With a roster of over fifty artists, “Life Cycles” at DePaul Art Museum is an ambitious collection of artworks. Group shows of this size generally dazzle audiences with their star-studded lineup. And usually, any pretense of cohesion between the works on display is easily dismissed. “Life Cycles” is, however, an exceedingly rare accomplishment; its curation is just as thought-provoking as the artworks within it. In addition to the work of Associate Curator Ionit Behar and Collection and Exhibitions Manager David Maruzzella, “Life Cycles” includes the curatorial efforts of seven DePaul University students: Spencer Bolding, Chiara Conner, Charlie Delgado, Zoe Hamilton, Ellie Naughton, Eli Schmitt and Bernardo Soares. The opening was packed; celebratory conversations surrounded me as I watched visitors take pictures with artists in front of their work. The happy, crowded atmosphere felt cozy with familiarity even amidst the heavy introspective themes inherent to the works on display.
“Life Cycles” includes both contemporary and past artists. And no attempt is made to separate them. Each room of the museum has artworks grouped together by loose-fitting themes, but I was much more enthralled by the nuance and sophistication of the exhibition’s pacing from artwork to artwork. A photograph from 1913 of the Pyramid of El Tepozteco by Hugo Brehme can be seen while looking through the plexiglass pedestal cover around Theaster Gates’ “Plate Convergence (sake pitcher and cup).” Even though Brehme died in 1954, the pairing feels remarkably contemporary. Charlie Delgado, the student responsible for Brehme’s inclusion in the exhibition, writes “… we witness the transformative power of art, breathing life into cultural exploration and fostering a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of humanity’s diverse tapestry.” This thoughtful approach to museum objects is mirrored in other student selections. A particularly profound example is Chiara Conner’s inclusion of the “Slated portfolio,” a collection of lithographs created by Chicago Imagist Ed Paschke and eight other artists in memory of him. I also found the placement of Selva Aparicio’s “Auto-de-Fé (Act of Faith)” and Barbara Crane’s “Untitled (Coloma to Covert: Sticks)” on the same wall to be especially impactful. Objects in Aparicio’s artworks are elevated through a careful investigation of their material history. Eli Schmitt’s inclusion of Crane’s photograph of a piece of driftwood on a black background engages with this process in a way that magnifies the impact of both works.
The success of “Life Cycles” is also the result of including so many fantastic artists living and working in Chicago. The smoky, vibrant atmosphere of Elsa Muñoz’s painting, “The Great Turning,” from a new series titled “Controlled Burns,” depicts an intimate forest setting beset by fire. Depicted in the middle of the painting is a red circle reminiscent of sunsets viewed through wildfire smoke. The intensity of the red paint conveys a sense of urgency, punctuating a message that feels especially poignant after smoke from Canadian wildfires forced many of us indoors this summer. Andrea Carlson’s monumental work “Ancestor and Descendant,” placed in proximity to Muñoz’s painting, is a similarly saturated exploration of heritage and ancestry. Together, Muñoz’s and Carlson’s artworks implore us to consider the magnitude of our cultural baggage, the importance of the cycles we exist within, and the uncertainty we are left with when these cycles are threatened.
As the exhibition continues onto the second floor of the museum, visitors are confronted by a wide assortment of discarded and disposable materials that have been lovingly reconfigured. Natalia Villanueva Linares’ “Dual no. 10,” a huge installation of tissue paper hand-stitched together with gold thread, occupies space alongside works like Devin T. Mays’ “Notations,” comprised of littered Newport cigarette boxes that the artist picked up, collected, and pinned to the wall in a large grid. A photograph from Laura Letinsky’s “Hardly More Than Ever” is also a beautiful inclusion. Her still lifes of mealtime remnants add further credence to the monumentality of subjects most of us discard without thinking. The only qualm I have is with Letinsky’s photograph being described as having an “almost painterly style,” as this language cheapens the process Letinsky chooses to work with. I think the comparison to painting is unnecessary, but it’s a mostly semantic complaint.
Walking around the exhibition, I was struck by the thought that after I’m gone, I want my artwork in shows like this one. Artworks can live much longer than artists do. And “Life Cycles” is a refreshing departure from exhibitions focused solely on eulogizing artists in museum collections. As an exhibition, it feels less like a grouping of objects that have been dusted off for public display and more like a small part of a much larger organism.
The process of creating an artwork is often akin to magic; artists transform dead, inert materials into objects animated by the conversations and ideas they inspire. “Life Cycles” provides a lesson on using this same necromancy to enliven archives, collections, and even museums themselves.
“Life Cycles” at DePaul Art Museum, 935 West Fullerton, on view through February 11.
Frank Geiser is a visual artist and arts writer based in the south suburbs of Chicago. He is a professor of Visual Communication and Design at Purdue University Northwest.