Whether here in Chicago or elsewhere, the art and music that I see and hear—much less find time to write about—are the proverbial tip of the iceberg. As 2015 morphs into 2016, I’d like to revisit things that riveted my attention and stuck with me as days, weeks, and months collaged into the past year.
Also I’d like to thank artists and musicians everywhere whose talent and work create transformative experiences: moment by moment and year after year.
Mahwish Chisty’s work grabbed me when I came across it during an open house at the Carroll Street building where she has a studio. She juxtaposes features of South Asian miniature painting with other techniques and media to create tense, unsettling work.
The miniaturist style, with its associations of delicacy and beauty, antagonizes complacency about Predators, Reapers, and and other drones used by the US military to bomb Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia. The Chicago Cultural Center’s summer artists-in-residence show exhibited paintings, multimedia works, and a video from Chisty’s trenchant drone series.
Marc Fischer and Public Collectors created Hardcore Architecture using home addresses for 1980s hardcore bands that were published in the fanzine MAXIMUM ROCKNROLL. The exhibition at The Franklin in Chicago showed punk rock ephemera along with recent Google Street photos of addresses where fans sent money in the hope of receiving their favorite band’s latest cassette.
Public Collectors tracks down materials to document and memorialize cultural phenomena ignored by institutional collections. In addition to a catalog of color photos of bands’ addresses, the Hardcore Architecture project published booklets of interviews with Cryptic Slaughter’s Les Evans and photographer Bill Daniel, who got Texas hardcore on film.
For the past three years I’ve been wanting to get to one show or another at Roman Susan, a non-commercial storefront art space near the CTA red line stop at Loyola. There was no doubt I’d make the trek to Roman Susan for the show by Christine Wallers since her earlier work at Experimental Sound Studio and A&D Gallery displayed a signature mix of intelligence, finesse, and subtlety. Death of a Moth continued in this vein while staking out its own distinctive territory.
Since Roman Susan is usually closed, the challenge for artists showing there is to create an installation to be viewed from outside the gallery. During the day, Death of a Moth used the abundant light of a large south-facing window to illuminate pendulous sail-like forms burnished with ink. After dusk the storefront became an evanescent spectacle of projected images, angular volumes, and copper wire cats-cradle—all shimmering and accompanied by mysterious sounds audible through the door’s mail slot.
Christine Wallers’ creations of ink rubbed into crumpled Tyvek appeared on the walls of Links Hall, where lighting artist Christine Shallenberg worked more magic. The occasion was Signifier, the first performance of a long work by choreographer Joanna Furnans.
Furnans displayed her command of the lexicon of modern dance with choreography that bound the three dancers with geometrical precision. Whether introduced through movement or music, unexpected moments of wit counterbalanced the dance’s en pointe feminist significations.
Jefferson Pinder orchestrates artworks that reference and use the human body, specifically bodies of color exhausting themselves as in Thoroughbred, an anxiety producing performance with four naked people running on treadmills that went faster and faster.
The theme of rhythmic exertion recurs in the extraordinary video, Overture: Star of Ethiopia that’s part of Onyx Odyssey, Pinder’s show at the Hyde Park Art Center until January 24. In works that display human bodies or inanimate objects, threat and menace cling to them like a shadow. Charred police clubs hang over the gallery entrance. Artifacts are trapped in a large glass showcase. Sharp-pointed rods thrust into the air. Pinder’s works reveal worlds where everything is ominous and danger is never distant.
Onyx Odyssey shows and tells truths about race in America, painful truths that every generation must learn—and work to change. We need more artists such as Pinder with the chops to create art that activates awareness, healing, and action.
Like artists across the world Chicago artists grumble about insufficient exhibition and performance space—and inscrutable decisions of curators, gallerists, and other gatekeepers. Thankfully artists don’t settle for the status quo. They put their ingenuity to work and create spaces where art, friendship, and community flourish: in storefronts and storage rooms, front, back and side yards, vintage apartments, an abandoned bank, and the rafters-and-studs skeleton of a mansion.
The Suburban, Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam’s home-based exhibition space finished an unusually long run in Oak Park in 2015 and shifted operations to Milwaukee. Meanwhile, at nearby Terrain, Sabina Ott and a phalanx of artists launched the second Terrain Biennial. It included 75 artists and 3 collectives at sites in 7 US states, Cambodia, Canada, and Denmark.
Elmhurst Art Museum Biennial: Chicago Statements is up until February 21. Curated by EAM’s Staci Boris, this inaugural biennial features works by Chicago artists that are edgy, enigmatic, and playful. Ride on a swing, crawl in a tent; see, hear, and reconsider black and white assumptions about city life while discovering an art mecca in the park. Skycube by David Wallace Haskins remains on display until Spring 2016 and EAM’s McCormick House by Mies van der Rohe is now integrated into the exhibition space.
Last October, cinephiles and other art lovers were treated to CinéVardaExpo. Agnès Varda in Chicago. During her week-long residency at the University of Chicago Agnès Varda gave workshops, public talks, answered questions after screenings, and had an exhibition at the Logan Center. From her classic Cléo from 5 to 7 to her no-holds-barred Vagabond and other films, television work, photographs and installations, Varda transmutes the world around her into art. She’s incomparably her own woman et une artiste formidable.
Even if 100 is the new 80, it’s still a lot of years. And that’s how long the Renaissance Society has been showing contemporary art in Chicago. Since its founding, the Ren has exhibited over 3400 artists, racking up name-dropping shows: Henri Mattise, Alexander Calder, Käthe Kollwitz, Joseph Cornell, Louise Bourgeois, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Joan Jonas, Kerry James Marshall, and Steve McQueen. With a full calendar of exhibitions and performances, this Chicago powerhouse makes the most of its quirky garret space in Cobb Hall, a neo-Gothic classroom building at the University of Chicago. Happy Ren-tenary!
Rebuild Foundation continues to expand an important portfolio of neighborhood-oriented arts and cultural spaces on Chicago’s South Side with the 2015 opening of Stony Island Arts Bank. This latest rebuild by the organization founded by Theaster Gates, Jr. gives neighborhood residents and artists historic materials (Johnson Publishing’s Library, Glass Lantern Slide collection, vinyl recordings, etc.) and space to gather and organize, make and exhibit art, reinvent history and create the future.
South Side and Magnificent Mile institutions marked the 50th anniversary of the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) with distinctively different exhibitions. The Museum of Contemporary Art mounted The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now, displaying items from AACM musicians alongside works by AfriCOBRA artists (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) and others.
The DuSable Museum of African American History called its show Free at First: The Audacious Journey of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. It presented a streetwise view of AACM’s political and historical contexts and accomplishments through photographs, sculptural objects, musical instruments, garments, archival materials, audio and video recordings. Getting a guided tour by Ernest Dawkins (current AACM chairman) to the DuSable exhibition was a windfall for me—as was discovering the AACM’s liberating sound at the tender age of 18.
AACM articles of incorporation were displayed at the entrance to the DuSable show. Its founders listed nine points as the organization’s purpose, starting with “To cultivate young musicians and create music of a high artistic level for the general public through the presentation of programs designed to magnify the importance of creative music.” The 50th anniversary of course is being celebrated with live performances by AACM musicians in their spheres of influence across the globe. The next performance in a Chicago pop-up series at 1858 Grand is on January 31.
In 1965 the AACM stated that it would exist “in perpetuity.” And so it does—thanks to musicians and publics who perpetuate the AACM’s founding vision and principles.