The alternative and artist-run publications assembled in “Subscribe: Artists and Alternative Magazines, 1970-1995,” on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, challenge the idea of the uniform “subscriber,” reflecting the period’s growing demand for the inclusion of voices and art from marginalized figures, especially queer people and people of color.
The exhibition features 130 magazines representing nearly twenty different publications based in the United States and Europe that are characterized by hybrid publication models that fused the collage aesthetics of punk zines with the glossy look of fashion magazines. Although many were image-based, others like Thing, Out/Look or The Face also featured satirical perspectives on arts and culture or investigative reporting on social and political issues underreported in the mainstream press.
The exhibition is heavy on text, as the curators attempt to contextualize nearly twenty distinct publications, many of which only published a handful of issues and will be unfamiliar to most viewers. Issues are presented in an orderly fashion, one publication following another in glass vitrines, most displaying the cover image but also occasionally opened to interior spreads. The sheer number of images and pages on view mimics the aesthetics of the publications themselves, featuring, as many did, an over-saturation of image and text and a scrambling of visual and textual genres from news to fashion to art to music. The exhibition’s few time-based works—such as Malcolm McLaren’s music video “Deep in Vogue,” featuring the vogue star Willi Ninja, an episode of Glenn Belverio’s cable show featuring the performance artist Vaginal Davis, or Nan Goldin’s “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”—hint at the wider ways these magazines were documenting and sometimes helping forge multidisciplinary cultural scenes, the vibrancy of which tend to get lost in the density of information.
Artists since Marcel Duchamp have been interested in mass media as a democratic means of circumventing gallery and museum structures, but the occasional insertion of an artwork into a magazine or television broadcast has most often been historicized as a rare, subversive gesture. Across the publications featured, curators Michal Raz-Russo and Solveig Nelson emphasize the fact that artists such as Wolfgang Tillmans, Goldin and Barbara Kruger, among many others, were regularly contributing to magazines at the same time as they were exhibiting work in galleries and museums. Goldin was a frequent contributor to Vue, a fashion insert included for a brief time in the Village Voice, and Kruger was the art director for Rags, a Bay Area publication which featured photography by artists Bill Owens and Peter Hujar. The publications presented here reveal the extent to which art scenes often historicized as distinct developed in much more fluid, incestuous ways, with mainstream and underground, art and fashion worlds borrowing each other’s aesthetics and modes of production.
Although primarily comprised of magazines, the show includes archives of casual snapshots by photographers, such as Liz Johnson Artur and Jamel Shabazz, which serve to emphasize the aesthetic interventions these publications were making as coming from the ground up; the “on the street” fashion feature now commonplace in mainstream media originated in publications such as Rags and i-D.
The curators suggest the ambivalence of the serial magazine’s command to “subscribe” as one of the show’s themes; who does the command address? And how do readers determine what they want to subscribe to? How does what one consumes inform how one moves in the world? That what one consumes does inform it is articulated explicitly in the editorial missions of the publications featured here, run as they were by artists and creators interested in offering readers a greater diversity of cultural tools through which to build their identities and affiliations. The sheer number of magazines presented and the resonances they will have for viewers serve as a testament to the complex manner, often elided in official histories, in which aesthetics and taste are forged. (Jennifer Smart)
“Subscribe: Artists and Alternative Magazines, 1970-1995” is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan, through May 2.