Many, though certainly not all, Chicago gallery exhibitions are geared towards openings; often, attending the opening reception of an exhibition is the easiest and most practical way to see a show because the gallery’s subsequent public viewing hours are either infrequent or by appointment only. I dislike seeing works of art during openings because the presence of crowds of people make it very difficult for me to quiet my mind and my body in the manner that many artworks demand (this is especially true if I plan to write about the work later). Because of this, I’m always dashing around trying to make sure I’ve seen all the exhibitions on my list during the last weeks of their run. Here are a couple of shows I’ve seen recently that will close after this weekend. They’re at galleries with standard Tu-Sat viewing hours, and well-worth the effort to check out, if you haven’t already.

Greg Stimac at Andrew Rafacz Gallery (last day open is Saturday, March 13th). Walking into the gallery, you might at first assume that Stimac’s photographs are of a starry night sky, or some kind of close-up shot of dandelion fluff scattering in the wind. Nope. They’re bugs splattered at full speed against Stimac’s car windshield, each inkjet print a record of a particular road trip undertaken by the artist (as Karstun Lund has pointed out in his press release text for the show). My own take on the images veers in a slightly different direction; I like to think of them as a form of battlefield photography. The torn limbs and smashed wings of each dive-bombing bug is reproduced in astonishingly delicate detail. We’re able to focus our attention on the individuality of each dead or dying creature but, inevitably, that attention is quickly revoked, overwhelmed by the chaotic vision of mass carnage.

Greg Stimac, Untitled (Chicago to Atlanta), 2009

Greg Stimac, Untitled (Great Falls to Spokane), 2009

Susan Giles, Memory Palace II, 2009. Paper.

Susan Giles at Kavi Gupta Gallery; Theaster Gates in the Project Room (last day is Saturday, March 13th). Although I enjoyed Susan Giles’ exhibition of dream-like architectural mash-ups in Kavi Gupta’s main gallery–all of which are made of paper, drained of color, and are affixed to the sides and edges of pedestals, the ceiling and the wall like fungal growths–when it comes to architecturally-themed work with an incredibly strong physical presence, the unceremonious installation of new works by artist/urban planner (and current Whitney Biennial participant) Theaster Gates located in the little project room down the hall held me completely in thrall. The room contains five shoeshine stands, which reference Gates’ incorporation of shoe-shining as a community/communal activity into his solo show at the MCA Chicago last year.

Theaster Gates, Shoe Shine Stands, 2010

Each shoeshine stand is upholstered in a different colored leather, and each seems to have its own personality–one chair was upholstered in an almost feminized bumpy white leather, another in a shade of deep red typically associated with the libraries and lounges of private men’s clubs, and still another was covered in a worn brown leather that was riddled with deep scratches and scars.

Gates gives us an image of community in one of its everyday, architecturally embodied forms: in this case, the shoeshine stand (and even more minimally, the chair). But it’s a symbolic image of power, too. Who gets to sit there, and who must stand or bend in submission before it? More provocatively, Gates’ chairs, with their particular social and cultural histories, suggests that the two positions might be a lot more equal than we think. And yet, when the shoe shine stands are abstracted from their original street context and no longer possessed of actual human bodies, they lose their ‘social standing,’ as it were, and become objects of aesthetic contemplation, with all the dangers that that entails. Given that these high-backed chairs appear as thrones, albeit rough-hewn wooden ones, we can’t help but consider the dynamic of vulnerability and acquiescence that flows between those who are seated in the chairs and those who offer their hands in service to them.

Strangely enough, the fact that Gates’ works were lodged in this out-of-the way alcove only increased their physical and emotional impact on me (several of Gates’ porcelain Whyte Paintings from 2010 are also on view here). There’s no mention of this presentation of Gates’ work on the gallery’s website (although it does make clear that Gates’ work was on view at Gupta’s booth at the Armory Show last weekend). There’s also no expressed or overarching context for presenting the work as it is here, and I only assumed it was for public consumption because of the checklist hanging outside the hallway entrance. Despite the absence of any larger rhetorical framework to shape my view of Gates’ newest sculptures (and most likely because of the resulting sense of discovery that such absences can afford) this was one of the more effective non-presentations of an artist’s work that I’ve seen in awhile.

Claudine Isé

Claudine Isé has worked in the field of contemporary art as a writer and curator for the past decade, and currently serves as the Editor of the Art21 Blog. Claudine regularly writes for and Chicago magazine, and has also worked as an art critic for the Los Angeles Times. Before moving to Chicago in 2008, she worked at the Wexner Center in Columbus, OH as associate curator of exhibitions, and at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles as assistant curator of contemporary art, where she curated a number of Hammer Projects. She has Ph.D. in Film, Literature and Culture from the University of Southern California.