Monday, December 30, 2013

3 good art shows in Chicago usher in a Happy New Year!

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.”

I have good news! Unlike the other two shows, you have plenty of time to get down to Chicago to see this one, which runs through March 9. I highly recommend it. In fact, it might make your list of top ten shows of 2014.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Rev. Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping

From an article in the New York Times, I've just learned about performance artist and activist Bill Talen, who goes by the name Reverend Billy. Dressed for the part and sounding just like a gospel preacher, Talen is often backed by a rousing gospel choir as he preaches against the evils of corporate commercialism and rampant consumerism. They go at their subject with passion and with humor.
The "Church of Stop Shopping" is "a radical performance community" based in New York City. Their website describes it this way: 'We are a post religious church. We hold “services” wherever we can, in concert halls, theaters, churches, community centers, forests, fields, parking lots, mall atriums, and perhaps most importantly, inside stores, as close to the cash register as we can get, within spitting distance of the point of purchase." 

"We sing, we dance, we preach, sometimes we perform small “interventions”, invisible plays, acts of ritual resistance. We exorcise cash registers and remythologize the retail environment, we illuminate the Devil. We make media and send it out around the world. We get hassled by security guards and sometimes get arrested."

Although the Christmas season is a particularly important time for Rev. Billy, as you might well imagine, his message is timeless and universal, serious as well as tongue in cheek. I particularly enjoyed his short spiel on global warming, called The Invitation.   

You can view a number of the "Church's" videos on their website.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Warhol portraits at Milwaukee’s Jewish Museum

The exhibit of large-scale silkscreen prints by Andy Warhol that opened yesterday at Milwaukee's Jewish Museum is titled prosaically, “10 Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century.” Warhol’s subjects have familiar names if not always recognizable faces: Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, the Marx Brothers and Golda Meir are among them. Warhol himself called the suite of portraits “Jewish Geniuses.” The difference in the titles is more significant than the differences amongst the subjects of the work, something about which the exhibit takes special notice.

Gertrude Stein
These portraits and the exhibit are interesting for several reasons. The compositions and style will not surprise anyone familiar with Warhol’s work—and who isn’t? The Warhol brand as well as his distinctive use of color and line in combination with the photographic image have made him and his style not simply familiar but iconic. The most famous of his portrait images, Marilyn and Mao, have arguably become as recognizable as their original subjects, perhaps more so.

That is exactly why an exhibit like this one is valuable for anyone who wants to understand the depth of Warhol’s oeuvre. If it seems tempting to dismiss any particular body of work by Warhol as redundant, well, you know that his own answer to that charge could easily be inferred from his endless repetition of the Campbell’s soup can.

Sara Bernhardt
As it is, seen together in this fashion the compositions in this suite of 10 portraits seemed to me less repetitive than jazz-like improvisations on a theme. There is a cubist element to these that is absent from the Marilyn/Mao series, too. Most of the compositions involve the layering of abstract geometric shapes over and behind the more familiar trope of enhancing the photographic image with colorful linear effects.

The ones that I found personally most appealing didn’t merely stand out compositionally but also seemed to resonate with the character of the individual who was being depicted. This is perhaps ironic on two levels. First, Warhol was more interested in the subject’s status as a celebrity than any element of personality. Second, as the exhibit text reveals, “All of the subjects were dead…. They would not be able to contest the image that Warhol was using of them.”

Franz Kafka
That said, I found the portrait of Kafka most compelling. The fragmented visage may be interpreted as rising out of or sinking into the inky and infinite depth of the background. The colors that splinter his face do not, as might be expected, make Kafka seem tortured. Rather, his piercing gaze appears supremely confident, even prescient.

Sara Bernhardt is captivating. Her direct gaze cuts revealingly through the insistent abstraction of Warhol’s jumble of squares and lines.

Gertrude Stein, by contrast, who also looks directly towards the viewer, has become so abstract as to be completely opaque, as impenetrable perhaps as some of her own writing.

The triple portrait of the Marx Brothers is the only one that includes more than the single subject. Warhol takes advantage of this by repeating the three brothers with progressively more abstract renderings. This composition most clearly echoes the soup cans.

Marx Brothers, detail
Returning to the question of the exhibit titles, the distinction between the two is not insignificant. Although the attribution of ‘genius’ may be considered subjective, the fact is that each of the 10 subjects was particularly accomplished in their respective fields. The descriptive text provided by the museum asserts, “The group he selected is interesting for their differences,” and then takes pains to identify similarities amongst these diverse individuals.  Warhol’s “geniuses” were undoubtedly selected, as were Marilyn, Mao and many others, for their celebrity rather than their individuality, their personality or even their particular accomplishments, important as those are.

I’ve heard of Louis Brandeis, to pick just one example, but I have little doubt that I’m not alone when I admit that his biography is completely unknown to me. In fact, my enjoyment of the portraits of Kafka and Stein was clearly influenced by being at least somewhat familiar with their own creative endeavors.

The exhibition text adds the biographical context that is missing from Warhol’s treatment of his subjects and, likely, most viewers’ awareness. Warhol’s “geniuses” premiered at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1980. According to the Jewish Museum website, they were “met with both admiration and hostility.”  The same museum reprised the show in 2008 with the title, “Warhol’s Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered.” 

Interest in Warhol has hardly waned. One of his canvases recently set a new record at auction of $105 million. See the story.

The current exhibit continues through March 30, 2014 at Milwaukee’s Jewish Museum, 1360 N. Prospect Ave. For more information, go to Jewish Museum.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Midwest photo show at Walker’s Point opens December 6

You are invited! I hope you’ll join me there.
The 7th Annual Midwest Juried Photo Exhibition, sponsored by Milwaukee’s Coalition of Photographic Arts (CoPA) will be held at Walker’s Point Center for the Arts, 839 S. 5th St. Milwaukee.
December 6, 2013 – January 18, 2014

Opening Reception: 
Friday, December 6th,  5 – 9pm

Gallery talk and award presentations by Juror Karen Irvine at 7pm

Closing Reception:
Winter Gallery Night, Friday, January 17th, 5 – 9pm

The regional exhibition includes the work of 37 photographers from Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, and Iowa.

I am happy to announce that I’m one of the 37 photographers and here is a sneak preview of my print.

“Horizon” is from a series called Synecdoche: the fragment that represents the whole.

Synecdoche is a literary device in which the part represents the whole. ("All hands on deck!" refers to the whole sailor, not just the hands.) My images are meant to be visual examples of synecdoche, which I use metaphorically. My subjects are the complex and often paradoxical relationships that I perceive between nature and architecture, or natural and human features in the landscape. My approach, using the part to represent the whole, symbolizes the fragmentation we experience in our everyday environment.

The juror is Karen Irvine, Curator and Associate Director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College, Chicago.

Her bio, from CoPA: Karen Irvine has organized over forty exhibitions of contemporary photography at the MoCP and other institutions and written essays for numerous artist monographs and magazines. Irvine is a part-time instructor of photography at Columbia College Chicago. She received an MFA in photography from FAMU, Prague, Czech Republic, and an MA in art history from the University of Illinois at Chicago.