David Weinberg Photography
Chicago, May 22 – July 25, 2015
The savvy title caught my attention. The Reader’s wording in its art listing, “group show about the experience of living with poverty,” was even more curious. Was the description referring to works about the artists’ own cash-strapped lives? I made my premier visit to David Weinberg Photography in River North without advance review of the gallery’s website or An Invisible Hand press kit. It was a cold call.
The show’s curator Meg Noe greeted me and then I talked with gallery owner David Weinberg. With its white walls, creaking wood, and bright lights, the gallery seemed like others in the neighborhood. It didn’t take long to figure out that this gallery marches to a different beat. That is, Mr. Weinberg told me that last year the gallery began to collaborate with local social justice organizations when mounting exhibitions. The collaborators develop shows that serve as catalysts for creative thinking and critical conversations about serious issues.
Two such exhibitions preceded this one. Try Youth as Youth, a collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Illinois brought together work by artists committed to changing the juvenile justice system. We All We Got exhibited Carlos Javier Ortiz’s installation of photographs, essays, and letters in collaboration with Art Works Projects for Human Rights, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Latitude Chicago, and ACLU Illinois. It acquainted audiences with the realities of youth violence and its impacts on the lives of individuals and communities. The gallery also hosts Filter Photo Festival, an annual juried exhibition of contemporary photography.
An Invisible Hand is a collaboration between the gallery and Sargent Shriver Center on Poverty Law in Chicago. Poverty fuels human suffering and art about poverty is an ethical minefield. Contentious issues abound, such as the politics of photographer, subject, and framing and varnishing poverty with aesthetics. The Shriver Center is exceptionally trustworthy in matters relating to poverty. It has earned this trust by decades of work in solidarity with people of all ages, colors, shapes, and sizes who struggle with “the experience of living with poverty”—whether it has to do with hunger, education, healthcare, childcare, unemployment, wage theft, usury, transportation, housing, clean air and water, violence, mental illness, civil rights, crime, police, jails, lawyers, prosecutors, judges, penitentiaries, probation and parole officers.
An Invisible Hand isn’t an exhibition for the art-for-art’s-sake crowd. Let’s start with the title since its provenance isn’t universally known. The expression predates cartoonist Tom Tomorrow’s twenty-first century Attack of the Invisible Hand and Invisible–Hand–of-the-Free-Market Man. In fact, it dates back to the 1700s and Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith.
One of the places Smith invoked the hand was in his magnum opus Wealth of Nations: “Every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it … He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for society that it was no part of his intention. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.”
Like the legendary philosopher’s stone that transmutes base metals into gold, Smith’s invisible hand of the free market transforms a nation’s cacophony of competing self-interests into prosperity. Ever since his formulation, economists, historians, politicians, and cartoonists have been conjuring their own invisible hand.
An Invisible Hand artists (96 Acres, Patricia Evans, Jeremiah Jones, Dave Jordano, Lisa Lindvay, Billy McGuinness, John Preus, David Schalliol, and Lisa Vinebaum) create works based on their explorations of lives shadowed by hardship and need. Whether approaching their subjects as an insider or outsider, these artists aren’t voyeurs. Their work doesn’t equivocate. Living with poverty or hand-to-mouth, being underprivileged, poor, or broke, sleeping rough or being homeless: whatever it’s called, doing without is a hard way to live. Jeremiah Jones’s The Information is a montage of fourteen YouTube videos by people vlogging from the fracked up boomtown of Williston, North Dakota. Wal-mart looms large. Its sprawling parking lot doubles as a campground for migrants who sleep in their vehicles. On a dim winter morning one logger from Kentucky explodes in response to online comments asking for more information about Williston: “This town is hard. The whole fucking town. Everywhere, everywhere, everywhere. Everywhere.”
Photographers Patricia Evans, Dave Jordano, Lisa Lindvay, and David Shalliol tell stories about excessive scarcity and tribulation, about dignity and wit. Time too is a subject of their photography. Snapshot-like photographs freeze moments, but taken together they depict the constancy of change and fallibility of progress. Portraits showing individuals older than their years make visible the ravages of hard times. Yet portraits of other individuals echo can-do optimism.
96 Acres, a collaborative ethnographic investigation and intervention that’s led by Maria Gaspar and deals with life in and around the Cook County Jail is represented here with audio stories and zines. The installation civics 101 / homeopathy invites visitors to take a seat and engage with 96 Acres. Cast off furniture of Chicago Public Schools and other found objects are the raw material for civics 101 and other works by John Preus and William Fitzpatrick. Exquisite woodworking, sensual surfaces, and whimsy induce looking, touching and use. Like children’s playground laughter or an aromatic balm, the curves and luster of the wooden objects ease the angst pervading the show. The beauty and solidity of these compositions of salvaged materials are reminders that once upon a time things like furniture were built to last—and that making remnants into new things is as much a creative and a political act as surveying Cook County Jail’s 96 Acres.
Billy McGuinness’s three works (foot traffic on canvas) are visceral encounters with mark-making by people in places where poverty is the norm. McGuinness placed the canvases on the floor at a homeless shelter, soup kitchen, and underground passageway between Cook County Jail and the Criminal Court Building. The canvases look like a gritty urban sidewalk and slyly invoke the canon of abstract painting.
David Weinberg Photography’s new direction is a boon for artists, social justice activists, and art audiences. Artists and collaborating organizations split proceeds of sales; exhibition programming brings new audiences to activist art and social action; and new ways of envisioning life and art come into view. Keep this gallery on your radar.