The Wrightwood 659 space, designed by architect Tadao Ando, is a modern-day temple for art. When between exhibitions and free of the “diversion” of work on its walls, as it was during the photography session for the Art 50, it becomes an especially meaningful place for artists to congregate in very small gatherings while they wait for their turn in front of the camera.
What struck me was that every single artist seemed to know and care about every single other artist, with conversations keeping them in the space and even out on the sidewalk in front long beyond their appointed times. This is a signature element of art in Chicago—a powerful sense of community that transcends the competitiveness and careerism that undermines other places.
Indicative of this, one of the Art 50 Hall of Famers, Tony Lewis, asked us to honor the late Gregory Bae, writing: “As a close personal friend, Gregory meant a lot to me, but he meant even more to Chicago than any one person can articulate. I’ve never known anyone more personally connected to so many sectioned-off realms of the Chicago art scene… He was an expansive artist, who was posthumously given a solo exhibition at the MCA Chicago in 2022, and was on the verge of changing the Chicago art landscape—it’s arguable that he already did.”
To describe the compassionate character of art in Chicago is not a suggestion of lesser quality; just the opposite. As Zachary Cahill told us a few months back, “I think Chicago is the Paris of the twenty-first century. We’re living through a moment that one-hundred years from now people will think that what happened in Chicago is amazing.” —Brian Hieggelke
Art 50 2023 is written by Susan Aurinko, Emeline Boehringer, Annette LePique, Vasia Rigou, Jen Torwudzo-Stroh with additional items by Regan Dockery, Ryan Fazio, Nicole NeSmith and Nicky Ni.
All photos by Joseph A. Mietus.
Shot on location at Wrightwood 659.
Between art, design and craft—from performance, video and paper to embroidery, knitting and large-scale site-specific textile installation—Nelly Agassi explores the body and public space; the personal and the collective. Her works have a strong architectural element. Think soft sculptures big enough to fill an entire gallery. Unafraid to experiment with scale, her practice includes pieces that range from monumental to intimate, challenging the viewer’s perception and response. Same goes for abstraction—fluid and open to interpretation, her work connects at a deeper level. When asked about the impact she hopes to make in the world, she responds with a quote by Marina Abramovi?: “The deeper you go in, the more universal you come out.” (Vasia Rigou)
Regina Agu moved to Chicago in 2020 on the heels of her first museum solo show, “Passage” at the New Orleans Museum of Art—a community-engaged project that used the framework of Black Geographies to explore the lives and afterlives of plantation economies, environmental racism, and the extractive ideologies invested in the control and picturing of the landscape. A one-hundred-foot-long panorama intertwining images of New Orleans waterways, “Passage” drew on the artist’s embedded practice of retrieving communal histories and psychogeographies, developed in Houston art spaces including Project Row Houses and Alabama Song, a collaborative art space Agu co-directed between 2014 and 2017. A 2023 Joyce Awardee with the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Agu will produce “Shore|Lines,” a large-scale panorama installation exploring histories, archives and sites of memory in Black lakeshore communities in Chicago and the Great Lakes region. Agu participated in the 2021 Atlanta and Texas Biennials, and showed photography work in “LandFORMS” at this year’s Expo Chicago with the Hyde Park Art Center, following her residency there in 2022. (Emeline Boehringer)
Walking into the Design Museum of Chicago’s exhibition “At the Precipice: Responses to the Climate Crisis,” you’re taken aback by Selva Aparicio’s large-scale installation, “Our Garden Remains,” a tapestry of faux and real flowers and decorations scavenged from garbage bins in cemeteries, woven with artificial sinew that serves as a memorial of sorts. The interdisciplinary artist explores ideas of memory, intimacy and the temporality of life through works that serve as both rituals and activism. The continuing loop of life and death fascinates her. So does the beauty of the natural world. And as her practice evolves it embodies an aesthetic that is both fragile and powerful, striking a delicate balance that’s hard to achieve. (Vasia Rigou)
Often informed by the work of others, painter Leslie Baum has drawn inspiration from the shape of pottery shards and forms gathered from modernist paintings. Baum seamlessly weaves reference with the creation of new work, while leaving behind any direct citation or replica of the referenced work, and instead investigates what lies in the formation of drawn connections. A master at the manipulation of color, her paintings and installation work transport you into a world in which abstract form, shape and an exploration of color take precedence over the narrative tenor. Her investigation of information is explored further in her ongoing “plein air painting project” in which Baum goes on “painting dates” with peers, colleagues and members of the public (sometimes artists themselves, sometimes not) and uses the work produced from these dates to inform new paintings. Baum will have a solo exhibition at Goldfinch Gallery in 2024. (Regan Dockery)
Artist and educator Cecilia Beaven is a world-builder creating her own mythology and telling a story in her unique voice. In her paintings, murals, drawings and comics, her fluid and elongated figures exist in surrealist scenes that defy reality. Inspired by the natural world and her home in Mexico City, Beaven creates new animals, plants and humans that merge into otherworldly figures and belie a hidden depth. She weaves her personal history into her works of art and explores shifting and changing identity. She has left her imprint on the city with her murals and public art adorning many neighborhoods in Chicago. And just in the summer of 2023 she brought her unique world and characters to the Chicago Cultural Center for a public art piece that allowed her to share her creative process with visitors. Beaven creates imaginative art that gives permission to artists and communities to reimagine and redefine themselves. (Jen Torwudzo-Stroh)
Uneasily presides Margot Bergman’s sentinel: a seven-foot tall chimera with animal ears and a human maw. “Warrior,” the artist’s first large-scale sculpture in a seventy-plus-year painting practice, guards the ramparts of psychological uncanny, mapped in her signature oeuvre of gestural women deformed and doubled. Then there’s “Other Reveries,” the anonymous, vernacular thrifted paintings that Bergman works over, divining the imagined faces of their makers peering out as if from a long-delayed mirror. In the last few years, Bergman’s canvases have traveled to Los Angeles, Switzerland, Germany and New York, for her monumental third solo exhibition at Anton Kern Gallery, praised by the Yale Review as a favorite cultural artifact of 2022. As art critic Roberta Smith wrote of Bergman in 2019, “more power to her.” (Emeline Boehringer)
Iris Bernblum is a cross-disciplinary artist deeply invested in interrogating the boundaries of the self; she is unafraid to look at desire and probe its sticky, sometimes sickly contours through drawing, painting and sculpture. Such analysis is inspired by Bernblum’s interest in what she terms the “algorithmic self-portrait,” a way of self-examination informed by the mechanized, transactional systems within which we find and reckon with ourselves. Bernblum takes up this mode of looking with fearless honesty—as in her 2020 drawing series “Submissions” and in her 2023 solo show, “Various Pleasures.” With work to be included in DePaul Art Museum’s upcoming “Life Cycles” exhibition and at the Los Angeles gallery Emma Gray HQ later this fall, Bernblum’s intimate analysis is revelatory to behold. (Annette LePique)
With a career spanning back decades that took him from Mississippi to Detroit, New York and Chicago, McArthur Binion charted his own path to success. He started his painting practice in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until ten years ago that he received gallery representation. Fame and recognition came quickly thereafter. His meticulous gridded paintings are an exploration of color and symmetry as well as memories and Black stories. By combining the written word with personal photographs, he develops a deeply intimate style that has a diaristic feel. His searching, studying and expansive thoughts mapped out on the canvas continue uninterrupted. Thoughts and images seem trapped behind gridlines and checkered squares. They’re contained and organized, but are waiting to burst free. As an older, distinguished artist, Binion is secure in his age and place in the world. At seventy-five, what’s next for him is to continue to be an artist and educator. With his Modern Ancient Brown Foundation, Binion is able to directly support and nurture BIPOC creatives, paving the way for the younger generation of artists. (Jen Torwudzo-Stroh)
When Whitney Bradshaw conceived her “Outcry” project in 2018 to “empower womxn to reclaim the revolutionary power of their voice,” she had no idea the project would extend to more than 450 women across the country and propel her, and them, into the national spotlight. The project has appeared in Ms., Vogue, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, to name just a few. Bradshaw, who curated both the LaSalle Bank Collection and the Bank of America Collection, was the chair of visual arts at ChiArts and taught at Columbia College, has rolled all that experience and chutzpah into activism par excellence. (Susan Aurinko)
Phyllis Bramson’s work possesses an enticing maximalism alongside a delectable sensuality, hopelessly infused with a joie de vivre. A longtime faculty member at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Bramson is both mentor to countless young artists and a mainstay of the Chicago painting scene. With an upcoming show at Engage Projects, slated in April 2024, and countless national accolades, Bramson’s prodigious body of work only continues to grow. Such expansion is fitting for an artist whose world is filled with luscious colors and intricate ornament that spans decades and continents. (Annette LePique)