You’re not going to find an abstract painter in the bunch of this year’s breakout artists. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s getting difficult to define the value of traditional, solo practices in the age of the networked artist. Today’s image makers are less studio artists than opportunists in the expanded field, less gatekeepers of taste than trailblazers in the public sphere—“social entrepreneurs,” as Mike Bancroft calls it. The timing is just right. As this feature is printed, Chicago’s renowned but diminished commercial art fair has opened its doors to include the city’s beloved alternative, artist run and non-profit spaces. The market’s embers are cooling off, and for many that smells like opportunity.
An events-planning mother and a cruise-line-executive father is the formula that produces an artist son who stages parades, Ben Fain. (He fondly recalls reading “Discipline and Punish” on the lido deck). As a parade organizer himself, Ben isn’t interested in the art-parade trend, initiated by New York’s Deitch Projects in 2005, because he thinks the art context neuters what a parade is all about. “Cézanne doesn’t hold a candle” to nineteenth-century Mardi Gras float designs, he says.
Perhaps like a cruise-ship vacation, a parade is most enjoyable when it celebrates gluttony and fantasy. So for his most recent parade designs Ben used rats as the major thematic element. Rats are “insatiable and highly adaptable,” says Ben. Citing an experiment from the 1970s, where two rats were given plentiful resources in a large but contained area, and which resulted in overpopulation, rape, infanticide and cannibalism, he found them to be the perfect metaphor for humanity’s global drain. The first rat parade was staged at Chicago’s annual Boystown Halloween parade, and the licentious setting certainly upheld the rat’s symbolic association.
Then, a viewer at the Halloween parade drafted Ben to help create floats for an annual Mardi Gras competition at a seniors-only retirement community in Florida. For two and a half months they kept Ben as their “secret weapon,” and although the rat costumes were to be the basis for the parade, the participants brought their own handiwork to the project. A blanket was knit for a live pet rat. Someone who hadn’t left his trailer for a month joined in. The event became a group collaboration and an experiment in goodwill, and it seems to have changed the way Ben sees himself as an artist, shifting from a gallery focus to a community enabler. “I feel like I could do this my whole life,” he says.
As a former graffiti artist (he once painted an entire tanker car pink), Ben has come to relish all the necessary pyrotechnic permits, city forms, fundraising and promotion as part of the fun—parades, at heart, celebrate a legal or moral order by poking holes in it.
Working publicly is starting to come naturally to Ben, who co-runs an apartment exhibition space called Alogon. There, the gallery owners ask outside curators or artists to hold exhibitions in a sort of free space for people to work. Alogon has been one of the more successful artist-run exhibition spaces in Chicago in recent years. Although it’s a world apart from the senior-citizens-community parade in Florida, they’re joined by Ben’s celebration of man-made possibility.
Alex Valentine uses his skills as a screen-printer to bring people together. As a medium, screen-printed posters are droplets of art in grayed urban settings. As process, the print shop invites collaboration. Broadly, screen-prints can transmit both underground screeds and populist sentiments, and each is appropriated by commercial fine art. Alex plays with all these connotations. His latest conquest is a portfolio of posters made over the past year to promote Peace Party, a monthly dance night at Danny’s Tavern, which held a retrospective of the posters and auctioned them to support local non-profits.
The Peace Party posters are pretty raw, but grabbing—“fucked up in a good way,” Alex says. He hand-draws the typography and geometric designs in high-key colors. The idea is that they announce a good time. His gig posters for music shows take a different, more detailed approach, as music is as equally dear to him as making art. (Alex plays drums in the psychedelic band Fake Lake, and DJs all over the city, from the Hideout to Sonotheque). Unlike the dance-party posters, his gig posters and fine-art prints are kind of freaky. They reference paganism and rituals, sourcing imagery from popular printed materials, producing uneasy and disquieting scenes to battle a creeping cultural homogeneity. Technique-wise, the dispersing of halftone dots in the prints coyly heightens a reproduced image’s artifice, or they reflect Alex’s love of his medium.
From his home base at No Coast Collective, Alex prints day and night—sometimes through the night, as the studio hosts twenty-four-hour printing marathons open to the public (“no experience needed… come armed with ideas”)—the fruits of which are displayed and sold in a store that, in part, supports the studio’s activities. At turns, Alex calls No Coast “a clubhouse” that holds bake-offs and book-binding workshops and “an idealistic enterprise where people want to be involved.” The combination is part of its success, as its founding members learn how to develop new revenue streams, and the reward is sustainable artistic freedom.
Michael Una picked up a Speak ‘n Math, the 1980s-era vocally enabled calculator game for children, and fiddled with its buttons. A gentle electronic voice asked for the sum of nine plus five, then choked up some guttural clicks and synthesized groans, and the screen’s dull green LEDs got all choppy and strange. To many, this Speak ‘n Math would now seem broken, but Michael was pleased; he successfully hacked the little electronic man, and it was music to his ears.
“It’s easy to be atonal,” says Michael of audiovisual artists working in the same vein, noting that intellectual music may be theoretically “interesting,” but not necessarily listenable. So he plays with harmonies, and the result is unique compositions styled from self-made or manipulated instruments. Visuals tend to take up some of his time, too, because nobody enjoys watching some guy fiddle with his laptop on stage during a live music event. Perhaps Michael’s most successful merger of the audio and visual experiences is his Beep-It, an optical theremin synthesizer. The original theremin, invented in 1928, creates musical sounds when its user moves his hands in proximity but never touches the instrument. Michael’s theremin is played with light, so when it’s attached to a guitar, a blinking LED produces throbs, whereas daylight is full blast.
In his studio, two old television sets react with EKG-like rollercoaster lines to whatever instrument Michael plugs into his amplifier system. This is the wobblescope, a manipulation technique invented by new-media pioneer Nam June Paik, and the TVs, in opposite corners of the room, lend a mad-scientist feel to the bits of chopped-up microchips on the worktable.
Michael believes that electronics aren’t magical or mysterious things. He sells his optical theremins on etsy so that musicians can adapt them to their practice, and he’s taught workshops for beginners to make their own. The anyone-can-do-it ethos is alive in many of his projects. A set of bicycles, one with a drum machine strapped to it, and another with a keyboard, play their instruments as riders speed up or slow down. If they keep the same pace, the instruments become synchronized and produce harmonies.
Michael calls this collaboration with the world a secondary artistic experience. By making available certain tools, he invites users close the circuit and participate.
Myong Kurily dropped out of art school just as quickly as she entered it—even after receiving a full scholarship to attend. Somehow this sounds more like a success story than if she had completed her studies and earned a degree, especially because Myong is now a successful freelance designer and artist, in the big league, a self-taught professional with tons of passion. As a budding painter, Myong saw her talent realized when a friend who couldn’t draw a figure asked her to fill in on a job. One thing lead to another and Myong landed a two-year gig designing apparel and kicks (that’s sneakers to you) for Chicago hip-hop musician Lupe Fiasco. Now, Myong’s design portfolio is stuffed with goodness, and in November 2008 she came full circle to exhibit an art installation at Phaiz Gallery, in Chicago.
Commercial success as a designer is different than, say, street cred as an artist, and Myong has learned to embrace the divide. When a painting goes up on the gallery wall, no one questions the artist’s emotional authenticity, says Myong. “That’s how you feel?!” she jokingly mimics an incredulous art connoisseur. In the corporate design world, however, the success of a collectible toy or a logo or a shoe depends on whether or not it sells. If it sinks, it sucks, no matter the artist’s limitless creativity. With success, though, Myong can be selective of the jobs she chooses to take, which is a great way to develop her personal style.
Myong says she sees everything as a blank canvas, whether it’s a sneaker’s tongue or a toy rabbit’s oversized bulbous head, upon which she scrawls her signature cursive line drawings, part William Blake fantasia, part Art Nouveau filigree. Lazy-lidded ladies and ruffled flowers cover the surfaces in an almost maximal way, but Myong knows when to hold back, as she knows the strength of clean, contrasting space. Even her 300-piece installation appeared full but clear-headed. One tableau featured The Seven Virtues pictured as birds of prey because “we treat ourselves to virtue,” Myong says; good deeds aren’t favors that need to be paid back; they are rewards in themselves.
With seven other artists, Aay started No Coast Collective, and set up shop in a former bodega in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. The studio and gallery, open since October 2008, just got a facelift to finally remove the convenience store’s leftover awning that announced ice cream and sandwiches. Now it is clearly its own enterprise: a purveyor of prints and posters, mix tapes, “fine crafts,” artist books and clothing. Several blocks away is Halsted Street, the downtown of Pilsen’s burgeoning art scene, with traditional white cube-style galleries, but No Coast is nothing like this; it seems more alive, more hand-built. Perhaps because it’s adaptable to hosting live music shows, or that the front of the house showcases stuff made from the studios within, that No Coast feels more like a community space than the white-walled fine art shops.
Aay is part of several groups in addition to No Coast. He’s a new member of Mess Hall, and he’s been running Chances Dances, a monthly dance party, in Chicago, for several years. Chances, and its new sister party, Off Chances, collect an entry fee that is repurposed into a grant for queer artists. Even Aay’s individual art practice relies on others to be completed. “Smile” consisted of silk-screened backdrops and masks produced by the artist, and invited participants to pose for photographs. It had an ecological bent, and turned wearers into mutants with crocheted facial malformations in an oozing fashion-meets-disaster diorama. “I’m happiest when people are enjoying themselves,” says Aay, “more than just looking at or silently contemplating art.” Although he admits that the ecological message may have gotten lost amid all the fun and dress-up, Aay believes that getting people involved is the first step to creating community and dialogue.
He calls this “semi-art,” in that something is set up for others to act upon. For the Art Shanty festival, a project that invited artist teams to co-opt ice-fishing structures atop a frozen lake in Minneapolis, Aay and friends created a fabric workshop, teaching visitors how to knit and sew; the finished projects adorned the shanty’s walls, insulating inhabitants against the cold. “It’s good to do things with people,” says Aay and, increasingly, Aay is doing good things.
“Help us DIY,” reads a promo sticker for Green Lantern, Caroline Picard’s non-profit art gallery, which also happens to be her apartment. Caroline’s been doing “it,” and doing it well, for several years now. She’s a gallerist, fiction writer, comics ‘zine maker, publisher of the small-edition imprint Green Lantern Press and singer in the band Thee Iran Contras. In order to do all these things, she says, “I resigned myself to the fact that I’m not an artist”—although she is indeed an artist. Her latest paintings are portraits in a Cubist style of characters from an in-progress novel.
In Caroline’s first novel, 9/11 is used as a setting, such that a woman must make a road trip, as the airports are closed, to visit her ailing father. So, it’s not really about a terrorist attack as much as it chronicles peoples’ lives at a time when terrorist attacks are taking place. Some of the events and conversations are semi-autobiographical, and some are overheard. “Everybody tells stories,” she says, partly revealing her sources. In a way, Caroline is writing contemporary history. This may seem like a paradoxical task, but Caroline is one of the few people I know who’s comfortably situated in the present, and within her generation. She carves her own way, but isn’t fighting against something; she is both fruitfully productive and reflective.
A forthcoming book from Green Lantern Press is a reprint of an 1819 newspaper produced by sailors aboard an ice-bound boat, and is being updated with works of contemporary art and essays. The ice-captive sailors, who opted to write and publish only positive news while on board, and who created theater productions to pass the time, is a bit like an artist-run exhibition space, says Caroline. At some point it’s just something that people do, and then it gathers momentum, and then community and art are born, and it keeps you sane.
Green Lantern, which holds exhibitions, performances, film screenings and author readings, has been under fire from city hall recently for not holding the proper permits, forcing the upcoming May exhibition to be the last at this location. Caroline is seeing the closure optimistically, though, as a chance to regroup, and possibly further integrate the exhibits and the publishing company, and has her eyes set on the fall of 2010. I asked Caroline why it’s necessary, or even possible, to print books on paper in an age of rapidly changing information on the web. She admitted that she’s still working on finding how best to straddle the line between the digestible and the difficult, but favors a “slow digestion”—the healthy, nourishing kind.
Strangers and neighbors leave bolts of fabric at Danny Mansmith’s doorstep. His storefront studio, with its door welcomingly ajar, and its street-level display window stuffed with fabric figurines, has been an unusual sight on this residential strip of North Damen Avenue, but now kids run in and point to the hanging pieces, and fabric scraps like small offerings are gifted. Danny is an incessant maker and a whiz with the sewing machine. Take a trip to his studio and your eyes will be crawling all over the art-saturated space. With fabric artworks hanging like flags from the ceiling and seamstress dolls crowding the corners, it feels a bit like a childhood visit to grandmother’s walk-in closet—which isn’t such a stretch since Danny easily recalls the clothes that his grandmother did make for him when he was a kid. A homemade terry-cloth sweater caused no embarrassment for little Danny, who wore the towel with pride until it fell apart. Perhaps this early comfort with homespun artistry spawned his experimental nature (Danny dropped out of art school rather quickly): sewn drawings; androgynous Adam and Eve sculptures; clothing with rival feminine and masculine connotations.
As a self-taught artist, Danny found his own taste and style as a fashion designer, and there’s crossover between his wearable garments and his drawings. These resemble the waif-like and stylized illustrations form fashion magazines, with smeary makeup faces protruding like masks. Many figures are slightly contorted, as if caught in the act. Their clothes or skin or surroundings swirl like wind pattern maps. Colors bleed from a gash. The garments act as bandage, binding emotional charges with cloth.
Danny is no friend to minimalism, and he wears his individualism on his sleeve—in fact he likely made the sleeve in his workshop, and hand-stitched the hem and added some subtle detailing, all in a day when ten other things were also made.
Liz Nielsen’s head is in the stars—or at least that’s what she wishes. She probably reads more science magazines than art journals, and the Large Hadron Collider recently built in Switzerland, which, it is hoped, will recreate subatomic particle conditions a split second after the big bang, has Liz buzzing. Never leaving Earth is like never going outside your house, she says in the tone of a hopeful agoraphobic, and as much energy and excitement she has for outer-space, the best way for her to get there now is through her art. It’s a fine marriage, too: art and science, both approaching the world as if it were a question. So, gasses, cosmic explosions, parallel universes and deep space are the stuff of Liz’s art, and her medium is photography, tinkered with in a closet in her home, Narnia-like.
Liz has a ton of energy for what she does, but she also likes to have fun. Recently she’s been making animal-hybrid doodles on Shrinky Dinks, almost as alternate life forms for the stars and planets she produces. In the oven, the drawings shrink (as is the brand’s specialty), and a new herd of palm-sized galactic animals are born. “I’m not interested in the knowable, things like God,” she says, “but I’m drawn to the unattainable.” Holding the shrunken drawings on your hand, they’re precious but strange, like domestic cats, she says, “exotic, beyond exotic,” but cute.
With her pal Josh Kozuh, Liz operates Swimming Pool Project Space, a storefront gallery that’s probably the first of its kind on this strip of West Montrose Avenue, a pass-through drag of brick-faced apartments and grated-window nail salons, in the Albany Park neighborhood. Like many artist-run spaces, its location is unlikely, as is the way it functions, for Liz and Josh don’t run it as a hang-a-painting-on-the-wall gallery. The programming at The Pool (as the rectangular and blue-painted floor is affectionately called) “is biased,” says Liz—which is to be expected of a gallery not dependent on a dealer-collector system. “I’m interested in what’s beyond ‘good,’” admits Liz; “just relevant.” The challenge has so far been met with an endurance-hugging performance by Young Sun Han, a multifaceted group video show, and Shannon Goff’s horse-drawn carriage constructed of cardboard—each a surprise following another.
After a few years working as an ad man for Big Tobacco and Big Soda, Mike Bancroft had the big-picture realization that he could continue his marketing career at a comfortable but complacent speed for the rest of his life. “I took the left turn,” he says, and now Mike runs Co-op Image, which introduces extracurricular arts programs to students with limited resources. The projects are an endeavor in “community art,” a term that could doubly mean bringing people together via art, or using the bonds of community as a sculptural material. A recent project drew attention to the city of Chicago’s eviction of the homeless from freeway underpasses right at the start of our subzero winter. Called “Piñata Factory,” Mike engaged his students to make more than 200 piñatas and stuffed them into the chain-link enclosures, creating absurd cages. Mike enjoys the tongue-in-cheek aspect as long as it helps us see we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves.
Chicago is often called the city of neighborhoods, which, to Mike, means that they’re isolated from one another. Even Humboldt Park, where he lives and works, is heavily divided by gang turf wars. Many people dislike crossing Division Street for fear of mistakenly trespassing an invisible line of violence. In an act of reclamation, Mike and his students installed small radio transmitters in abandoned newspaper boxes to broadcast live or recorded messages on both sides of the boulevard. This was an act of infiltration, through an accessible and friendly means.
Mike shrugs, “I’m an artist, or whatever you want to call it,” and although using visuals in every project has been important to him from the start, he believes that Chicago isn’t a place to become famous as an artist. Rather, and ideally, it’s a place to get things done. He does, occasionally, take his show on the road. Mike believes that the recent fight over copyright and fair use, as embodied by the Shepherd Fairey versus the Associated Press legal battle, is important, but misunderstood by Fairey himself. As an artist who appropriates images, Fairey has gone on to sue other artists who borrow his own trademarks, notably Obey. As a parody, Mike will set up a lemonade stand outside Fairey’s museum retrospective in Boston, and sell touristy photographs of himself posing with Fairey’s art, as a way to sell Fairey’s art itself. Mike expects that police will get involved, but for him, it’s just a way to uphold his view that we’ve got to open ourselves up to get things done.
Published in Newcity (April 28, 2009)