by Autumn Hays
Considered to be one of the most renowned performance artists, Ron Athey began his works in the 80s. They are notorious for including aspects of S&M culture and it’s relation to the AIDS crisis. Athey’s iconic pieces focus on a wide range of subjects including sexuality, religiosity, trauma, gay identity, loss, illness and ritualism. Raised with the expectation that he would become a Pentecostal minister, and after running away to L.A. and coming of age in the milieu of the punk rock underground, Athey’s work grew out of a complex performativity that still informs his art practice today. In 2013 Ron’s first book dedicated to his work was published entitled Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performance of Ron Athey, edited by Dominic Johnson. The book includes writings by peers and scholars such as Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Antony Hegarty, Robert Wilson, Lydia Lunch, Bruce LaBruce, Amelia Jones, Jennifer Doyle, Homi K. Bhabha and others. At the start of February, Chicago was host a legendary performance artist, Ron Athey visited Chicago. I was lucky enough to attend his performances, lectures and snag him for an interview. Here are some excerpts from our discussion.
AH: How it feels to be back in Chicago?
RA: I think I had more pre-anxiety about coming here, memories of staying here with Lawrence Steger and doing things with him. I was shocked and went into the shivers from the cold when got off the plane, not wearing long underwear. It’s not like London is warm, it’s moderate and miserable there. Where as here needing many layers, I dig it.
AH: Tell us about he last time you were here and the last performance you did.
RA: I had to look at my own notes, I was here twice in ’99 doing Solar Anus so at Hot House and at Chris Kellner’s gallery Hook Torture and I hadn’t realized I haven’t been here since then.
AH: Yeah it’s been a while
RA:Yeah, I mean climates change. Randolph Street Gallery closed and all those places I would have went back to.
AH: I’ve actually been through the Randolph street archives and have seen videos of your work there and you really could feel its loss once it was gone here. I am interested as you are here working with Defibrillator a newer performance space what are the correlation and difference between these kinds of spaces in this new kind of art climate?
RA: I think it just takes energy to make things happen. It’s not really that the climate is any different. A lot of spaces with the same history as Randolph Street that go back to NEA funded times, but really even before that these are artist run spaces and they don’t, move with the times. So there was this gap and it takes someone high energy like Joseph (Ravens) to get people to work together. I mean even for these pieces I am doing this week and that he realized that Defibrillator itself would be a crunch and he found the right place off site, this is another way of working the art space because the space is so important. Some pieces I feel like I don’t want to be in a place that shows work, like you know this site specific thing becomes a more neutral space than that black box or white wall hygiene kind of space.
AH: Your work is very versatile where you can perform in a lot of different kinds of spaces. I mean you can do that black box theater, the white-walled gallery, you can do performance art spaces or even S&M clubs so you have a versatility in where you can perform and also a little bit in your performativity, you engage various kinds of performance. What’s the difference in working in these spaces? Is there a benefit to being flexible?
RA: Well, I wish I could still perform in clubs still, but I did evolve out of that scene. That allowed me to workshop before even any idea of funding to make the gig possible came up. For some pieces I think I might be precious about it being there. I tend, since I started doing the self-obliterations, I like being in with the audience. For the most controlling side of me, a perfect black box with the floors freshly painted and super duper lights, because you’re not fighting the white wall sucking the light out from one minimal light that happens to be shining. It’s a more controlled situation and I do work in lighting illusions and those sorts of things. So that’s if I’m being precious but it’s not necessarily the best feeling, the way I feel interactive with the audience or the space. But I think to get away from those white gallery walls I did start staging pieces in the middle of the room so that the people are the frontdrop and backdrop. You know I don’t come out of this tradition of thinking of live art as an extension of gallery, my work doesn’t come from there, I fully understand work that does but I’m not so keen on this… of course I love the perfect image, the perfect photograph but that’s not the work. I’m always concerned with how many cameramen are in there. I thought we were watching a work.
AH: Especially nowadays with camera phones it’s interesting to have that camera lens constantly there.
RA: I think you have to think about what you are not experiencing while looking for that shot and also, do you care about the work, or are you just documenting your own life?
AH: So we touched on your definitions of live art and performance art. There are always different definitions. What are your thoughts on that?
RA: I think you get this polarization. This is the gallery school, and this is the theater school, but actually my background was through the Pentecostal church, particularly woman evangelists who did illustrated sermons starting in the 20s with Amy Semple McPherson, who built Angelus Temple in Echo Park and later Miss Velma (Jaggers) who built the jeweled altar from the Book of Revelations and who would appear as the whore of Babylon swinging in on a crescent moon using all the 70s technology, like the echo box, strobe lights and fog machines. So, performance art is this other type of sacred theater without the belief system in it. In abstract terms I might still use a thing like the audience is the witness, and its not about second guessing what their boundaries are, what they will experience, what they come in the door with. It’s impossible to know. It’s a mix of things, which is what it should be. Also it’s about what mode you are in. It’s obviously not acting, so it’s just full of these triggers to go into, not an altered state where you look like your fitting or asleep but some heightened state. I like art that rides a line between art and not art at all.
AH: I was wondering if you could tell us more about your book, “Pleading in the Blood”, and your process of making it.
RA: To start out with the book, you have to open archives that you didn’t even know existed. And here is where I have to give some kudos to social media. I am very linked in to people in LA, people from the late 70s and early 80s Goth and Punk scenes. So I was able to come up with materials, confirm dates, and stories through there, and then track down the photographers. All I ever had was the newspaper, the tabloids, the rough printed images, Xeroxed and scanned, you know that kind of thing. And then I started getting closer to the source of the original image. It felt like I was perusing someone from a David Lynch movie, you’re in a hotel room with seven 5by7s in a brief case. So you track that down and try to flesh out some of those stories, which is a harder period for me to flesh out. And working with Dominic Johnson who is a young academic at Queen Mary University, London. He was clear about what heavy academics who we liked in common, but I was clear that I didn’t want it to be one of those artist books with three academic essays in it and lots of pictures so that no one ever, except for people in school, ever read the writing because its inaccessible outside the bubble. I wanted to give it a testimonial voice not just an academic one.
AH: Do you have any advice for younger artists attempting to learn the craft of making performance art?
RA: The key element of making work is immersion. Rather than doing research as a strong guide, let it be something you soak up. There is nothing sane about making performance art.
Defibrillator, Hook Torture, and Mana Contemporary pooled their efforts to showcase Ron in Chicago this month. Each night was filled with a wide mix of viewers, from pierced punks and goths, old school Chicago underground, art students, and art academics, many eager to see Ron’s work in person. He performed two works on two separate nights, “Incorruptible Flesh: Messianic Remains” and “Sebastian” featuring Jon John and Sage Charles.
Messianic Remains is part of Athey’s Incorruptible Flesh series. The series started in 96’ and references the dark reality of living with AIDS. Athey talks about the piece saying it stems from “still living but not living bodies”. 10 years later in Glasgow, Athey did a solo individual piece, 6 hours long. The third part focused on the Mythological. Now this 4th and final chapter, was performed in Chicago at Mana Contemporary on January 31st. The work reveled in a religious grandiosity and explored Ron Athey’s body as a post-AIDS entity: a survivor. The work also looks at Athey’s own bodies ageing, and seems to shake hands with notions of death. The choreography is inspired by Kenneth Anger’s short film, Lucifer Rising.
The audience came in on to Ron laying down on ladder sitting on two wooden sawhorses with a baseball bat, swollen glands, and his head latched to a series of hooks in a crown of thorns style lining, his head connected to the wall. Though the preparations for this performance were not part of the audiences’ viewing, many felt the preparations, though unseen, were a large part of the work. Clear gloves were handed out and the audience dipped their hands in a pale Vaseline before taking turns touching Athey’s body as he laid on display. The offering of his flesh was both a gift and an obligation as viewers chose to experience the tension and pain up close. Ron than rises for a mythical, almost Egyptian dressing ceremony and moves to a new part of the gallery where he begins to read text from Our Lady of the Flowers, Jean Genet, specifically “Divine’s Funeral.”
The very next day Ron Athey, Jon John and Sage Charles preformed “Sebastian.” While interviewing Ron I had asked him about Working with Jon John and Sage.
“We have this great chemistry where we trust each other, we don’t have to plot out everything. You’re going to do what you need to do with the goal of making this action happen. Easy directions within a choreographed frame. What is Sebastian? I don’t know. I think that’s where live work can be surprising. If you know what you want to prove rather than explore something you’re just strong-arming a result. The potential of live experience is so beyond that outlined vision that I’m doing. It took me a long time to understand that.”
In this work Athey is taking on the role of St. Sebastian, a saint that has also become a homoerotic icon. The event starts with Sage and Jon John making their way through the crowd in a procession towards Ron, who is already hung up on a ladder, tied with red rope. As Sage drums, Jon John climbs a second ladder to meet Athey and begins piercing him with arrows. Ron begins to scream and chant in performance’s best ritualistic shamanism. Jon John then fills the role of St Irene and begins to heal Athey, spreading lotion on Athey’s body, eventually removing the arrows and as Athey bleeds he helps him depose down from ladder and onto a table where they cover him in a white cloth. For the final and perhaps most touching part of the performance, one that had echoes of the NEA controversy, Jon John cuts sections of cloth-covered in Athey’s blood and places them in tiny frames handing them to random audience members.
Ron Athey’s work certainly isn’t for the squeamish, but despite the inclusion of blood and body modification I didn’t find the shock value of the work to be any kind of crutch or sympathetic tool. Rather is was a means of performativity that outwardly engaged Athey’s body as a gay, post-AIDS, religicized, performative body. When looking at his work, the dense symbolism and actions, the controversy and the intense metaphoric value, I feel like ending this with one of my favorite quotes from my interview with Ron Athey that I feel addresses his work, process, and in a way the very practice of performance art.
“I’m actually at this place in performance art where I think everything is just an entry point. You can say this is about your mother, this is about this accident, this is about AIDS, but it’s actually not what it’s about. You don’t know what it’s about till you do it live, that’s why it’s live work. I have to bring something to life to make work. There has to be uncertain things within the framework of the piece that allow it to go as it will.”
When I first came to Chicago in January of 2011, my girlfriend and I met in the large, empty luggage area of Midway that, even as a place designed for waiting, seems hilariously ill-suited for the purpose. And then, after a brief train ride, we arrived–slightly out of breath and heaving large suitcases–at my brother’s front door, where we would stay for a month to look after a pair of cats and introduce ourselves to the brand new grid we would call home. A month later, we moved into our new apartment; a day after that marked the first day of the massive blizzard called snowpocalypse, snowmageddon, or blizzaster depending on what terrible local blog was on-screen at the time.
Here we are, three years later, in what feels like another long and dreary winter in the same vein as all the long and dreary winters before it, and after it, and etc. I always associate winter with a certain kind of loneliness, and especially that one three years ago, living in a new city without any real way to even figure out how to best navigate a massive snowstorm, when our plans to hit up IKEA were blocked and we ending up spreading peanut butter and jelly with chopsticks while sitting on the floor.
In a lot of ways, I think winter and videogames can be kind of comparable in that loneliness, for better or for worse. At the time of experience—either treading through a deep snow alone or deep into the fantasy narrative of an outrageous dragon-adventure—they’re both intensely personal. It’s only really until after the fact that people begin to talk about the shared experience they had, be it shoveling out their car, or falling into a snowbank, or conquering some foe on what ended up being a very similar adventure. In a similar way, games and winters begin in the individual, personal realm, and only later transform into the social, shareable experience after the fact, via discussion.
It can be difficult to get new players or people unfamiliar with the personal commitment necessary to play a sprawling, multi-hour epic, and truth be told, even as a fan, I find it daunting myself. After all, if you’re more comfortable with books, or films—you have the necessary foundations to understand those mediums, prevalent as they have been in our culture—it makes more sense to dive into one of those, just as it makes more sense to stay on the west coast, or in Texas, away from the feet of snow that always finds a way to creep into your boots.
I bring this all up because during that 2011 winter, with a lack of anything inside our outside our apartment (aside from snow), I discovered a game by Terry Cavanagh called At a Distance. I had first encountered Cavanagh’s work in the small flash game Don’t Look Back, which turns the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice’s ascent from the underworld into a bit of puzzle-platforming, and is its own obvious meditation on love and loneliness. At a Distance is something quite different, though, because, unlike Don’t Look Back or those other single-player monoliths, it requires not only two players, but two screens, two computers, positioned side by side. The game, however, is just as much about loneliness as it is togetherness, a kind of blending of that initial personal and secondary social experienced that can occur through gaming.
Though it took a bit of work to get it setup—for which Cavanagh offers a handy guide—once we got At a Distance working, and played through it, it became one of the most memorable gaming experiences I had ever encountered. The art of the game is enchanting; there’s a sort of lo-fi blurriness to the game’s monochromatic worlds that wouldn’t be out of place on a 90’s screensaver. But the play is just as engaging, mostly because the way it treats shared space, physically, as different than the individual space, which is entirely cooped up in the digital form of your computer.
Like a lot of the press which came out about the game at the time, I’m reluctant to give too much away. But what essentially happens is that Cavanagh plays very successfully with a physical aspect of the game via screen-sharing. Maybe you’ve played or seen others play a split-screen adversarial game such as Goldeneye on the N64, where each player’s location, though broadcast openly through the nature of a shared screen, is a closely guarded secret. In short, screen-looking (as it is often called) is looked down upon, akin to cheating, as it could easily provide an edge against an opponent.
Cavanagh’s At a Distance, on the other hand, flips this premise in two ways: first, screen looking is naturally encouraged via his setup suggestions (side-by-side). Since it’s meant to be played on two systems, the natural assumption by omission would be a head-to-head setup, computers and people facing each other, Thunderdome-style. Second, as players progress through the game, the digital space they find themselves in is not exactly shared, but intrinsically linked in a way that really only comes to light through screen-sharing, through conversational awareness, and social discovery between two players. Even though each player finds themselves in a solitary digital realm, the game is anything but lonely, because that social aspect—normally confronted after the fact through identical shared experience—is combined willingly into that personal, individual experience of playing a game on the lonesome.
Above all, what I mean to say is that, if, like me, you look outside at the grey canopy of snow/cloud/doom and feel the urge to crawl back into the warmth of a recently-vacated bed, give At a Distance a try. Just like hot chocolate is the perfect companion for a cold February day, so is At a Distance, if you and a partner are willing to give it a shot and stretch the boundaries of a sometimes solitary, occasionally-wintry medium.
Guest post by A.Martinez
Nick Jirasek is a food artist and founder of underground food entity Guerrilla Smiles. He has worked with Tony Fitzpatrick, Links Hall, Redmoon Theater, Linda Warren Projects, Hauser Gallery, Ensemble Dal Niente, High Concept Laboratories, and more. Nick has a strong love of Malort and makes a mean pork shoulder. I got to ask him some questions about who he is, what he does, and his exciting presence in the arts scene.
A.Martinez: What is your definition of a food artist and what you do?
Nick Jirasek: A food artist is one who uses primarily comestible materials to create, explore, or challenge ideas. I work professionally in this capacity at exhibition openings, private events, the streets, house-parties, underground dinners, performances, pop-ups, talk-shows, and screenings.
Martinez: You are a self-trained- how did you develop your skills?
Jirasek: Immersion. There are seemingly unending resources, documentation, and wisdom surrounding food. Everyone wants to talk about it, wants to teach you the ‘right way to do it,’ to share the ritual of eating with you, the most authentic place to buy kielbasa, the healthiest diet, the ethical diet, the best place to eat carnitas. Once I had the feeling that being a food artist is what I wanted to do, I made it my entire life. Some of the learning has been traditional in cooking under trained kitchen professionals, but most of it has been in acute observation and guerrilla learning tactics. I’ll sound like a broken .FLAC if I say the internet has been a tremendous resource, so I’ll say it’s been invaluable. That of course means the usual suspects of e-books, Youtubes, and blog trolling, but also some harder to find fountains of information in more underground and illicit venues of the www. Once one is cognizant of basic technique, cultural/ethnic culinary tradition, and flavor pairing, is when some cooks then begin to hone their craft or get the fuck out; an Italian chef mastering the different regions of Italy, travelling to the Piedmonts to study centuries of tradition in Agnolotti, or a trade-school dropout in search of Tru. They begin to specialize based on their talents, their genealogy, and interests. But, I’m not interested in specializing my edible journey. I want to continually challenge the ideas and traditions of food while building a vocabulary of how to articulate that comestibly, socially, and literally.
Martinez: Who and what is Guerrilla Smiles and how long has it been around?
Jirasek: Guerrilla Smiles started as a social project about 6 years ago; to simply spread smiles in unexpected places and unexpected ways that would serve to beautify our lives and the lives around us.
I was a worn-out, director of food and beverage at Chicago’s 4th tallest building, the John Hancock. I worked a ridiculous amount of hours. The dreams at night of P&L’s, and the commute home down Chicago on the 66 bus was the cherry on-top of the soul sucking sundae. One day someone at the Hancock had ordered what must have been nearly a hundred gold, helium filled balloons and thrown them in the loading dock after the party was over. I grabbed all the balloons and walked down the street, handing a floating ball of gold to anyone and everyone that would take them. People like balloons, or maybe just the color gold more than I had thought. I was overrun by would-be gold-diggers by the time I made it to the McDonald’s on State street. At that point I walked to the middle of intersection and released the remaining bouquet of gold into the sky. Similar projects came in weeks following like cashing half my paycheck at the currency exchange in quarters and handing them out, then throwing them in the air and off bridges. Safety became an issue.
Around the same time my good friends Claire Molek and Erin Babbin were starting a gallery practice called Studio1020 (later theStudio and thisisnothestudio). Building on the ideas put forth on the street, I pleaded with them to seize the opportunity of the ubiquitous gallery food & wine table. The idea was simple; to mirror the displaying artists’ work aesthetically or thematically in comestible form. This way the dialogue of what the artist’s message was, was literally palatable and hopefully led to broaden and ease the discourse. Through the past 5 years, a changing cast of cooking professionals, artists, and friends have helped carry on this mission from private dinners of 9 to public events of 900.
Martinez: The Break The Bread series focuses on your collaborations with visual artists at galleries around the city. How do you choose what artists and galleries with which you’re going to collaborate? Or do they choose you?
Jirasek: For the vast majority of gigs, the artist, gallerist, or curator approaches us. Guerrilla Smiles does not advertise, has no website, and uses social media sparsely as a means to communicate. That is to say, we truly relish our underground disposition. My time with Studio1020 afforded me a great opportunity to interact and network directly with interested parties, interesting artists, and share lots of ideas through food. It all started from there and kind of naturally branched out by word of mouth. I have, in special situations, approached artists I want to work with and am looking forward to doing so more in the near future, as well as producing independent original work.
Martinez: What is the process of trying out new dish?
Jirasek: I kind of have an ongoing list of techniques, ingredients, serving vessels, equipment and ideas I’m waiting for the right opportunity to try. When it seems appropriate, I get to try out new stuff. In general, the basis for everything I make is a new dish as every exhibition or performance is new. There is some safety in knowing my control of flavor is adept, my technique is solid, but conversely an exciting trepidation in knowing that this dish has components I have done before, but altogether is completely new.
Martinez: What is the biggest revelation you’ve had about the way you work?
Jirasek: One needs to be aware of their work patterns and not sabotage their opportunities. I don’t like asking for help, and no one will ever work for me for free.
Martinez: Is shopping for ingredients an important part of your creative process?
Jirasek: Extremely. I devote at least an entire day to shopping for an event that can completely change the menu. The Green City Market is a staple and only occurs on 2 days of the week. But generally I go to local specialty stores and markets that take me from 113th to Skokie. This process of traveling all around the city, of breathing in the lifeblood of our diverse culture, of interacting with ethnicities whose only commonality with me is Chicago and food, is probably my greatest inspiration. It’s not dissimilar to the interaction I have with people on the night of an event. Most ‘food people’ will disagree with me on this, but I’m less interested in the local food movement and more interested in small, local family businesses, and traditions in Chicagoland.
Martinez: What is your favorite ingredient to work with?
Jirasek: Celery or Popcorn.
Martinez: Guerrilla Smiles has a dish called Oak Street Beach. Describe this dish and how it came about.
Jirasek: Oak Street Beach started as dish for a thisisnotthestudio show featuring artist Xiao Tse at High Concept Laboratories. Tse took upwards of a thousand pictures from the concrete pavement of Oak St. Beach’s shore, facing the lake and narrowed it down to one piece that combined around twenty of the most discerning shots. It is essentially a deconstructed soup, with the broth held separately so as not to affect the aesthetic and textural integrity of the dry ingredients. The dry ingredients are held in a ten ounce clear plastic glass. The sand is a combination of ground peanuts, cashews, and maltodextrin. The grass is julienned wild ramps. The trash is a candied ginger chip. The fish is a rice flour fried smelt. The towel is a soy and turmeric based spring roll wrapper. The wet ingredients are suspended above in a fitting five ounce plastic glass, rimmed with suntan lotion that is garlic mayo. The Lake Michigan water is a kombu dashi. The eater is instructed to take a small mouthful of the dry ingredients and wash it down with a swig of the wet ingredients, going back and forth in a double fisted affair like they are swimming, until they are finished.
Martinez: You were born and raised in Chicago and this has a strong influence on the food you make. Are there any other cities or cultures that you either look to for inspiration or are inherent in your work?
Jirasek: I think Mexican food simply got everything right. We obviously have a large population of Mexican-Americans in Chicago, and benefit greatly from the cornucopia of ingredients, flavor, and culture they have imbued upon us. Aside from that, I took great inspiration from my time cooking in Panama City, whose flavors are a great amalgamation of the diverse foreign cultures who have occupied the area and the local flora and fauna. I look forward to delving into historical American First Nation culinaria as a geographical inspiration, and look forward to marrying Filipino and Czech food with acidic flavors.
Martinez: Food-wise, what do you think are some exciting places or events happening around the city?
Jirasek: I think The Plant in The Back of the Yards is going to be a blueprint for metropolitan farming worldwide. Asado Coffee’s recent expansion plans and concept of ‘nano-roasting’ is next level. Smalls BBQ is the kind of approachable, forward thinking neighborhood restaurant that Chicago has lacked to put it on the level of NYC. Floriole’s baguettes are worth lining up for a la Paris when they come out fresh at 11am everyday. Three Aces is what every gastropub should strive to be. I also think we’ll see a boon in quality independent food writing like Graze, Middlewest and whatever Anthony Todd has up his sleeve.
Martinez: What is your favorite Chicago-style food? And where’s your favorite place to get it?
Jirasek: Chicago’s hot dog is unmatched. Though not all the classic ingredients are included, Gene & Judes’ can’t be contended with because of the volume they go through and the freshness that entails, and fries like woah. Gotta go with underdog Chickie’s for beef because their giardiniera is only quickly cured and crunchier. Salerno’s for pizza because the true Chicago slice is thick crust and party cut.
Martinez: What does Guerrilla Smiles have lined up in the coming months?
Jirasek: In the great tradition of former Redmoon Theater Development Director Sean Kaplan, we will be curating the amuse-bouche portion of the upcoming fundraiser Spectacle Lunatique, outfitted Guerrilla style, primarily by the underground supper clubs of Chicago. We are in post-production for the next episode of our Break The Bread series with OnTheRealFilm for last year’s THAW fundraiser for Links Hall, as well as designing a menu for a soon opening southside cafe with one of Chicago’s champion contemporary artists.
Martinez: Is there a piece of advice, food-related or not that you think of often?
Jirasek: Don’t crowd the pan. When it rains, it pours. Be safe, be strong.
All photos courtesy of the artist.
A.Martinez is a freelance art and music organizer living in Chicago, IL.
By Kevin Blake
Chicago Imagism represents something more complex than a published manifesto, an aesthetic engagement, or a theoretician’s aim at creating an avant-garde. One might argue that Chicago Imagism, an internationally recognized movement with roots in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, is still alive and well in the second city. On his 90th birthday on January 26, 2014, Richard Loving explained to a rapt audience at the Hyde Park Art Center, that his work–like the work of other “Imagists”–were simply about making the work that they wanted to make.
In their current exhibit, Inside the Outside at the Hyde Park Art Center curated by Aaron Ott, Richard Loving and Eleanor Spiess-Ferris’s works on display span two careers that aptly describe the very complicated historicity of the Chicago Imagist movement. Inside the Outside is a critical investigation of the ambiguous framework of Chicago Imagism and how these two very different artists bound geographically but also aesthetically chose to utilize its tenets to spur their artistic visions.
The works are hung chronologically–a relatable choreography that adequately stresses the aesthetic distances traveled and the hard earned merits of two lives of artistic engagement. In relation to the Imagists’ aesthetic–high key color strategies, figuration, symbology, and text to name a few–these works can fit the bill. However, the distinction as Imagist work may also deprive them of the singular translation they so deserve.
Spiess-Ferris and Loving’s works are clearly about themselves. Throughout the show, there is an overwhelming sense of self discovery or exhibitionism that develops into a confident vernacular that is uniquely their own. In Loving’s case, this idea takes the shape of a materials quest, that over decades evolves from small enamel works that become large format abstractions and matriculate to color drenched dreamscapes that embody the entire narrative. They are Loving’s accumulated wealth of knowledge with his materials, and a pointed emulsion of his interests. Loving’s work “Fire and Smoke” is one such amalgamation.
Hovering above the very unnatural bands of lush color is a curved horizon that encloses the space of the painting and alludes to an inevitable ending–a forced punctuation. This curvilinear maneuver has become a staple in Loving’s later works and allow for the landscapes to remain in the netherworld of abstraction while maintaining the graphic qualities central to the Imagist aesthetic. Loving’s narratives are not forthcoming, but they reveal enough of itself to spend time with their mysteries. The paintings can operate as storyteller or simply as an object of contemplation, and therein lies their success.
On the surface, the narrative elements seem to be more readily available in such works as Spiess-Ferris’s “Resignation,” where the viewer is immediately immersed into a parallel universe that is completely her own. The cast of characters is the entry point–as there is a familiarity that grows from one piece to the next. Everything in Speiss-Ferris’s paintings is as familiar as the paint itself, yet there are no answers to her riddles either. The paintings allow you to meander through them, but never actually be a part of the place–it is her singular experience of a world in which the viewer has no role. It is in the moments of expectations unmeant that the viewer can understand their exclusion. “Resignation,” exudes Speiss-Ferris’s anguished charm while allowing for self discovery through her range of emblematic totems that find their way into her imagined worlds.
The show also presents some of Speiss-Ferris’s drawings where one can see the artist looking at her creations from without, while also participating in the ironies and chagrin of human awareness. In “Acquisition” the sketched portions of the drawing remain as portals into her studio–a nod to herself and remnant of her hand.
This elusiveness and earnest approach to her materials has kept Spiess-Ferris on the periphery of Imagism. Her work is an acidly good-natured view of human follies, largely concerned with the roles and relations between women and nature. She presents the human comedy through her imagined places that are often absurd, charming, hostile, seductive, and ridiculous. Charged with strong doses of painfully comic self-discovery, her host of symbols, images, and characters all play theatrical roles in the ongoing comedy that is a perpetual remix of itself.
The affinity to nature, the paint handling, geography, and the parallel working timeline are enough to link these two artists, but the strength in this show comes from both artist’s unflinching dedication to their practices. Decades in the making, their works have evolved and remained on the edges of a discussion that Chicago painters cannot seem to avoid. Imagism is the staple, the running joke, the license, and liberator for Chicago painters. It is the all-encompassing genre most aptly described by Richard Loving as “just making what we wanted to make.”
To pair these two artists in a conversation about the reaches of Imagism was to operate on the periphery–to think outside the proverbial box. As the Hyde Park Art Center enters into its 75th anniversary year, a show to kick off the celebration that commemorates a pivotal moment in the center’s history as well as the history of Chicago image making was a grandiose gesture, most welcome.
“Out of the Mouths of Artists” is a new monthly series on the Bad at Sports blog. The series presents a space for guest artist bloggers– of varying career statuses– to write, to reflect, to pontificate on their current situations, failures and/or successes, and ideas on what it means to be an artist. “Out of the Mouths of Artists” also gives readers a glimpse into artists’ portfolios and studios.
Relocating a Center
By Nicole Mauser
Just last week, a question was posed to me: “Where is the epicenter of Chicago’s art scene?” This was part of a casual elevator conversation with someone who had just moved from the East Coast to Chicago. I was struck by this question because it made me pause and consider where I geographically invest my time and conversations about art and research. Having relocated back to Chicago from Kansas City, MO, for a second time this past summer, I found myself picking up where I left off. In some respects, I am engaged in existing dialogues and structures, while in other professional respects I have set out to tackle completely unknown territories and new challenges.
With the question, I realized how fascinating it is to be an observer on the periphery (even if only temporarily) and see what galleries have disappeared, endured, and emerged, while exploring a ‘new’ to me Chicago in terms of private collections and historic venues such as The Arts Club or Union League.
I had no short answer for the East Coaster-cum-Chicagoan: 119 Peoria has been all but dismantled (will Three Walls stay or go?); however, there is still a bastion of galleries in the West Loop on Washington. Mana Contemporary is becoming a household by name teaming up with various institutions. Each university with a MFA program from the universities—Northwestern, UIC and U of C—to the art schools—Columbia College and SAIC—has is its own mini-epicenter with concentric circles emanating outward into the art scene. A handful (a few handfuls, really) of Chicago artists are being highlighted in the upcoming Whitney Biennial by Michelle Grabner and Anthony Elms. The MCA has gone through upheaval. Art Expo is back. Ultimately, there is no dominant discourse. In dynamic and thriving arts ecologies, there is a multitude of rich conversations happening. These conversations are being instigated by the artists themselves and to varying degrees by the institutions.
One thing I do know: my life now in Chicago is an inversion of the one I led in KCMO.
After an initial brief stint as an art handler in Chicago, I learned a difficult lesson that not all businesses touting the arts support artists; some exploit employees who make the ultimate sacrifice to pay their bills: no longer making their work. Currently, I juggle a full-time administrative job at one local art school while teaching painting as an adjunct at another local university. And I recently struck up a relationship with Reynolds Gallery in Richmond, Virginia, to exhibit a few pieces of my work. While all of these roles help me pay the rent and gain professional experience, they combine to make ends difficult to support a studio practice.
This is the predicament that many conversations with artist friends revolve around: balancing studio/research time with demands of a job to afford overhead. Whereas in KCMO, many artists cobble together part-time teaching, waiting tables, and selling work to afford three times the living space and a studio. In that smaller metropolis, it is a choice to leverage income to focus on the studio practice. It is an option to survive on much less. Therefore, it has become an environment that lends itself to risk taking and igniting experimental collaborations. I found that I was able to do many things, and still work to afford an artist’s necessities. With a number of others, I founded and rigorously participated in two artist enterprises: PLUG Projects and Kansas City’s Plein Air Coterie (KCPAC), both of which are going still going strong. The collaborative work I did (from 2011 to 2012) with the always professional co-founders and artists at PLUG was rewarding, and I am grateful to my conspirators there for their mutual desire to shape unique exhibitions and ancillary programming, all from the perspective of the artist as curator. Also, this time at PLUG helped me hone my ability to simultaneously hold down a full time staff job at SAIC and an adjunct teaching appointment at UIC. I believe my experience as part of KCPAC, in which I was working from observation in the elements, helped to erode any assumptions about the relationship between abstraction and perception.
Recently, in Chicago, a few artists and I rekindled a critique group consisting of grad school colleagues (and friends!) for studio visits. Inscribing this regular practice into our studio research is gaining terrific momentum. I truly value these relationships and the quality of our conversations. I am continually blown away by the multitude of in-depth cross-conversations, generosity, and ferocity of investment in each other’s development. In this context, which is a kind of epicenter for me, criticality is not a rebuff but a way of asking better questions. I find that I am now breaking rules that I once set for myself in the past. I am working to explore abstraction through a host of reference materials, including still lifes, photos, Xeroxed images, and art historical references, in order to push against my own non-objective proclivities.
Through it all, though, I find myself returning to ponder the eternal question, what is the healthiest scenario to support my work? It is the gallery system? Is it the academic system? None of these scenarios are necessarily the sustainable answer. Constantly having open conversations negotiating alternative models and redefining healthy arts ecology seems the best start for me.
In summary, it appears that the current epicenter in Chicago, and in all cities, is a moving target—for me and for others. This scenario seems to simultaneously present plural opportunities and elusive support mechanisms for one’s longevity in the arts. And yet, it feels like a great time to be an artist in Chicago.
I hope someone asks me where “the epicenter” is again in five years.
Nicole Mauser (b. 1983, Indianapolis) currently lives and works in Chicago, IL. She obtained a MFA from The University of Chicago (2010) and a BFA from Ringling College of Art & Design (2006). Her works have been exhibited nationally and internationally. Mauser was a 2011 recipient of a Post-MFA Teaching Felllowship at The University of Chicago and a recipient of a Student Fine Art Fund Grant for travel and research in Berlin from The University of Chicago. Exhibitions include Ft. Gondo Compound for the Arts (St. Louis), Carrie Secrist Gallery (Chicago), The Dolphin Gallery (Kansas City), H&R Block Artspace (Kansas City), DOVA Temporary Gallery (Chicago), Gladstone Community Center (Gladstone, MO), Center for Art+Culture (Aix-en-Provence) and AR Gallery (Milan). Collections include The Alexander (Indianapolis) and The Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art (Overland Park, KS). Mauser’s writings have been published in 8 ½ x 11 and Art Practical. Mauser is also a co-founder of the artist run gallery, PLUG Projects and co-founder of the Kansas City Plein Air Coterie (KCPAC).
See more of Nicole’s work at www.nicolemauser.com.