Breakout Artists is our annual selection of Chicago’s best emerging artists. The 2012 selection is dedicated to artists who collaborate—with the community, with other artists, and with the city itself. Their medium is ephemeral, their message is inclusive. Public and performance art practices are an exciting way to re-envision how the city operates socially, culturally and geographically.
Every week Newcity’s art section dives head first into this city’s vast art scene, but the Breakout Artists issue gives us a chance to step back, survey the city in total, and reflect on the history and future of Chicago art. The seven artists here represent the forward momentum of contemporary art, and they were chosen to offer you—reader, maker, thinker—our picture of the new.
Alberto Aguilar’s art studio is simply located in his house. When he started getting requests for studio visits, he wanted the guests to feel at home. So he served them food, and the personal dinner invitation project was born. This was around 2009, and since then Alberto has hosted more than a dozen dinners in his home and in other neighborhoods and cities. The evening could last four hours or more, including a five-course meal prepared and served by the artist and his family, with curious menu items such as “a game,” “a serenade,” “a piñata” and “bridges to unknown places.” Often, this means presentations and performances from guest artists, such as his friends Edra Soto and Jorge Lucero, with Alberto as ringleader. The piñata was in the shape of a Judd stacked-box sculpture, and the kids smashed it to a pulp.
Alberto expanded the premise of his dinner parties by inviting his “friends” on Facebook—the odd assortment of strangers and near acquaintances that he has never met in person—to dine with him and each other, and to be served by Alberto. A recent dinner at the Southside Hub of Production capped his exhibition in the Hyde Park mansion-turned-art space, where Alberto and his kids rigged booby traps and “domestic monuments,” or interventions in the residence using the available furnishings. Guests left with a goody-bag of art objects and ephemera from the evening, and were later mailed a personalized postcard collage. “I’ve given in to tenderness,” says Alberto—“the thing they told you to stay away from in art school.” Now he’s a tenured professor in the art program at Harold Washington College, and his love of making connections with people has grown into an art practice. He alludes to the first meal he served to his guests, a Mexican mole sauce, as a collage of ingredients that, almost impossibly, adds up to a delicious dinner. The dinner events can be like that, too. Everything goes in, and the result is serendipitous.
Homicide rates spike during Chicago’s so-called “killing season,” the summer months between Memorial Day and Labor Day. During this period in 2010 there were about 170 murders across the city. Such numbers often feel like abstractions as the violence happens to other people, over there, on the far South and West Sides. Krista Wortendyke wanted to give dimension to the little stick-figure infographic in the RedEye that tallies the death toll, so she decided to visit each murder site and photographically record the death scene. It was a bit like detective work to search for details about the crime, but she befriended a few police officers to escort her. One cop she met at a bar, and another at a shooting range. Krista says that one officer eventually took ownership of the project with her, and the project became a collaborative effort. Often they would find themselves in a grim part of the city, or in a viaduct, or on the train tracks. Most often, though, Krista was photographing the exterior of someone’s home in the early morning hours. The power of these images comes from their familiarity. They are anyplace Chicago, with its vernacular residential architecture and gridded cement horizon. She has displayed the images, stacked like an urban skyline, at the Museum of Contemporary Photography and as a public mural in Wicker Park. Her desired audience is people who don’t have to think daily about the fatal violent acts that occur daily.
Google Maps has provided Krista with a perfect second platform for exposure. As any internet user can, Krista uploaded her photographs of Chicago locales onto the website, along with text about the specific murder. Large areas of Chicago’s West Side have not been ventured by Google Street View, so Krista’s tragic images often serve as the primary depiction of an under-represented neighborhood. The Google Maps intervention is a timely and solid extension of Krista’s total body of work. Although she is a photographer, Krista’s main output has been photo-conceptual projects that take issue with, or work to correct, a perceived error in the representation of violence imagery in popular culture. Krista’s recent residency at a middle school in the Austin neighborhood through TEAM (Transforming Education through the Arts and Media), an advocacy group launched by the Center for Community Arts Partnerships at Columbia College, has brought new life to her project. There, she’s teaching kids how to creatively discuss the homicides that take place in their own front yards.
Kirsten Leenaars’ current video project is her largest, most ambitious production to date, which is fitting, considering that her topic—happiness—is no small matter. Leenaars was prompted last year by curator Tricia Van Eck to explore some specific questions: Who is responsible for happiness? What is the relationship between happiness and public policy? Acting as a neighborhood artist-in-residence, Leenaars opened a pop-up space in Edgewater to interview the ward’s alderman, community activists, students and anybody who felt like walking in and talking about what happiness means to them—in total, forty-eight people from the 48th ward. “What drives me to make work,” says Leenaars, “is the simple understanding that in one way or another we are all connected, all human, all in the business of being human with all our flaws, projections, desires, hopes and fears.” A police commander, decades on the job, came in and, somewhat surprisingly, opened a conversation about the inherent goodness of people.
The community interviews became material for a script. A film set was built at the Senn High School auditorium, in Edgewater, with students acting as community members and community members acting as themselves. Potholes and bedbugs— major barriers to widespread happiness—became part of the drama’s chorus, although the script was open and loose. Actors were asked to improvise and perform the vignettes through bodily movements and actions. Like her soap opera video series, “On Our Way to Tomorrow” at the MCA and “Hairy Blob” at the Hyde Park Art Center, in which art administrators enact their daily, behind-the-scenes activities, the “Happiness” video will turn out like a piece of creative nonfiction where the issues are heightened, abstracted and edited. “I didn’t come up with any solutions,” says Leenaars about the happiness question, but she did find that the sense of belonging in a community is a powerful, perhaps universal, feeling. “I am a bit of an eternal optimist,” she says.
The organizers of The Northwest Flower and Garden Show in Seattle initially rejected Carson Fisk-Vittori’s application for an exhibition booth. The decision couldn’t have come as a surprise. Carson’s sculptures, which use domestic plants as readymade sculptural material, tend to exacerbate the mortality of her objects. A fern suffocates inside a space bag, or ivy leaves are thumb-tacked to the wall. Carson and her project collaborators, Sol Hashemi and Elizabeth Abrahamson, finally convinced the Garden Show organizers that no plants would be harmed during the run of the expo, and they exhibited their uncomfortably contemporary plant arrangements to a slightly perplexed audience. The installation wasn’t intended to infiltrate or subvert the Garden Show. Rather, they were pitching their critique to insiders. Who else but Garden Show attendees could better understand the aesthetic use-value of nature and the desire to hand-manipulate it? At last, Carson and friends implicated flower arrangers into art-world discourse, from which they’re usually excluded.
Nature is one of the oldest subjects of art; it is a ceaselessly relevant and urgent topic. Yet, Carson isn’t an environmentalist and her message isn’t moralistic, although she does admit that she loves to surround herself with plants. Carson finds in plants a perfect ambiguity: their enduring beauty and their easy disposability. Unlike the Earthworks artists of the 1960s, Carson is primarily concerned with the significance of indoor, domestic plants. She shoves them into décor schemes, such as light fixtures, and into mini-ecologies, such as a makeshift ant farm. When she displays plants alongside other found objects—food packaging from Costco and Internet stock-photography—the still-life arrangements celebrate our absurd relationship with nature: shrubs as a dash of green here, an accent shape there. In the future, Carson hopes she’ll be able to extend her taste for artifice by designing a large-scale, semi-permanent landscape.
For full coverage, with contributions by Lee Colon, visit the Newcity site.
Published in Newcity (May 3, 2012)