It’s the time of year when critics wax nostalgic about what’s happened during the past 12 months, often choosing to list the “best of…” the year. I have enjoyed doing this myself in the past. However, Mary Louise Schumacher’s best of the year list was published yesterday in Art City and I can’t improve on it.
|Aten Reign, James Turrell
Before I get to Chicago, I will simply add three outstanding art experiences I feel fortunate to have been able to travel to see in 2013. My favorite was the mesmerizing James Turrell exhibit at the Guggenheim in New York. I wrote about it in August. In Santa Fe I saw and wrote about a surprising and excellent installation of 3-dimensional video work by Peter Sarkisian at the New Mexico Museum of Art. And there was art galore in London (of course!)
|Peter Sarkisian with one of his 3D videos
But I was in Chicago over the weekend where I saw three good shows in three distinct museums, one of which—at the Museum of Contemporary Art—could easily make it onto my top ten list.
|McCormick House, detail
I’ll begin where I began, a small museum in Elmhurst, a suburb about 15 miles due west of Chicago’s loop. The centerpiece of the Elmhurst Art Museum is one of only three houses in the US designed by Mies van der Rohe. The McCormick house, built in 1952, was moved from its residential neighborhood to the park setting of the museum campus. Although the interior has mostly been repurposed for office space—except for the living room, which was renovated for the public to get a sense of the space—the exterior massing and detail is intact. It’s a gem.
The current show, coincidentally, is the first ever comprehensive viewing of the permanent collection. Entitled, appropriately enough, Inventory_The EAM Collection, the work is installed salon style throughout the museum. There are only a few familiar names, as varied as Eakins, Remington and Dalí, and a significant proportion of the work seemed to be from the local and greater Chicago vicinity. Far from being a limitation, I found that refreshing. I truly enjoyed seeing good work by artists who haven’t risen to national attention. It’s a hopeful sign, I think, that the art itself, and not the celebrity of the artist, is being valued.
|Blanket Statement, Mary Dritschel (detail)
|Vertigo, Mike Love
If you ever find yourself on the west side of Chicago with some time to spare, this is a worthwhile stop. The current show closes on January 5, but the next one sounds good: Spotlight opens Jan. 18 and will feature light-based sculptures, installations, and videos.
|from 8 Natural Handstands, R. Kinmont
Next we went to the Smart Museum of Art at the U of Chicago in Hyde Park. Unlike EAM, I’d been to the Smart before and knew the quality of the permanent collection, which boasts an impressive number of unfamiliar works by familiar names. But we went there to see a traveling exhibit called, State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970. The exhibit is billed as the “first in-depth survey of conceptual art in California” and it is indeed a comprehensive show. It demonstrates, as the curators intended (according to wall text), the significance of California to the conceptual art movement at this crucial moment in its development. Major players, like John Baldessari, Paul McCarthy, the Ant Farm collective and Ed Ruscha are among the over 50 artists represented.
|Yellow Room (Triangular), Bruce Nauman
Pure conceptual art, with its disdain for the physical object, its quirky, often self-referential themes and anti-aesthetic stance, often leaves me cold, I must confess. When it works, it can be profoundly moving or amusing or both. The scope of this show brings together a little of everything, which I found interesting for its historical significance.
|Paul Kos, Untitled (the sound of ice melting)
State of Mind is also nearing the end of its run at the Smart. It closes Jan. 12. But, again, if you’re in the vicinity before then, I recommend checking it out.
|Copperheads, M. Davey (detail)
The real find and the best of this trio of fine shows is at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The Way of the Shovel: Art as Archeology explores the role of historical research in art during the past decade. Archeology, while not necessarily foremost in the minds of the artists when they created the works, has been used by curator Dieter Roelstraete as a metaphor for the ways artists examine the past.
|Copperheads, Moyra Davey (detail)
|Some Boarded up Houses, J. Koester
The exhibit, which sprawls throughout the entire top floor galleries of the museum, is loosely divided into themes with titles like On Narrating and Storytelling and On the Crisis of Memory. Some of the individual works are as conceptual as anything I’d just seen at the Smart. Many, as the exhibit rationale indicates, clearly required an impressive amount of historical research. A few are more straightforwardly phenomenological.
|Concerning the Dig, Marc Dion
Photography, videography and sculpture are the dominant, but by no means exclusive, mediums of expression. Although much of the art has European origins, there is also a strong local component devoted specifically to Chicago and the MCA itself. The latter is a special section titled, Shifting Grounds: Block 21 and Chicago’s MCA.
|Plot (still from video), Derek Brunen
In fact, in my opinion, the jewel in the crown of what is overall an excellent exhibit, is an elaborate multifaceted installation by Chicago native son Michael Rakowitz. Entitled The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, its subject matter is derived from the looting of the National Museum of Baghdad in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The installation includes drawings and a musical component as well as the centerpiece: a series of elaborately reproduced artifacts that were stolen or otherwise went missing that have never been recovered.
The sculptures are made from colorful packaging from Middle Eastern food products and Arabic language newspapers. Each is presented with identifying labels such as would have accompanied the original museum displays. However, the labels also include poignant or ironic statements made by a wide variety of experts and Iraq War players. I’ll cite just two examples. Donald Rumsfeld is quoted: “It’s untidy, and freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things, and that’s what’s going to happen here.” Someone named Polk, referring to the artifact that is reproduced in newsprint, says simply, “And today it is no more.”