By Alan Pocaro
With a great shock of shoulder-length brown hair and sporting oversized aviator glasses that disguise crisp features on a lithe frame, Robin Dluzen cuts an unmistakable profile. If you’ve spent time in and around Chicago’s art scene, you’ve encountered her earthen-hued artwork, read one of the numerous and insightful reviews she pens, or visited a show she’s curated. During one curious fall season a few years ago, I saw her at every opening I attended for over two months.
Dluzen is one of those relentlessly creative types who keep the gears of Chicago art turning; an individual whose commitment to art is matched only by her love of this city. When I caught up with her on a sunny afternoon in early May, she walked me through “Images on File,” her thoughtfully assembled show on the nature of place and memory at Stuart and Co. Utterly without pretension, Dluzen is clear and direct—Midwestern in the best sense—and can switch effortlessly between discussing the formal values and thematic concerns of the artists in the show to boxing or her beloved Detroit Lions.
In a city where making it in the art scene often means a continuous stream of soul-crushing low-paid temp and part-time work fortified with a healthy dose of bartending, Dluzen’s full-throated embrace of the many-hats approach to building a career is awe-inspiring. Recently, she’s made the enviable transition into full-time creative practice but was gracious enough to spare time to continue the casual back-and-forth banter we enjoy in person and via email.
When was the first time you thought, “yeah, I want to do art, this is something I want to dedicate my life to?”
I’ve been drawing and painting since I was a child, and while I didn’t have a ton of fine-art experiences, I did grow up with a family of makers. My mother is an excellent draftsman, and she did a lot of botanical illustrations during her time as a horticulturist, my father (amongst many other things), has made Windsor furniture for decades, and my paternal grandmother was a self-taught oil painter.
How did you end up in Chicago?
As I was finishing my BFA at Adrian College majoring in Studio Art and English Literature, I applied to the nine best studio-art grad programs in the country, though SAIC was my number-one choice. SAIC accepted me into the Painting and Drawing department, and I moved to Chicago the next fall, August 2008. I’ve been here ever since.
We’ve run into each other on and off for the last six years. One of the reasons I always found it very easy to talk with you was because you’re from Michigan and I’m from Ohio, so there’s a Midwestern culture we share. Can you tell us how being from Michigan has played a role in who you’ve become?
First and foremost, I make artwork about my roots, and my roots are in Michigan. My family’s labor history, and the labor history of the region, are tied to the landscape and the architecture. The combination of industry and natural landscape that defines Michigan is very obvious in my practice.
I know you as someone who wears a lot of hats—artist, writer, curator, and so on. One of the reasons a lot of people give up on a life in art is that they confront the necessity of having a lot going on simultaneously and that it usually offers very little compensation, but you’ve really embraced that approach.
Yes. I love being busy. I wanted a life in the arts, and now I have it. And yes, it’s a low-income field, which makes life harder.
I worked part-time for five or six years as an arts administrator, which was a great way to keep myself immersed in the community, to capitalize on the opportunities that come with being a part of galleries and institutions, and to work with artists I admire. Of late, I made the decision to quit pushing papers as an administrator, and focus instead on what I really want to do, which is to make art, write and create exhibitions.
How does one impact the other? For me, for example, if I’m writing a lot, it’s not going well in the studio, and if it’s going well in the studio, I’m writing very little. Do you have similar experiences?
I’m an artist first. I approach everything else I do through the lens of an artist. I know that there are a lot of art critics who aren’t artists themselves, but I can’t imagine how I would write about art if I wasn’t an artist! The process of pinpointing exactly what’s valuable in other people’s artwork when I’m writing about it is a process that helps me define what I want from my own work. Curating has definitely come about through my art criticism. I curate the shows I want to see in the world.
I’ve known a lot of people over the years who have left the city. Have you ever felt the pull of New York City or Los Angeles?
I don’t like New York, and while a lot of my friends and colleagues have gone to L. A. over the past ten years, the scene is not as compelling to me as Chicago’s. Being in the Midwest is important to me.
How does being from Chicago impact the way you see your work as an artist, writer and curator?
Strangely enough, the fact that Chicago is not seen as a huge art market—though I think that’s been changing since EXPO began—provides a lot of freedom. Without the expectation of making profits from exhibitions, I think that artists and curators feel more comfortable taking risks and looking beyond saleability. I want my art to sell, of course, and some of it does, for which I am extremely grateful. But there’s room in Chicago to be ambitious and strange.
What are some of the best parts about being engaged in the Chicago scene?
The best part about Chicago’s art scene is that it’s small and accessible. If you want to meet a certain artist or curator or art dealer or collector, odds are you can.
And the worst?
The worst part about Chicago’s art scene is a lack of ambition. Because the scene is so small, and so many of us know each other, there’s a tendency to pat people on the back for mediocre efforts, because it’s easier than criticizing your friend. I’m biased in that I very much value ambition in an art practice.
Right. I remember a few years ago Pedro Velez wrote that great piece for Newcity called “Friends Curating Friends” that pissed people off. I personally loved it, and I think the underlying criticism about seeing the same artists over and over again, while there are tons of artists who never get a show, is still pretty valid. I’ve heard from some folks that a lot of curators won’t even go out to the ’burbs. So how do you avoid that? How do you get out and see artwork to find artists? Is it important to you personally to find fresh talent? I hate that phrase.
Like Pedro wrote in that article, we’re all tired of seeing the same artists in shows over and over again with the same work. It’s easy to get overexposed in Chicago, but I can’t blame the artists for saying yes to opportunities, and for curators to know which artists will attract the most visitors, press and collectors to their exhibitions.
I’ve been in Chicago ten years now, which means that for some of our more established artists, I’ve seen at least four solo shows of their work at their galleries. Unless they’ve made great strides in a new direction, I won’t write about their work twice. So I am very eager to see shows by new artists, and new and risky projects by artists I already know. The internet makes it pretty easy to find DIY shows of student work and weird exhibitions in alternative spaces. But also, there are a lot of art venues that dedicate themselves to exhibiting artists that might be new to our scene.
I love Filter Photo for the fresh programming. They introduce me to a lot of photographers I have never seen before. Places like Chicago Artists Coalition, Roots & Culture, Adds Donna and Chicago Art Department are all dedicated to young, emerging or still-underappreciated artists. And the programming at the Museum of Contemporary Photography is always fresh.
What’s your process when you’re thinking about putting together a show?
Very rarely do I ever have an exhibition theme in mind first. Almost always, it starts with the artists. I take a look at the art and artists I’ve been thinking about lately, and I start looking carefully at what they might have in common. I find that the theme tends to present itself.
How do you think social media has affected the way people think about making art and exhibiting it? The whole art-made-for-Instagram phenomenon has been much discussed. I wonder how you think about that, with regards to curating especially.
Well, I can’t blame artists for thinking about what looks good on social media. It’s so hard to get strangers, and even our friends and colleagues, out to see our exhibitions in person, so social media is the way most of our art community will experience our work. If photos of your work look shitty on Instagram, then you’re dead in the water. But should that be the main focus of a practice? No, unless that concept is literally your content. As far as curating, I’m still mainly concerned about how artwork looks and reads in a room. That’s first and foremost.
Let’s switch gears and talk more specifically about your practice as an artist. Can you describe what you do in the studio and what inspires you to make your work?
I make drawings and sculptures with non-art materials. Throughout my adult life as an artist, I’ve only made work about one thing: my family and their labor history. I really don’t know what else I would ever make art about.
When I was nineteen years old, a junior at Adrian College, my dad told me a story about when he was nineteen, also at Adrian College, some thirty years prior. He had left school for a year to work in an iron foundry to make the money to finish his degree. I had known my dad had worked in a factory, but it wasn’t until this point that I learned the details about that experience.
In the 1970s, an iron foundry was still operating on basically turn-of-the-century technology, and my dad said to me: “I wish I could paint pictures, because no one would believe what it looked like in there.” So, I decided to start painting those pictures. I began illustrating that specific story of my dad’s, and through the years, my narratives have widened and narrowed, addressing things like my interest in functional architecture, and most recently, making work about my mother’s thirty-year career as a horticulturist.
I just had a show at Orbit, an alternative space run by my dear friends Linda Dorman and Tom Torluemke. Over the years, my immediate family has become far more than just subject matter—they’ve become active participants in the creative problem-solving, conceptual development, and the evolution of material and craft of my practice. This exhibition, “Anthology,” marks the first time my work is accompanied by the creative output from members of my family.
In this exhibition, my mother’s botanical illustrations, my father’s handmade Windsor chairs, my late grandmother’s self-taught oil paintings, and my great-grandmother’s hand-stitched quilt are being exhibited along with recent pieces of mine based on my mother’s drawings. “Anthology” illustrates the multigenerational aesthetic link amongst a family of makers.
Anything else on the docket?
My friend and colleague Stano Grezdo and I are the creators of a documentary film about the founding of the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, “The First Lions,” produced and directed by On The Real Film. The film premieres on August 11 at the Chopin Theatre as a part of Art Design Chicago. The week prior, on August 3, the concurrent museum exhibition we’re curating, “LIONS: Founding Years of UIMA in Chicago,” opens at UIMA—again, a part of Art Design Chicago.
What artists are you looking at right now?
In terms of stuff that relates to my own studio practice, these days I’m looking at Diane Simpson, Scott Hocking and Brad Kahlhamer. Other artists who are having a big impact on me in terms of practices and careers I aspire to are Michiko Itatani, Alison Ruttan, Lynn Basa, Tom Torluemke, Mary Lou Zelazny, Kay Rosen and Bibiana Suarez. It’s hard to narrow this down, so I’m sure I’m missing some important ones.
Have you seen any standout shows recently that made you feel as if you had to run back to the studio and immediately get to work?
Scott Hocking’s last solo show at David Klein Gallery in Detroit reminded me of what an artist’s scope can be, the scale at which simple but powerful gestures can take place, and the importance of putting strangeness, obsession and guts out there in a seemingly unselfconscious way.
Speaking of guts, we’ve talked recently about your love of boxing and I consider myself a runner, although I hate it and I’m not very good at it, but there’s something about the discipline of running that I really appreciate. Is that how boxing is for you?
My dear friend, Fang-Tze Hsu, who was in graduate school with me when I was at SAIC, was a champion boxer. Something about the fact that Fang and I were of a similar size, we were both mild-mannered, and we were both in the arts, made me look at the sport as something that could be right for me. I went to a few boxing classes at her gym in Bridgeport, but the stress of grad school was taking a toll on me at the time. I knew I wanted to seriously pick up the sport in the future. And I did.
And it’s absolutely the discipline of boxing that appeals to me. Boxing training is rigorous and time-consuming, which are also terms that describe my studio practice. Both boxing and art require constant effort, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve had a bad day, or you’re feeling tired or unfocused—you have to get to work in the gym or the studio. My coach Johnny Higgins says, “Sleep when you’re dead.” That’s a philosophy that applies to my whole life, I think.