¡Qué buenas noches! shouted Cameron Crawford and Vanessa Smith’s neighbor, her exclamation rising up the staircase into their Pilsen attic-apartment-sometimes-art-venue aptly named Brown Triangle, for brown abounds in wood floors and walls alike, and this attic story is one long triangle; the top tip of a house. Verily, it was a beautiful night – for singing, for guitar playing and for looking at some art, for hanging out and for drinking. Alternative art spaces housed in houses and apartments seem to proliferate in the summertime, and why shouldn’t they? It was a beautiful night to be reminded that artists and poets and musicians love their audiences. A little hospitality lends so much warmth to a hot summer night.
On Saturday evening Brown Triangle hosted their second event, organized by playwright Brian Torrey Scott, and featuring a healthy supply of varied art forms. Kate Mangold’s canvases seemed to hang as if by magic on the steep triangular walls. The paintings of stadiums and field bleachers are tight realistic scenes. Here they are people-less, and the absence of fanfare and sweat reveals a sort of loneliness inherent in a form of clean-edged functional architecture. As a backdrop for this night’s events, they remind us of our pleasure in spectatorship. Other offerings at Brown Triangle included a reading from an unpublished novel by Matthew Jewell about plushies, which are apparently people who have romantic relationships with stuffed animals. Naturally we were treated to a salacious sex scene involving furry tummies and maternal licking. My favorite part, though, involved a visit to the Art Institute where the guardian lions were granted sex appeal. The evening capped off with a dream-inducing set of music by The Cairo Gang, who seemed to be working out some new songs, and who didn’t really know how to finish them, but that was fine, I didn’t want them to end. Brown Triangle’s mission reads, “We are furniture, fashion, movie, symposium, and generally friendly.” Chris Miller’s piece of circular rotating cabinetry and Joseriberto Perez’s patterned canvases punctuated the raw space with moments of casually experimental interior decoration.
The same evening, Vega Estates was also hosting its second event of the summer in a five-part series of video screenings and sculptural installations taking part in the basement and the garage, respectively. Organized by Roxane Hopper and Julie Rudder (who are the tenants of the Vega Estates, Vega being their landlord), the place was buzzing with cheerful artists and laidback audiences, all glad to have a place to see or do something completely new. The feeling of the BBQ party might be inevitable in a backyard in the summertime, but the art offerings here by Jim Trainor and Sze Lin Pang reminded us that we came for the art. Sze Lin’s mélange of objects in the garage added up to a reference to Joseph Conrad’s oft-criticized novel “Heart of Darkness” about colonialism in Africa, here poetically reinterpreted to comment on Chinese relations, both environmental and political, with the rest of the world. And then once the sun sank deep, Jim Trainor began his slideshow lecture that tried to make sense of ancient Peruvian art featuring erotic and sacrificial themes. Whereas Trainor’s method makes great use of straight-faced absurdities, surely the Moche people were into something really deeply disturbing, something modern viewers can barely, if at all, grasp. “What was it like before you were born,” asks Trainor’s fictive main character to the Moche princess; his throat is quickly cut and blood drunk. Caroline Nutley’s keyboard music, some original scores and some Bach, accompanied the slideshow. Despite the solemnity of the theme, Trainor’s easy approach prompted laughs and, afterward, high-spirited chats in the backyard.
The motivation for starting an alternative art space in the garage and the basement began, says Hopper, with her desire to form a community for video artists and enthusiasts. Additionally, she wanted to provide a place where artists could present new ideas without the pressures that normally accompany the white-walled gallery show. Also supportive of this tactic, Rudder offered the garage to installation artists. Pretension has no place here, and although it may feel a little strange to enter a stranger’s home, Rudder reminds her guests of her modest intentions by providing a giving hand; she gives her home one night a month to art experiments and, it is rumored, serves homemade ice cream.
Walking down the steps under the home of Caleb Lyons and Kathryn Scanlan is like traveling through time: you end up in a wood-paneled basement with interior elements that could be dated from the 1960s or 70s. At Old Gold the wood stretches from floor to ceiling, there’s a built-in bar and a fireplace. What better place to start a contemporary art scene? The current show, curated by Sze Lin Pang (who showed her installation at Vega) is conceived around the idea “America” as experienced by foreign-born artists. Titled “I heart America and America hearts me,” the show opened on Independence Day and features about forty artists exhibiting an array of sculpture, painting, photography, installation, video, writing, and found objects that respond to the idea of American assimilation. Luckily, neither irony nor criticisms of rampant consumerism take precedence. Rather, Sze Lin chose artists who could deepen our understanding of a foreigner’s conception of America. On Friday, July 27 the show will close with a “fryvalry” in the backyard where Philip von Zweck’s vegetarian fried food will compete against Kevin Jennings’ meat-based fried foods.
Apartment galleries are nothing new to Chicago, and although they are often (too) short lived, they have become, in their various forms and locations, gathering places for a nomadic scene. Indeed there is more art than there are art venues in the city, and non-traditional spaces allow creative practices more elbow-room, encouraging the flow of experimentation through gracious offers to participate.
Brown Triangle is located at 2214 W. 21st Street. Vega Estates is located at 723 W 16th Street. Old Gold is located at 2022 North Humboldt Blvd.
Published in Newcity (July 24, 2007)