoming an assistant, but I didn’t know how to sink my teeth into this stuff and it was intimidating, because I thought I just didn’t understand it. It gave me a good idea of what I didn’t want to be doing.” After graduating with a studio art degree in 1996, he wandered awhile, not sure what gallery his work would fit in with, and not receiving the kind of support from faculty that he expected.
“One thing I didn’t really groove with was the large scale of the work I’d seen at UIC. Very expensive, very large. Labor had to be farmed out to manufacturers and there were crazy problems, like storage, afterwards. I thought that was way too much expense and wasted material for an idea.” Eventually, he stopped visiting galleries and started hanging out at record stores instead, especially a place in Wicker Park called the Quaker Goes Deaf [also now defunct]. He realized that it was in record stores that he found himself looking at images the most. “I came up with an idea—they’re pretty casual there—what if I made these little paintings the size of a CD case and worked them into their used section, which is where I thought people would flip through them the most.” He came in every six weeks with a new series and occasionally even sold a few. It clicked. Liking the casualness of showing his work in record stores—and taking a page from the apartment galleries that were cropping up at the time—he organized his own first apartment exhibition with friends in 1996. “With the exception of Mindy Schwartz, we didn’t have shows going on elsewhere and that seemed to be the mindset of the gallery shows. If you can’t get into galleries, you just make your own. It had a little bit of that badge of shame to it, it was an act of desperation.”
In 2004, he found a “crappy-looking Xerox flyer” for an apartment show at the Bridgeport Museum of Modern Art (BMOMA), then run by Chris Uphues. “Looking at that flyer, I knew it would be super-casual, but I also knew that it would be a good time.” It flipped his understanding of apartment galleries on its ear: Uphues was already represented by a gallery, “so it couldn’t look like an act of desperation anymore.” Brown met Uphues and offered to build a Web site to help him promote the shows. They did three together. Simultaneously, Brown organized and loosely began curating shows on his own in Chicago and Kansas City, including an exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center. “I really began to think about the stigma of artists as curators, and thought, ‘Well, it’s really inappropriate for me not to have myself in these shows, because that’s how they come into being.’ I balance it out by giving the artists a lot of freedom, I don’t go to their studios and select work.” At the time, Uphues was finishing with BMOMA and moving to Williamsburg in New York. At first Brown thought he’d take over his apartment and the BMOMA program as is, but he found a bigger apartment and decided to move the whole project into the new space, re-christening it as the California Occidental Museum of Art (COMA).
Now represented by Lisa Boyle Gallery, Brown views COMA as “a working template, something that normalizes this intermediate level between academic art and gallery art. All these artists, they need deadlines, they love reasons to get together, they like to toast each other’s completed work. And they like to see it on a much more casual level, not everything the artist does has to be a full-blown show with a lot of pressure.” Complete lists of Brown’s efforts, recent and historical, are available at his home online at www.ecbrown.org; links are also included to the COMA site, www.occidentalmuseum.org, with regular updates on future exhibitions.
E.C. Brown’s partner in the COMA venture, Annika Seitz sees strong parallels between the gallery as creative social space and her own work as a collaborative project with her audience. Born in the Chicago suburb of Harvey, Seitz lived in the nearby Hazelcrest until she was 5, then her father moved the family to Mentor, Ohio, just east of Cleveland, until the age of 13. They moved again to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, where she attended high school and later the University of Wisconsin. “They make ice machines in Manitowoc,” she recalls, conjuring the whimsy that’s part of her appeal. “My undergraduate degree was in German literature, but I wound up taking painting and drawing and silk-screening. I took one art class a semester at UW. I was first up a rock ‘n’ roll kind of girl, I played in a lot of bands in college and drank a lot of beer. I personally identified myself as a musician and then an artist. I was interested in culture, social interaction, anti-elite-type situations. ‘Artist’ to me seemed like such a heavy term that once I got past that, I started really making work that I could deal with.” For Seitz, that involved an understanding of art as viewed through the lens of language. “In a lot of ways, because it’s mutable, it’s what you want it to be and so a term only carries as much weight as you give it and only carries the connotations that you give it when you embody it.”
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Seitz went to Frankfurt, Germany on a Fulbright for a year before returning to Madison for another year. It was in October of 1998 that she finally decided on Chicago. “I had a brother and sister who lived in town. I knew I needed to get out of Madison; it was easy to move here and live in their living rooms for awhile. I’ve done a lot of couch surfing.” She played in rock bands, worked temp jobs and, while working in the development office at IIT, she decided to go back to school. “I could either go do the post-bac at the Art institute or I could make my own at UIC. So, that’s what I did. I went to UIC as an undergraduate pursuing a second bachelor’s degree. I never got the second bachelor’s, I just went and designed my own post-baccalaureate program. It was really about establishing relationships with people who knew more than me.” She was two years in the undergrad program before receiving acceptance to the graduate program in 2004. She went on to leave with an MFA. It was during her time there that she started making video installations, a medium that defines her work to present day. “I start out saying, ‘I’m going to create an environment, create an ambience to sit in, gel, chill, notice or be in.’ It’s very of the moment, very much about being present and just being in one place at one time.” Exhale. “I went to India—it’s no secret, I’m kind of a hippy. I halfway subscribe to Buddhist lines of thought—Buddhist is one of those heavy words, a label, a word that I don’t necessarily want to use to describe myself right now.” But it’s the concept of the present moment that appeals to her, the idea of “nowness” and the implied question as to how one should live the good life that are paramount in her art and philosophy.
Her visit to India was a turning point, flying into Delhi and then to Kashmir for two and a half weeks. She took a two-day bus ride 300 miles over the Himalayas to a border town, down through the hill stations and then along the west coast. Then it was time to return home. Needing a place to live when she came back, a mutual friend of hers and E.C. Brown’s, who was moving to California, offered up her apartment. Seitz had known Brown since she moved to Chicago in 1999, had been in one of his shows and enjoyed discussing art with him, so it seemed a good fit. It wasn’t long before COMA was born. “I’m kind of a natural hostess. I take after my mother—I’m always trying to feed people and make sure they’re comfortable. It brings me pleasure to see people having a good time at COMA on my dime. What could be better? For me, COMA is about community and enjoying each other’s company as people with similar interests, but without the posturing that happens. Not that I’m against a little posturing once in a while.”
COMA has clearly had an impact on her own work as well, focusing her on the communal and event nature of art-making. For “Feeding the Beast,” for instance, with Alex Killough, she arranged a closed-circuit feed of what was happening on the stove in the kitchen, which then played on the television in the living room. “Meanwhile, the smells were wafting into the living room from the kitchen, we’re preparing nine courses and each course came out with Dixie cups, we passed them around, and it was all color-coordinated with the walls we painted throughout the apartment. It was a very happy thing.” Seitz keeps a Zen, yet informative, Web site of all the fun at www.banannika.com.
Anni Holm may be one of the hardest-working artists in Chicago. Her “Getting My Name Out” project features an endless list of people holding signs with her name written on them from places near and far all across the globe. Her “Photo ID” project features self-portraits from identity cards, delving into the idea of image as identity, a project uniquely connected to Chicago, the birthplace of the modern ID card at the 1893 Columbian World’s Exposition as a way of preventing admission fraud. And that’s just to name a few of her ongoing projects, all fully indexed and compiled on her Web site at www.anniholm.com.
Born in Støvring, about ten kilometers outside of Randers, Denmark, in 1977, she grew up on a farm. Her grandfather used to paint, but art wasn’t something that she was encouraged to explore or to even entertain as a possible career. “The Danish school system is very different from the American school system. It’s part of your curriculum for a long time, you have to take all these art classes. Through all that, my dad was pushing for me to go to business school. It’s very much like you have to have a job that puts food on the table,” she recalls. “It was silly, a waste of time. It wasn’t something real.” After graduating the Danish equivalent of high school, at the age of twenty, she went to a “folk high school,” Krabbesholm Art College in Skive, an institution unique to Danish education. “It’s an old farm tradition. In the winter the farmers sent their kids there to learn different tasks: the boys would go to learn agriculture and the girls would study for household chores like sewing. But now these schools are different, some are sports, some are arts, some theater. You get more lifetime credit for going there, you go for your own sake.”
She lived there with eighty other students, with ages ranging from 17 to 56, from all layers of society. Some had just emerged from rehab, some were university teachers in need of a hiatus from campus life. For Holm, it was an experiment. Krabbesholm’s focus is art, architecture and design, a place where she could bear down, focus and give her interest in art a chance before deciding to chuck it all and go into business. Right away though, she was hooked. “It was very inspiring, they had guest speakers from New York and other Scandinavian countries, they’d come in and do projects with us.” After four months, her assignment at the Krabbesholm ended and she had to leave. She went back to live with her parents, to a job at her old high school and found herself working such unsavory jobs as cleaning up the boys’ locker room. “It was really the worst thing in the world.” Trying to cope, she organized what she later realized were performance art events—for instance, singing songs at random places throughout the school.
She lasted a month, then found another job, this time at the Amtscenteret Oustruplund in Kjellerup, Denmark, where she worked for a year as a counselor. “It was a place for people who didn’t fit into regular society, so again, people just out of rehab, who had just committed their first crime.” At Oustruplund, she worked with juvenile delinquents and schizophrenics, connecting with people on the fringes of society. “You saw how they were treated and how they treated others. It was a life-learning experience for me. I think it was a matter of observation for me; it’s something that I think back on a lot. I’m interested in these issues that are out there, that people don’t normally think about because they’re hidden away, away from people in their own little layers of society.” While educational, it was also a difficult experience, so she worked at a grocery store just to have a place to get away for a while. After her term at Oustruplund, she looked around and saw all her friends traveling Europe, backpacking, seeing the world. She applied for two jobs, one in Scotland and one in America. The Scotland job was another institution, an experience she was reluctant to return to. Instead, she took a job as an au pair with a couple on Chicago’s North Shore, whom she stayed with for a year and a half.
In 2000, she decided she wanted to go to art school. It was easier to get in, if expensive (Danish higher education is free). “In Denmark, the academy accepts twenty-nine people a year out of a thousand applicants. I went to see Columbia College, and a friend of mine had gone there. And that was it, I decided that I wanted to go there.” She was the only Danish student at the school, a sense of alienation that spurred her to get involved. She started curating shows, even at one point bringing in local art star Adam Brooks to help curate, studied with luminaries Mathew Wilson, Whitney Bradshaw and Peter Hales from UIC. “It was a place where I could get the critique I wanted.”
Holms splits her time as an artist with her duties as a curator and gallery director. By chance a few years back, after graduating from Columbia in 2004, she found herself visiting the Pheasant Run Spa Resort Hotel in St. Charles, where she discovered Orleans Street Gallery. “It’s a really strange space, you walk in and there’s a reconstruction of Bourbon Street in New Orleans. They have the original brick houses with balconies, they have all these fake plants and this soundtrack playing, and the gallery is above that. You go up and you look down over this scene. The gallery had been there about a year when I was in a show there. I met Elise Blue who was the director then when I dropped my work off. A little bit later, I got a call from the owner, who was extending the show I was in and he mentioned that Elise was leaving the gallery.” She snapped up the job a week later. At the same time, she’s a curatorial assistant at the LaSalle Bank photography collection, and also now teaches at Columbia. “I need things to happen,” she jokes. “I think the right opportunity hasn’t been there where I felt I’d just drop everything else and do that one thing. I’m thinking about art ninety-five percent of the time. That other five percent, I’m sleeping.”
Brian Sorg is the older of the two Sorg brothers who are quickly becoming recognized as the last of the first wave of new photographers coming out of Columbia College’s photo department. Born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Sorg lived there until the first grade, when his family moved to Grand Rapids, where he spent his formative years. He went to school at the local community college in 1999 and studied advertising, thinking he would follow in his father’s career footsteps. “I was there and decided to go on and finish my degree at Western Michigan University back in Kalamazoo [in 2001]—there I started to feel like I wasn’t doing anything, it wasn’t right. I was just partying.” He took his “first real art class, it was called ‘Direct Encounter with the Arts,’” taught by a photographer. It was the first time he’d ever considered photography as an art form and “really connected with it.” It was an experience that changed his life; he quickly dropped the accounting classes, transferred out a semester from graduation and moved back to Grand Rapids, where he took a year of photo courses before relocating in 2002 to Chicago and the Columbia College photography program.
It was a necessary transition. Sorg was seeking a like-minded community and a seriousness in his study of photography simply not available at the community college. “There wasn’t a community—there was a small one—but it’s not like it is here, where you have so many people doing so many different things. In Michigan, in those classes it would be me, a couple moms taking pictures of their kids. It felt very hobbyist.” He came to Chicago on the recommendation of a friend. “Nathan Baker was at Columbia, he was from Grand Rapids—he was the hometown hero in photography.”
What makes Sorg’s work unique? His projects tend toward the idea of the photographic image as a way of watching the passage of time, cool and contemplative. It stretches out the moment of seeing available in painting, for instance—where the passage of time in the experience of the painter is compressed into a consumable single moment of looking, and unpacks it. For the past two years he has been recording the life and experiences of “Davey,” a “troubled kid” from a suburb west of Cicero called Stickney, “Polish and Italian with a bunch of Puerto Rican people coming in.” Sorg met Davey on shooting tours in which he’d drive out to the ‘burbs, park and walk around with his camera. “This kid I met there one day, he was skateboarding—I have a background in skating—all through high school I was semi-professional and it’s always an interest I come back to—he was skating so I walked up to him and asked if I could make some portraits of him, and he was like, ‘Yeah, of course.’ It totally caught me, he called me a ‘fag,’ real like ‘gangsta,’ and so I hung out with him for the rest of the day. He lives out in this little suburb and never wants to be at home, he just goes out and wanders.”
At the end of the day, Sorg asked if he could come out and shoot some more pictures, and Davey agreed. They’ve been spending at least one day a week together ever since. The resulting series of images reveal a tender, latchkey adolescence lived under the watchful eye of a serious but sympathetic camera lens. Davey hanging out in his room with his skateboard, or skating in the driveway with his buds. Girls. Video games. Images of the detritus of Davey’s daily life: a half-eaten wheel of pizza slices, framed portraits of Jesus and the Virgin Mary over ancient, faux-gold-leaf wallpaper. Davey shot a handful of the resultant images himself. “It’s been really amazing, I eventually met his family and at first, of course, they were like, ‘Well, here’s this 25-year-old guy from the city taking photos of a 14-year-old boy,’ and I had to get over that. But it’s his transition—he was in eighth grade when I first met him and he’s in high school now. I’ve become like a big brother in a sense to him, trying to explain to him that there’s other things available to him in life. I’d love to do this for ten years. As long as one of us doesn’t move away, I don’t see anything changing.” Brian blogs and posts work new and old on his Web site, www.briansorgfoto.com, where visitors can expect frequent updates on Davey.
Four years younger than Brian, Brandon Sorg’s interest in photography took a different course, though their father’s interest was also a factor for him. “Growing up he always had an old AE1 Canon. I thought every kid had albums and albums of their whole life documented.” Yet, as demonstrated from a photograph of a high-school report card showing A’s in Biology, Calculus and English—and an F in Art—recently posted on his blog at www.brandonsorg.com, Sorg’s interests early on were strictly utilitarian. But then opportunity came knocking. At high school in Grand Rapids, students who accumulated sufficient credits were permitted to take early classes at the local community college. It was at one of those classes in 2003 that he first encountered the idea of photography as an art form. He bought his own camera, a digital quick-shoot, and was hooked. “I thought photography would be a good way to explore a lot of different things without committing to any of them. Y’know, I think physics is cool, it’d be cool to be an engineer, but I could never see myself doing just one thing. I couldn’t see doing it for the rest of my life.”
After graduation, Brian told him he was headed for Chicago and Brandon decided to tag along. It was in his courses with Chicago photographer Paul D’Amato (www.pauldamato.com) that he finally found his direction in an elementally gripping documentary way of looking. It’s a perspective broad enough to encompass travels in places as far afield as Tokyo and Istanbul, or the vacant grit of a Chicago underpass. In his most socially compelling series, “Where Happiness Goes to Die,” Sorg documented the puerile behavior of University of Chicago students letting their hair down after hours. Frequently naked or half-clothed, young students grope and paw in pot-hazed make-out sessions, pose in heels and garters, partying in a scene out of Larry Clark’s “Kids.” Scathing and hypnotically alluring, we watch as youthful beauty suffers the usual injuries of an endless, endlessly cheap despair.
“D’Amato was important to me for two reasons. A lot of the class was about making books, which is a big part of what I do now. When I photograph, I always think about sequencing, and the editing is very important to me. I think about the work in book form and not as hung on a wall. I think the control over the context, these other things that you can bring in, sometimes I get bored with just the photos and I can bring text in.” His books and the images that populate them tell the often personally searching stories of places, events, the people he encounters there and of his own movements through them. “It really is collecting to me, whenever I travel or whenever I go out shooting. I was looking at some photos recently, and I may have a certain memory about some things that I’ve seen and I have no idea if that memory still exists or not, or if it’s the picture I’m remembering. Maybe that’s what my memory is now. That’s the way I feel about those photos my dad took when I was younger. I’ll have certain memories, for instance, an old house we lived in, and it’s a memory I have mainly from having seen those pictures.”
“Oh, just give me a little atomic bomb. Not too much; just a little.” Charles Bukowski spoke these lines in a slow (probably drunk), gruff and almost bored-sounding voice in a 1969 recording. He continued, “Just a little bomb…enough to knock the flowers from a bowl.” The same sentiment, in a similar tone of voice, informs Nathan Baker’s new series of photographic work at Schneider Gallery. The variety of teensy catastrophes includes a spilt can of pie filling in a kitchen, fallen Pottery Barn-style home décor, a toppled barbeque, laundry detergent oozing down the side of a dryer, a bathtub gently spilling over with water and Pepto-Bismol falling out of a medicine cabinet, pink splashed on white tile, in a crime-scene sort of way.
Baker, 28, is from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and moved to Chicago in 2001 to earn a BFA in photography from Columbia College, which he completed in 2004. Since then, Magenta, a Canadian art publisher that notices international emerging photographers, featured Baker’s work in its 2006 book. Back home in Chicago, Baker has been working continuously and contributing his work to the growing scene of startlingly great conceptual photography including the likes of Greg Stimac (also featured in this issue), Jason Lazarus, Brian Ulrich and others.
One point of access into the “Ruptures” series is Heideggerian philosophy, through which Baker claims to have structured his pictures of inconsequential accidents that puncture the solidity of routine existence. The mention of Heidegger tells us the large influence that academia has on artistic practices today. With or without the bookishness, Baker’s pictures touch on some themes that are universal to anyone living an ordinarily ordered life. In several of the scenes, people are present as witness or perpetrator of the accident, and their reactions, or lack thereof, bespeak the apathy of a life lived in quiet desperation— as if this one thing that just went wrong is yet another in the flow of diurnal ups-and-downs, contributing to the bigger picture of spoilage and excess on a global or political scale, much like Bukowski’s “little atomic bomb.”
Greg Stimac documents very specific moments of human action and human traces such as portraits of gun owners (with their beloved guns), temporary roadside memorials, front yard snowmen and, most recently, lawnmower users in their respective yards. Stimac conceives of each set as a series in order to display a range of implicit emotions and behaviors in each object or person. Yet as taxonomic orderings or studies in type, they are incomplete. One of the great things, though, about being an artist with a taste for anthropology is that one need not adhere to scientific codes and statistical procedures. Stimac’s sets of documentary photography are enlightening because they lack strict thoroughness, instead capturing the oddities of subjects that emerge as idiosyncrasies, not as aberrations. Yet as lawns are mowed everywhere and every day, snowmen are formed every winter and roadsides are littered with bottles of travelers’ urine and impromptu memorials, these subjects do not tire—they are what a journalist might refer to as a human-interest story. Stimac’s impulse to organize and classify reinforces the varying degrees of personality manifest in each quotidian action. The open-endedness of Stimac’s approach highlights the uniqueness of his subjects, in contrast to many other photographers’ utopian desire to document every building on the Sunset Strip (Ed Ruscha), every piece of industrial equipment (the Bechers) or every human face on the planet (Thomas Ruff). Stimac’s practice happily and sanely exists in the middle ground between hard-and-fast objectivity and quirky absurdities.
Although it is appealing to understand Stimac’s work within a tradition of conceptual photography, his work usually begins as a reflection of his life and artistic process. Instead of a straightforward biography, Stimac prefers to offer this genesis story: he used to be a hobo, hitching on freight trains and living as a modest nomad in the tradition of the Beats. This is an excellent entryway into his art, for isn’t it curious that many of Stimac’s vantage points are from the street? Perhaps that tossed bottle of piss is the artist’s own. Maybe the roadside markers are the traveler’s meditation on death. Of course, several of the series, such as the campfires or the illicit shooting ranges, present the subjects’ desire for an interior privacy within expansive public spaces. Stimac’s photos overstep this boundary, showing that he is a traveler who knows how to survive on the open road, thus earning his way behind the scenes and into the private lives of his subjects (perhaps as some form of traveler’s street cred).
“Mowing the Lawn” is Stimac’s newest series. Here, various people are documented mowing their lawns with the classic Lawn Boy, the super-deluxe riders, in sprawling open fields, cement-bound squares and gnarly weeded pastures, all hoping for the perfectly homogenous one-inch-thick carpet in the tamed pattern of alternating lines around the homestead, an ideal of suburban fashion. When combined in the art gallery, the group of lawn mowers (both the machines and the people) takes on an extraordinary life, changing from a boring chore into a strange fetish, like lacing up a corset or incessantly biting one’s nails. The natural order of growth is pushed back to a below-average level that displays irrational control and domination in a society that values highly disciplined grooming. And Stimac’s observation runs deeper—as if mimicking the first American settlers or the cowboys always at the edge of the West, contemporary property owners mindlessly perform the displaced memory of mythic Manifest Destiny like a robotic toy stuck in a box.
Greg Stimac earned his BA in photography from Columbia College in 2005, was born in Euclid, Ohio, in 1976, will be the featured 12×12 artist at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in August this year and is planning his next road trip right now.