The 20th Annual Evanston + Vicinity Biennial opened its doors on Sunday to a world of works that hang, protrude, stand, wipe, light up and may require watering.
Forty years after the first Evanston + Vicinity Biennial was held in 1970, submissions for the open-call exhibition continued to rise, up nearly forty percent from last year, indicating this juried show is still an important showcase for emerging and veteran artists alike. Of the roughly 570 local artists who submitted works, only forty-seven artists and roughly sixty works made the cut. John Himmelfarb, an American painter, sculptor and printmaker, and Julie Rodrigues Widholm, the Pamela Alper Associate Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, juried the exhibition, reviewing the submissions digitally, and narrowing them down to a broad range of painting, sculpture, drawing, installation art, mixed media and photography. “The vibrancy and diversity of Chicago’s large community of artists was reflected in this year’s submissions,” said Rodrigues Widholm, who spent nearly forty hours pouring over hundreds of digital images. Himmelfarb felt the submissions were both visually and conceptually strong, and though certain pieces were difficult to review in a digital format, the pieces they believed might be risky, were quite successful in the space.
Rodrigues Widholm said in making her selections she “was looking for works that had an unexpected quality and a relevance to contemporary art discourse along with a strong visual impact.” But here, the unexpected is found in the most familiar. The objects and spaces we use and pass through in our everyday lives, and our relationship to them, are reconsidered and transformed through scale, context, editing and material. Bill Frederick, winner of the Morgan-Blake Fellowship awarding a two-week residency at the Ragdale artist retreat, plays with this very sense of place, in his meticulously crafted, photo-like ink on paper, “Cap Auto Block.” The quiet desolate space of a parking lot and gas station under a boundless sky appears virtually abandoned, except for the solitary shadow of a figure in the central foreground, directly in line with the viewer, standing in quiet observation.
Recent SAIC MFA grad Younghwan Choi, one of three winners of a $500 Juror’s Award, contrasts the natural world with artificiality of the urban environment in his untitled installation juxtaposing a live tree—reliant on watering and sunlight—with an exact mirror image made to scale from recycled pop cans and steel. Duk Ju L. Kim conflates corporeal and mechanical in her painting “Heaven,” another Juror Award winner, in which pipes and cogs in fleshy pinks and steely grays are punctuated with teeth-like shapes, overlapping to form a grid through which peer two bright blue eyes. SAIC MFA grad Travis Wyche won for his “Self-Portrait as Cosmongonic Myth,” a tower-like structure of collaged anatomical, botanical and geological textbook illustrations and xeroxes, once sterile and instructional, and now the visual makings of a personal manifesto.
Of a number of installation pieces selected this year, a few of them strike a cord within the post-economic-crisis America of 2010, a country trying its best to reassess and scale back. It is in this climate that Aron Gent’s seven-foot paper bag, titled “Principles of Bagging #2,” gives the grocery bag a new and (dare I say it) thrilling grandeur. Although it is similar to Alex Hay’s 1968 five-foot paper-bag replica in fiberglass, now on view at the Whitney Museum, the subject lends itself to reproducibility. What’s in it? It hints at the large promises and hazy daydreams of the brief time between purchase and consumption. In Christopher Bradley’s installation, “We’ll be the Jolliest Bunch of Assholes This Side of the Nuthouse” an artificial Christmas tree adorned with lights is tied to a car roof rack and hung on the wall. Here, the warm and fuzzy memories of bringing home a holiday tree seem an absurd and excessive mess of stringed lights and branches, mounted to the wall like a stuffed deer.
Established Chicago photographer Scott Fortino uses a precise editorial eye in “Fighter Jet, Mathematics Classroom,” to reexamine the rigid and bare classroom in a diptych-like composition—one-half chalk-smudged blackboard, the other, a tacked up piece of line paper with a hand-drawn jet. Flat and linear, these elements are remnants of creative output confined to a tight, structured space, calling to mind Goethe’s belief that though “one can be instructed in society, one is inspired only in solitude.”
Though a few abstract gems can be found, the works in the Biennial are largely representational, as Rodrigues Widholm noted, “It was interesting to find artists of all ages address longstanding genres such as the figure and the landscape, yet each in their own unique way.” With many biennials today serving as a barometer for art market trends and art fairs hosting curated events and projects, these large public showings are not always the most straightforward reflection of the contemporary art world. Evanston + Vicinity Biennial presents a slice of today’s local artists thoughtfully and free from limiting themes and agendas, leaving the “unexpected” to the works themselves.
The 20th Evanston + Vicinity Biennial shows at the Evanston Art Center, 2603 Sheridan, Evanston, through June 27.