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 NiƱa: 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.

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