Community-based actions and collaborations are distinct traits of Chicago art’s scene. As the new form of public art, bearing no resemblance to the hulking steel monsters that preside in our municipal plazas, they include practices fermented in the grassroots political era of the 1960s and continue today under the banner of pedagogy, which is a strangely academic term for something that involves many beyond the ivory tower. Social sculpture became the key phrase in the 1960s, initiated by German artist Joseph Beuys, to provide the theoretical groundwork for an art form centered on people and actions, not materials and aesthetics. The art of inclusion swiftly took hold in Chicago with the help of several key figures, and many today teach at our universities, for socially engaged art often features an educational effort. One trailblazer in this arena was Michael Piazza, who, for close to thirty years until his death in mid-2006, spurred community initiatives in prisons, with the mentally disabled, in parks and on the streets.
The record of Piazza’s varied projects, spanning decades, is currently collected and on view at the College of DuPage, and the legacy of his actions and collaborations ripple through the lives of his friends, collaborators and students. In one of his workshops, at the juvenile detention center, Piazza helped the participants explore their newfound bound way of life in conceptual terms, beyond painting or drawing. For instance, the sculpture “Lot” from 1995 is a round poker table with handcuffs drilled around the perimeter standing in for the prison poker players. Such objects were exhibited in the first-ever art reception held in the detention center and attended by the public. “Lot” helped the prisoners think through what exactly constitutes the notion of fun while incarcerated, and it also presented outsiders, or the public, with an idea of what “community” meant on the inside.
Piazza’s collaborators did not always take the form of his family, friends or fellow artists. Jim Duignan, co-curator of the retrospective exhibition, called Piazza’s life and art “a seamless, uninterrupted action.” For Piazza, living in Logan Square also meant making art there, which meant connecting with the neighborhood’s residents, some of whom were in the juvenile prison where he vitalized the art programming. He inspired the idea that living can be artful by simple creativity, such as creating a connection where none had previously existed. This could include initiating conversation and making introductions, or a festival in the park. Most of the art objects on view also push this notion of readymade objects that simply need to be brought together. Collage and assemblage are the results of this process, a literal fusion of art and life.
Piazza’s longtime colleagues, including Duignan, Bertha Husband, Brian Dortmund (all co-curators of the exhibit) and wife Laura Piazza came to loathe the term “collaboration,” sensing that it was a misused idea among artists. From then on they would refer to their projects as “log-rolling,” an activity that required the same amount of balance from all workers in order to keep afloat. It was around this time that Piazza took part in founding Axe Street Arena, a gallery and social space at the Milwaukee, Diversey and Kimball intersection. This served as home base for Piazza’s projects—which he would probably never term “his” projects, but rather the community’s—including an exhibition for graffiti artists that brought together many of the city’s taggers, most of whom were familiar to each other only by their tags, not faces. Axe Street Arena is remembered as a hotbed for the new type of social sculpture. In 1998, nine years after Axe Street closed, the newly formed collaborative art group Temporary Services, now based in Rogers Park at Mess Hall, kicked off their exhibition program with a memorial to Piazza and company’s old Logan Square space.
It seemed Piazza was always a sort of revolutionary of the disenfranchised, giving voice to those who many would rather never hear from, such as prisoners and graffiti artists, and those who have no platform. One project was simply making a copy machine available to people producing zines and other DIY literary ventures. The cost of copying was their only overhead, and so Piazza erased that burden. Duignan explained that through these communal interactions, Piazza was breeding the type of city he wanted to live in; like an underground alderman, he picked up the community’s interests and facilitated their progression into shapely, lovely things.
Piazza’s subjects—gangs, prisoners, graffiti—may seem beyond repair, and his projects may seem counterproductive to the practice of “art.” But it was exactly this quality of stroking against the grain that turned on other like-minded artists, and in the end produced more and more self-motivated individuals. Much of his writing and his legacy deal with overthrowing the deathly trappings of consumer capitalism, and in this way he was a theorist of punk attitudes, and a composer of mute voices. In Piazza’s own words: “It is best to listen to the many voices that until now have been silenced.”
The Work of Michael Piazza shows at the Gahlberg Gallery at the College of DuPage, 425 Fawell, Glen Ellyn, (630)942-2321, through April 19.