The Department of Cultural Affairs and the Chicago Artists’ Coalition report that there are an estimated 80,000 artists and “creative types” in Chicago. So it was an exceedingly difficult decision to feature seven, or about one one-hundredth of one percent of the 80,000. The criteria for inclusion were based loosely on the notion of an emerging artist—youngish, industrious and under-recognized—but as Luke Batten of New Catalogue mentioned, artists are always emerging. True enough. The seven Chicago artists deemed 2008’s Breakouts exhibit a propensity toward change, as if a ceaseless interest in learning new things and playing with new materials are the marks of the contemporary artist. Artists are less and less becoming pigeonholed in their own practice, for everything is available, all the time. No longer is there a need to specialize, unless self-reinvention is a specialty.
Kelly Kaczynski has built two mountains that will crash into each other. “I don’t make small things,” remarks Kaczynski as she modestly gestures toward her mountains, each a sixteen-foot-tall kinetic sculpture, a spiraling scaffold of raw lumber and metal armatures. Visitors to the her exhibition at Hyde Park Art Center are asked to ascend the stairs to a stage—there are two of them that face each other, each with its own mountain—and to grab a rope, and pull. Underneath the stage is a pulley system that moves these mountains, as if the person activating the rope is riding plate tectonics. A bridge of pointed arms connects the hulking, twisting mountains. These will slowly dig into each other, pushing on the opposing spines that will buckle, crack and collapse.
It is hoped the collapse will happen in a prescribed way so that the destruction won’t inelegantly devolve past danger. Kaczynski acknowledges the risk factor through careful planning, but also addresses that the success of this mammoth project will be measured in its unsuccessfulness. It’s almost Sisyphean, the amount of sweat and muscle that has gone into building a structure intended to collapse, but the plan isn’t decadent or futile—it’s purposeful. Kaczynski courts impermanence with an air like a Zen koan. Granted, we crave safety and stability, but with a smile and a wink, she presents us a moment to play with destruction.
It’s important for Kaczynski to note that the whole thing takes place on a stage. This is act two in “Olympus Manger,” her multi-scene theatrical production about how we lose ourselves. The plot is simple—things change—and the tension between characters, or the viewers, is pointed. Viewers also performed act one on Kaczynski’s stage at the University of Buffalo’s Art Gallery in 2006. There, viewers could experience the view of a landscape beneath the stage by getting on hands and knees and sticking their head through a hole. This private viewing placed them in an ostrich-like position— head disappeared and butt in the air—onstage, for all to see. If viewers believed they were enjoying their private scenery, then they could also believe they weren’t vulnerable to other viewers’ enjoyment at seeing their vulnerability.
In act two of “Olympus Manger,” Kaczynski bumps up the vulnerability a few degrees. Viewers finding themselves causing destruction by the simple pull of a string might be thrilled at the strength of their own hand. Kaczynski delights in this sort of realization, hoping to spark a moment of clarity or complexity—whichever is lacking. Following the project’s completion, she’ll be teaching a seminar she designed for her students on the subject of failure, an apt topic indeed.
New Catalogue operates as if they were the purveyors of a stock-photography bank. Luke Batten and Jonathan Sadler are the project managers, the photographers and, importantly, they are the clients. Batten and Sadler define the need or the problem and then carry out its photographic solution. The early projects stayed true to the enterprise’s design as an image storehouse by producing generic scenery of trees and college campuses. The conceptual wit and novelty evolved into projects that have become increasingly specific and strange, as if fulfilling a gap in the stock-footage industry: a boy recording ambient sounds in nature for his experimental art film; collegiate blonds posing with BB guns; cheerleaders lost in the woods.
The next step in their progression twisted and inverted the framework of the image bank by producing photographs as illustrations to explicit, rather than generic, narratives. The series “A. Hitler and D. Eckart: Obersalzberg to Hoher Goll” is a photographic journey tracing Hitler’s favorite nature path where the dictator would ruminate on his writings. Variously exhibited at “Loaded Landscapes” at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago and at the Prague Biennial, the series of thirty images can be split in any number of ways to see different stories. Without knowing the narrative, though, Hitler’s favorite forest footpath could easily be used to illustrate the idea of serenity, or wilderness tours. There’s no “Hitler was here” signpost within the image, but the artists would always want us to know what we are seeing, reminding us that portions of history are easily lost to the overgrowth of time.
The question of the best way to represent a moment or a place or a person is at stake again in the Dag Hammarskjöld project, a huge series of images tied more to typography and graphic design than photography. Dag Hammarskjöld, former UN Secretary General, was a truly idiosyncratic figure with a multi-dimensional mind, but he becomes stylized in the project to the degree of a minimal sculpture. His biography becomes a set of repeated words from his diary, a basic palette of pink, gray, black and white, and his name is turned into a mantra—Dag Dag Dag. The project isn’t yet finished, so its final form is to be determined. As a portrait of a historic figure, we learn about him through typefaces and compositions, which is to say we learn little. The point of the project may not be a true biography, but a look at how good design contributes the lion’s share of knowledge about a subject. It’s a superficial understanding of the subject, and an apt portrayal of how we consume public figures, as if to say that branded identity is identity.
Similarly, New Catalogue is mining its own past. This summer, draughtsmen will be hired to sketch the entire back catalog, as if retroactively conceptualizing the various projects. What may seem absurd at first is hardly absurd considering that the overarching frame of New Catalogue is to expose our comfort living in proximity to highly stylized fictions.
The latest photographic series, “Tiger Afternoon,” from which “Boy” is featured on the cover of the March/April 2008 issue of Art on Paper magazine, distills an idea about adolescent sexuality by promoting it. If there’s a critique of the adolescent sexuality image-producing machine, it’s definitely hidden within the pleasure of viewing such images.
As a way to think about the role of fictional images within culture, the structure of the stock-photo bank is ingenious. For photographers, creating work in a series is a traditional method. Whereas typologies (say, the Bechers) and documentary footage reveal the subtleties of sameness in everyday life, constructed images are subject to a whole other classification—that of the boardroom and the marketing team. One has to wonder if there will be a time when every idea and crumb of history will be subject to a layout in a style-magazine spread, educational only insofar as appealing to the eye.
Is feng shui, the Chinese practice of harmonious arrangement, vastly different from an artist’s ability to perceive and execute good composition? Is magical thinking, or compulsive, “odd rituals,” a world apart from creativity? Stacie Johnson’s paintings of still-lifes placed “just so” bespeak a subtle collaboration with the world and sensitivity to its inhabitants.
She began painting the familiar interiors of her life (kitchen, hallway, studio) several years ago after experimenting with abstraction. Free-flowing, intuitive painting was a good way to channel a certain kind of energy, but the results never achieved the sense of life-dwelling lightness that she found in objects touched daily. These pictures emit a calmness tempered by controlled placement, logical perhaps only to the artist, yet visible nonetheless. Some of the current pictures concretize this vision of restraint by representing systems of symmetry and fixity, of push and pull. But there’s a trick: they appear casual and spontaneous. Johnson has found a way to be an abstract expressionist by being neither abstract nor expressionistic.
Johnson typically begins a painting by constructing a maquette. So, the scenes are sculptural before they are paintings. These are throwaway objects made of raw materials such as string, pink-insulation material and milk crates. She constructs props into shapes, say, a six-pointed star or a pointy circle composed of a string wound taut through nails in the studio wall. Because her style is loosely trompe-l’oeil, these objects make a very real appearance in the paintings. There’s something ritualistic about the arrangement of the sculptures-come-paintings. Anyone who has listened to the impulse to place a talisman above an entryway will recognize Johnson’s objects as amulets or magic signs. Perhaps they are modernist voodoo idols, poised to guide the artist’s hand through a perfect composition. It takes a tuned eye to recognize the faces that emerge from inanimate objects, and it takes an eye fed on good old superstition to see those faces as friends. Everything can be an omen.
The author John Fante often begins his novels about his experiences as a writer and the struggles of the writing process, from sitting down at the typewriter to dealing with an agent. This isn’t necessarily the content of the story, but a framing tool, as if the other elements of life happen only in context to writing. After all, he presents his life to us in the form of words. So too do Johnson’s paintings begin with the act of painting in order to open a door and lead us into a tale about the artist’s life. Surely Johnson’s paintings are personal, and they often respond to the particular places where they are exhibited, and the people who run that space. The circuitry of painting objects in the painting studio, or painting stuff found in the exhibition space, tells us about Johnson’s special relationship to her practice: it is in concordance with her life.
Mariano Chavez’s universe is populated with trolls, grotesquely gigantic breasts, flowers and cavemen. Certainly there’s a John Waters plot in there somewhere. If it’s inappropriate and embarrassing, chances are that Chavez has captured it. Even bouquets of flowers rendered in pastel seem suspect in the context of Chavez’s body of work—a world of cartoonish ugliness and proud despair.
Growing up in South Texas in a town with only “religion and bars,” a true shit hole, explains Chavez, the nastiness crept through and took center stage in his art as if by destiny. After leaving home with 300 bucks in his pocket and eyes set on high-class Paris, he ended up in Chicago, attended art school, and has since worked at various architectural salvage companies in the city. The warehouse where Chavez works and keeps his studio is fitted out like an architectural butcher shop, with iron grates hanging from the ceiling and ruined ornamental slabs against the walls. It’s a fitting environment for an artist whose process includes scavenging source material, say, Time Life’s pictorial encyclopedias or Internet porn. What many may gloss with a passing interest, Chavez sees material ripe with meaning.
“Children will love it, adults will be terrified,” Chavez says of his new poster design for an art exhibition. The poster features a recurring character from many his other posters, prints and paintings: a drug-eyed floating face with a plump lolling tongue that hangs somehow out both the front and back of its head. This figure’s reappearance represents within Chavez’s body of work what he sees as happening across the visual spectrum—reiterated symbols that provide constant meaning. This includes something as simple as flowers, but also something as strange as the over-sexualized female body. The Venus of Willendorf, for instance, is comparable to Wendy Whoppers, the porn star with impossibly huge breasts. This constant symbol of the female body bloated with sexuality may be viewed differently by various cultures, yet its outline has remained mostly unchanged over centuries.
Chavez’s canvases often scratch at something taboo, although it’s not quite certain what exactly might be the nasty bit. Some are sexually suggestive, while others are racially charged; it’s not clear how or why these might offend, yet they do. Chavez isn’t to blame for creating this nastiness. His collage process pulls images from varied sources, from mass culture to ethnographic surveys. If the art is disgusting, it’s only because that’s what is available.
Chavez has been criticized for not painting his disgustingness with enough beauty, such as a work by John Currin or Lisa Yuskavage. To his credit, it’s easy enough to pull an image of Wendy Whoppers from the Internet. Pixelated, the image is truer to the form we recognize. But many of Chavez’s prints are also hand-colored and do emit a rarefied air, even if they are only concert posters as quickly torn down as they are pasted up. He maintains a respect for artistry if the piece warrants it, and this can mean careful consideration of watercolor atop silkscreen or endless revisions of a print series until he gets it just right. The process of making art is slow; it takes time to ferment, like the link he sees between the prehistoric female idol and the 1980s porn star. Looking again at Wendy Whoppers, Chavez jokes, “There’s nothing to love.” With breasts like weapons, sex becomes terrifying. Life is short; art is long; despair is long, too.
When Amy Honchell began shopping at Spandex House in Manhattan, her sculptures took on the vibrant colors usually associated with superheroes and exotic dancers. She previously stuck to the basic range of flesh tones available from drugstore pantyhose, and this worked well to suggest the anthropomorphic shapes she was building at the time. For Honchell, spandex opened the door to a series of trampy, psychedelic work. That the stuff could be pinned to a wall and stretched over a space like neon sugar drool amplified its strange associative possibilities. These sculptures transformed architectural spaces into abstract bodily forms, say, an intestinal cavity or a pocket full of eggs. Given that a living organism’s interior body has no color, for there is no light, the folds and flesh walls might as well be granted the beautiful and arbitrary colors provided by the purveyors of Spandex House.
Honchell primarily uses textile and fabric in its various forms. When she had completed her exploration of spandex, darker objects found their way into her hands, along with different shapes and points of inspiration. Most recently, “Purl” is a floor-bound sculpture on view at estudiotres gallery in “Fair Game,” a group exhibition about the transformation of found objects. Honchell had come into possession of hundreds of pounds of donated garments, all from a single source—a recently deceased avid sewer and quilter. The trove of fabric took some time to sort, and it comprised, according to Honchell, a “forty-year survey of the American plaid,” a vernacular print through and through. Unlike the fantastical stories told by spandex, these plaids, along with age-old denim and other sewing castoffs, represented for Honchell an opportunity to bring a myriad of viewers to the work. Strangeness gave way to the common and the familiar. The dusty, fading plaids speak in a hushed tone. Like being in the presence of grandmothers, we must crane our necks in their direction, and be attentive, and maybe we will learn a thing or two.
A close viewing of “Purl” reveals a stitched line that gives each head-sized pod a swirling texture and also holds the layers of cloth together. These layers are dense; they could well be thickets of memory, their soft folds of information giving up antique gems to digging hands. “There’s something beyond what we see,” says Honchell, nodding to the metaphor of memory.
At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where Honchell teaches in the progressive Fiber and Material Studies program, cloth and garments are often subject to political, philosophic and feminist narratives. Honchell notes that these are important histories, but today’s textiles are not as gender-specific as they were years ago. She prefers that viewers access her sculpture from a poetic and personal entry.
Published in Newcity (April 2008)