Sunday, November 29, 2015

Chicago: City Creatures and the Day of the Dead

A day trip to Chicago took me to three distinct art exhibitions in two very different venues.

At the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Lincoln Park, the main attractions are live butterflies and family friendly interactions with natural history and contemporary ecological issues. But they host rotating exhibits of art related to nature as well.

The current show, called City Creatures: Animal Encounters in Chicago's Urban Wilderness, is based on a blog and a recently released book by the same name. It was curated and organized by the Center for Humans & Nature. The theme of the artworks, as the name suggests, deals with animals that the artists have encountered in Chicago. Among the many artists represented, who worked in a variety of mediums, were distinguished photographers, Terry Evans and Colleen Plumb.

A trip to Chicago in November is rarely complete without a stop at the National Museum of Mexican Art in the Pilsen neighborhood. Their annual Day of the Dead exhibit is always spectacular and--unlike most--seldom predictable. True to form, this year's exhibit, entitled La Muerte Niña: Day of the Dead, was more like a traditional art exhibit.

There were a dozen or so ofrendas (altars honoring the dead), a few of which were even more traditional in form than this one devoted to the singer Selena. 

Most were far less traditional, such as this one, complete with a marquee in blazing lights and titled Santo in the World of the Dead: Altar to the Silver Masked Wrestler / Santo en el mundo de los muertos: ofrenda al enmascarado de plata.

However, the ofrendas were widely spaced and the intervening wall spaces were hung with more traditional works of art, mostly paintings. My favorite was this very atypical, enormous installation of mixed media variations on the typical Day of the Dead skull motif (above and below, details). Each of the 40 or so "faces" is about 3 feet tall and the grid of them wraps around two sides of a huge gallery.

Here is a closer look at a few of the individual skull designs, many of which dealt with topical issues like immigration and climate change, among many other themes. Unfortunately, I didn't make a note of the name of the artist or artists who created them.

There are four concurrent exhibits on display at the museum. This one (above and below, details), by Rodrigo Lara Zendejas, was especially compelling. Entitled Deportable Aliens, it appears at first glance to be a set of shelves bearing busts. Each porcelain bust, however is sculpted in the form of a thumb and many of the highly expressive faces are composed of only partial facial features.

The thumb forms suggest the fingerprinting process required of anyone who is apprehended (such as immigrants), with all the identity issues that connotes. Their placement on the shelves symbolizes the commodification of individuals, subject to being bought and sold or deported at the whim of our government and society. The larger-than-life scale of each "bust" or thumb makes the installation especially powerful.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Tarnanthi: Art in Adelaide, Australia

Tarnanthi is an aboriginal word from the Kaurna people of South Australia. It means to come forth or appear – like the sunrise, or a seed sprouting. For many cultures, first light represents a new beginning. I was fortunate, not only because I was able to travel to Australia and visit the Art Gallery of South Australia but also because this exhibit called Tarnanthi had just been unveiled. Billed by the museum as the “most ambitious exhibition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art in its 134 year history,” Tarnanthi was more ambitious even than that. It really is a series of 21 distinct exhibitions and those exhibitions were just part of a citywide festival of indigenous arts. 

Here is but a very small sample of what I saw at the Art Gallery of South Australia.

Traditional indigenous paintings on eucalyptus bark by various indigenous people.

Detail of “Dead man” from the Gunbalanya people of western Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory.

This is a detail of just one of several rooms devoted to the weavings of contemporary indigenous artist Yvonne Koolmatrie, of the Ngarrindjeri nation. The weavings reference traditional eel, fish and animal traps, along with scoops, baskets and other utilitarian woven objects. Koolmatrie, whose art practice was inspired by her experiences as a seasonal worker and a “lifelong relationship with the river,” became a “pivotal figure” in contemporary aboriginal art. She represented Australia in the 1997 Venice Biennale.

One of the things I liked best about the installation of the permanent galleries in the museum was the placement of contemporary works amongst traditional ones. The piece in the center of this gallery features the headless, skinned bodies of two horses. Called “We are all flesh,” by Belgian artist Berlinde De Bruyckere, it has been one of the more controversial ones, according to the museum staff person I spoke with.

This series of portraits was created between 1944 and 1947 by Australian artist Sidney Nolan.

One of the things I did not care for was a penchant for hanging paintings and framed works on paper on mirrored walls positioned in the middle of galleries. I found it distracting to see the reflections of other works of art on opposing walls, not to mention people moving through the gallery. Here is one of Hokusai’s famous woodcut prints of “Fuji in Fair Weather.”

An untitled photograph by a contemporary Swiss artist named Claudio Moser seems to float in the doorway between two galleries.
This is the second of a series of stories about art experiences during my recent foray to Australia and New Zealand. To read the first, click on Toi o Tāmaki.

To read stories from my excursion to the Antipodes, go to Urban Wilderness. To see a series of photos from Australia and New Zealand, go to my flickr album.