“There are only two seasons in Chicago,” reads the poster pasted on a utility box, “Winter and construction.” The last time that I encountered the work of Dont Fret in the wild there was snow on the ground. Summer finds the artist moving from works on the street back into the gallery with little difficulty, but some trepidation.
At Johalla Projects, a group of works on paper cover one wall, each of them functioning individually, but all fitting together as a conceptual whole. Mixed in are purposely ham-fisted, muddy-colored abstractions with phrases like “Hi, I’m an idea based painting” or “I like his early work better.” These are perhaps a nod to the “zombie formalism” debates from last year and including a good bit of the artist’s own anxiety about his place in the art ecosystem. He needn’t worry about the art world silliness. Dont Fret is still at his best in his depictions of Chicago life and Chicagoans. The details and insights in his art can only come from years spent observing the changes to the city and the people, and from those quiet moments of profundity that come from a history of experience.
Aptly, the best works in “Signs of the Times” deal with the changing fabric of the city, especially post-recession as the economy booms for some while others struggle hard, pressured by gentrification and rising costs of living. “Exciting new real estate opportunity!” announces a mock ad across the bottom of one work while the citizens of Dont Fret’s world go about their lives in a scene above. Typical Chicago two-story buildings of brick and siding sit side-by-side, while a new condo building is constructed on the left from steel girders. One man crouches abjectly near the fabric wrapped Rent-a-Fence construction site, a thought bubble reading: “In my head I always figured that overall, end of the day, people would be more willing to help.” Next door, other characters argue about gluten-free beer. In Chicago, Dont Fret expertly captures the current situation of simultaneous abundance and famine. (Abraham Ritchie)
Through July 31 at Johalla Projects, 1821 West Hubbard.
Elliot J. Reichert is a Chicago-based curator, critic, and editor. He is a currently Curator of Contemporary Art at the Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana Unversity, and Hatch Projects Curatorial Resident at the Chicago Artist Coalition. Formerly, he was Art Editor of Newcity and Assistant Curator at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University. His writing has been published in The Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of Visual Culture, and Newcity.