Exhibitions that fall under Chicago Artists Coalition’s Hatch Projects initiative run the gamut in thematic cohesiveness. While the work is usually thoughtful and well-crafted, the premise of Hatch—a jury selects and provides a stipend for a curator who is then invited to select from a roster of paying juried artists to put together an exhibition—can make CAC shows appear to be more a sum of parts than a distinct whole. In “The Strange Fields of This City,” curator Greg Ruffing proves an exception to this premise, crafting the disparate approaches of three artists—William Camargo, Haerim Lee and Alejandro Waskavich—into a concise and urgent exhibition.
As the exhibition’s title suggests, the fabrication of physical space is a thread that runs through each artist’s work. Waskavich’s linoleum cut prints of sites such as “Main Street, USA” and the “Field of Dreams Movie Site” are austere commentaries on Midwest essentialism and the ways that media fetishizes it. How sites are constructed becomes a literal concern in Lee’s large photorealistic paintings of developers and brokers overlooking architectural scale models. Lee’s “New City”—no relation to this publication—features a solitary hand gesturing at a spate of miniature high-rises and uses perspective in such a way to make the work’s sentiments on God-complexes explicit. Camargo’s hanging oversized telephone pole signs (complete with tear-away phone number posters) are the most direct commentary on the role of urban development, with one post reading “WE BUY HOMES FOR $$$$$ WHERE PEOPLE OF COLOR WILL BE DISPLACED!!!”. (The included phone number directs you to a disconnected line.)
In nearly all the works, what is present is a marker for what is absent. Lee’s paintings of the whitewashed William Walker mural at Missionary Baptist Church in Cabrini-Green, Waskavich’s scenes that blur archetype and real, and Camargo’s figureless photographs of domestic Chicano sites all point at power’s dialectics of invisibility and omnipresence. By avoiding didacticism, for the most part, the viewer is left to conclude the artist’s intention through discreet suggestion. While this can create a more ambiguous political message, the overall effect is one assuredly of our times, in which art has become a tool to be weaponized, a message to reveal hidden structures of power, and perhaps most importantly, a survival strategy in its own right. That this is the final Hatch exhibition before the CAC’s upcoming relocation away from the rapidly gentrifying West Loop makes this particular exhibition all the more potent. (Chris Reeves)
“The Strange Fields of This City” shows through June 14 at Chicago Artists Coalition, 217 North Carpenter.