This is the seventh issue of Breakout Artists, our annual selection of Chicago’s best emerging visual artists. Chicago is a visually stimulating city with tons of energy and room to thrive. It’s no wonder that artists find it an inspiring place to create. This year we are expanding our own definitions to include designers and illustrators, who contribute to our visual landscape as much as gallery artists do. Breakout Artists make fresh, innovative and compelling work—see for yourself.
In the “City of Night” series, Edie Fake begins with the name of a historic Chicago place that served or promoted the gay and lesbian community, such as Sappho, The Virgo Out and The Cabin Inn, and dresses it up in architectural fantasy. Although all of these clubs, bars, community centers and gathering spots are now shuttered, photographs and narratives exist in various local archives. Still, Fake reimagines their street-view facades using a composite of architectural details culled from his observation of Chicago vernacular architecture. These are small, human-scaled buildings, decidedly not skyscrapers, that sport rainbow siding, or a swinging saloon door, or slanted roofs like a suburban residence. The facades are still and quiet, like the exaggerated monuments to the dead in Graceland Cemetery; the people are harbored inside.
The “City of Night” series is Fake’s small side project to his grand scroll of Chicago gay history, currently in progress. He describes the scroll as a huge visual map, though not linear, as a “pile of history.” It will be more historically functional than the creative portraits of long-gone clubs, as Fake is conducting research locally at the
Leather Archives, the Chicago History Museum and the Gerber/Hart Library. Both the scroll and the “City of Night” series are part of Fake’s investigation into the psychology of lost, or hidden, or secret, Chicago locales. Fake is also good at hand-drawing decorative patterns. The houndstooth, herringbone and geometric labyrinth designs (plus tons more hand-drawn patterns in Fake’s multi-issue zine “Gaylord Phoenix”) are not superficial pattern porn but, like the long-gone clubs, have their own social histories and cultures of identity. The patterns express a social and cultural continuum.
The Plural graphic design studio resides down the street from the former Cabrini-Green public-housing development. On the day I visited the studio, a wrecking ball was flattening the last tower and sorting the rubble into piles of reusable materials, and on a table inside the studio, the image of a crumbling Cabrini-Green tower was silhouetted by a pop of orange spray paint, on the cover of Lumpen magazine’s issue 115. Plural had been tasked with redesigning the twenty-year-old Chicago-based publication with a new visual identity that would ultimately reinvigorate its readership. Lumpen is a free magazine distributed on the streets, with writing about local and global political communities, and although Plural admitted to not agreeing with everything written in the magazine (it contains some extremist viewpoints), they admired its aggressive pursuit of free expression, and so they united Lumpen’s brazen content with a bold and rebellious visual identity. With the Cabrini-Green cover image, Plural saw a complicated public icon and reality right in their own backyard. Design is the restructuring of experience, and if it is successful design, a public will be drawn to it, and through it, and transformed by it.
Plural was co-founded by Jeremiah Chiu and Renata Graw, who met in the grad program at UIC, and opened their studio in 2008. Graw is from Brazil and Chiu plays with several bands, including Icy Demons. Both of them have worked in the visual arts, which may be why Chicago’s cultural institutions are becoming a major share of Plural’s client base. They’ve taken on new commissions by the DePaul Art Museum and the Chicago Architecture Foundation, in addition to current and past projects for the Lyric Opera and Ravinia.
Plural delights in the experience of printed materials. They work with a printer who has a budget for experimental and research projects, and they are rethinking how a throwaway, such as a product brochure, can instead be a coveted keepsake. For clients such as Volume Gallery (which sells furniture) and The Whistler (the Logan Square bar with a storefront window art gallery), Plural created brochures that unfold into posters that have a strong affinity for geometric abstraction and visual play. Indeed, if our world is multi-dimensional and dynamic, it should be represented that way.
Ryan Fenchel’s objects breed curiosity. Although he often cites secret rites and mystical creeds as inspiration, with the work taking on the form of pyramids and ritual objects, the works do not fling open the doors of revelation. Fenchel likes the look of secrecy, and how one secret yields one more. He creates symbols hand-carved from marble, clay masks that scream through time, and culturally vague vessels like artifacts from Plato’s junk drawer. In addition to the texturally fascinating details of Fenchel’s discrete objects, it is important that they be viewed together, in arrangements, as contrasts and comparisons, as a collection meticulously tended by the artist. What results is a curio shelf, an altar, a special clutter of arcane paraphernalia where everything adds up to an essence as taut as smoke. This is slippery territory, but Fenchel wisely does not burden his objects with rigid meanings. Instead, the objects, happy in their freedom, welcome healthy speculation.
Fenchel says he makes things with “the imagination in my hands.” Where sometimes his clay objects are primitive and provisional, his frames and other wood structures are exact and simple. He cites an interest in the confluence of mid-century European modernism and traditional Japanese design, both being methods of construction that streamline style but demand careful and observant interaction. Layered on top or within the smooth geometric wood forms is the assembly of objects, from the functional to the freeform, and in various materials, that inspire curious looking. In a famous anecdote, the great writer Anton Chekhov declared that anything could inspire a story, and grabbed a nearby ashtray as example. Fenchel is also aware of the myriad prompts for creative transformation in the world around him. A glass ashtray sits on the edge of one of his sculptures. It begs for embers; it refracts the light.
Like most of the people that ReadyMade magazine profiles in their regular column “How Did You Get That F*&%ing Awesome Job?” in which he’ll be featured in an upcoming issue, Chad Kouri did not climb the corporate ladder or envy the corner office, but constructed his job from many collected elements and merged them into a collaborative whole, as if it were one of his collages. Indeed, Kouri’s art, work and life have so many intersections that they appear as a single organism, digesting and creating the world at each turn. Kouri is an editorial illustrator, collage artist, graphic designer and recently became the Creative in Residence at Edelman, a PR firm in Chicago, which is a unique position they created especially for him. Essentially, he is their in-house artist, consulting on visual projects as if they were his art.
Kouri’s list of awesome jobs is ever-expanding. In September 2010, the design group smbolic asked Kouri to be the illustrator in residence at the Cusp conference, which was held at the MCA, so Kouri sat near the stage and made abstracted portraits of each presenter as collages on old autograph-book paper. With the Post Family, he works on collaborative projects and curates exhibitions. Kouri is a chronic collaborator, but he also maintains a studio practice, making collages from found papers, takeout menus and old product catalogs. These
sometimes become the basis for his editorial illustrations but they are also just collages to be looked at, because they look good. Kouri often gives these away to new artistic accomplices, and so the collages, made of the stuff of the world, and reinserted back into it, are also collaborations.
Kouri has started a new artist-grant program with Edelman. Called Spark, it will award a small sum of money to a creative person who works with the community in an artistic and educational way. The grant was Kouri’s way of making sure that his office job “could have implications for the art community in every way.”
“Bodacious” is how Austin Eddy describes the women in his current series of paintings. They are naked, and their curves exaggerated, but not for the purpose of sexual display. Rather, the large bodies are a way for Eddy to explore how forms invigorate a space. “Skinny people don’t fill a canvas,” he jokes. One woman is pregnant, to give her more mass. The poses are sometimes uncomfortable, as if limbs and torsos were split through a prism, and they are always strikingly expressive. Eddy is going through a Picasso-Matisse period, drawing with paint and filling vaguely mythological scenes with color.
In the past couple of years Eddy’s paintings of chairs and interiors could be seen all around Chicago. The uninhabited scenes were animated by vibrant wallpaper and textile patterns as if channeling Hockney and Matisse. Eddy recently switched to oil paint, and also changed his subject matter to naked figures, mostly outdoors. The bodies sometimes meld into the surrounding leaves and landscapes, or else they emerge brazenly. Eddy considers the figures, their settings and the mythological narratives as entry points into explorations of color, line and form.
Myths, like musical standards, are places where an artist can inject his own interpretations. Eddy pointed to a bearded man with an erection in a forest, identifying him as Adam or Buddha—“the same, really.” In his studio it was propped on a thick book with the word Aesthetics large on its spine—the theory of looking good.
Benjamin Bellas creates little elegies to life, loss and love. He sets up the conditions for simple, readymade objects to express their own—and our—inevitable slide into demise. The emotional byproducts of entropy become the content of Bellas’ art. It is important that his materials, from lightbulbs and Post-It notes to cigarette lighters and rainwater, are familiar objects, making his subtle reflections on everyday life all the more insightful.
The documents of his performances and gestures often resemble experiments, such as cigarette lighters lit until they burn and melt themselves, or five gallons of water from Lake Michigan left to evaporate in a room. Bellas attaches symbolic content to these simple acts, so that these things represent, by way of example, the elegantly provisional nature of existence. This may sound depressingly austere, but often Bellas injects a bit of humor or absurdity into the picture to heighten the effect. A memory-foam pillow is squashed into a boot-shaped drinking glass, indicative of the personal and nostalgic qualities we sometimes attach to kitschy objects. A flashlight tossed into Lake Michigan at twilight emits its dull beam beneath the shallow waves, which the artist declares as the end to his “endless searching.”
Bellas’ art is the offspring of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ bittersweet objects and Fischli and Weiss’ sly tinkerings. He refines and reduces a narrative to its core, leaving the emotional complexities to sit within the viewer, but he is unafraid to employ a little technology in order to make objects speak louder and more clearly. A new work connects NASA’s Twitter feed to a tea kettle, so that each time a meteor approaches Earth, the kettle sharply, but futilely, whistles for attention. It’s these articulate gestures that make Bellas an astute interpreter of the human condition.
Published in Newcity (April 27, 2011)