Notes on a Conversation: John Corbett and Jim Dempsey

February 24, 2011 · Print This Article

Guest post by Julia V. Hendrickson

Notes on a Conversation.

With—John Corbett and Jim Dempsey (Founders and owners of Corbett vs. Dempsey)
In—the gallery, on the third floor, 1120 N. Ashland Ave., Chicago, IL
Commenced—on Thursday, February 17th, 2011, 10:15–11:20am

I am beginning this piece with a disclaimer: I’m writing about Corbett vs. Dempsey, and I work at Corbett vs. Dempsey. I work there, and I do so because it’s a place that I am excited to walk in to in the morning. It’s a place where I can be challenged, where I can always learn something new, and I’m conscious that my time there leaves me feeling energized and enthusiastic when I go home. I was not paid to write this, nor do I intend it to be a sales pitch for the gallery. However, it is one facet of my experience of the art world in Chicago, and I hope that my interview with John Corbett and Jim Dempsey can provide some useful insights into a gallery that seems to hold a treasured place in many Chicago hearts.

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One of things I find most interesting about John Corbett and Jim Dempsey is that they both do so many other things outside of running a gallery. Jim is the house manager at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and has been involved with the Film Center for decades. John has taught at the School of the Art Institute (SAIC) since 1988, he is a freelance writer, he performs with his spouse Terri Kapsalis, and he is also immersed in the free jazz and experimental music scene. Their diverse interests allowed them to meet over a decade ago in 2000 (mutually enthusing over Sun Ra), and have continued to sustain the life and energy of the gallery since 2003.

JH: I think part of what drives the energy of the gallery, and both of your energies, has to do with all of the other things that you do outside of these walls. I have wondered if the gallery could even exist if you didn’t do all of these other things, because you wouldn’t be talking to the same kinds of people and be in the same kinds of settings. What projects are you working on right now that don’t relate specifically to the gallery?

JD: “The Film Center has always been a great place to stay connected with students at the Art Institute who are all my box office workers. It’s also a great place to tune in, it constantly gives me a great film education, and it’s got an important mission. I’ve been a part of it for a long time, and I’ve always been proud of my association with it.”

JH: You see a lot of interesting people at the Film Center—didn’t you often run into Vivian Maier?

JD: “Yes, Vivian Maier, who has now got an exhibition at the Cultural Center, this unknown great photographer, she used to come to the Film Center all the time. She would come [to] the old space, at the Columbus building and I remember her from the way she dressed and her accent. She was an odd bird, and she would definitely come to receptions and occasionally pocket a few things from the food table for later, but she was always interesting to talk to. Occasionally she would have a vintage camera around her neck, and I just thought of her as a crazy old lady. I’d see her roaming around the streets and never gave a thought to her, and then these photos came out—I’d been following this discovery for the last few years, and saw some early self-portraits of her. It wasn’t until I saw a later self-portrait of her on Chicago Tonight, and they played a cassette tape—she used to talk into cassette tapes—they played a clip and it was undeniably her voice. And I thought, ‘You’ve got to be careful who you judge,’ because this woman spent a lifetime out on the streets making obviously beautiful work and nobody knew about it.”

JH: John, what else have you been up to?

JC: “I write a column in Downbeat magazine called ‘Vinyl Freak’ looking at LPs and other vinyl items that have never been reissued on CD. It gives me a forum to talk about record culture and there is a press that is interested in it. […] The book would be collected columns, and six or seven essays specifically on record culture. So they would be case studies, and the essays would be in-depth meditations on one aspect or another of vinyl culture—the idea of records as documents, as physical objects, the geekiness of record culture, stockpiling time—things that are all really interesting to me in terms of the way that people treat music.”

JH: Aren’t you working with J.C. Gabel on a couple of projects?

JC: “J.C. Gabel, who was one of the primary figures behind Stop Smiling magazine for fifteen years or so, he has a new imprint called Hat & Beard, which very nicely takes its title from an Eric Dolphy composition. He has a book project of mine that he’s been shopping around for a while, and never got a satisfactory home for, but I think he’s going to put it out in his first four books on Hat & Beard. It’s actually something I found. It’s a manuscript by an anonymous author from Chicago from 1931 or so: a dictionary of Chicago gangsters. It’s written in this really fantastic sort of film noir style, the manuscript itself is hand-typewritten with marginal notes and edits, and the whole project is called Bullets for Dead Hoods. It’s basically me editing and introducing this found document, […] bought at a second-hand store that was going out of business, […] probably seven years ago.”

[…]

“I also teach one class a semester at SAIC, and I find that really rewarding. It provides me with a way to automatically be in touch with a younger artistic world, so I see where people are and what kinds of problems and thoughts they have.”

JH: John, I wondered if you’d thought about how your experiences learning here at the gallery have influenced your teaching at SAIC.

JC: “I think that the early years that I was [at the gallery], I ended up very much being a Chicago booster in my teaching. I found it affecting things. I am generally appalled at the way that art history works. I think the way that historiography works is very problematic. It works too much like the normal gallery world works, the way that it accumulates. The way that what we end up with is the sum total of people reading one another and crafting arguments based on what they’ve argued, rather than doing primary research and coming up with their own conclusions. If they were doing more of that, we’d end up with much richer, less narrow set of people that we’re talking about, just very basically. You start talking to art historians about people who fall not so far from the tree, and they don’t know who the hell you’re talking about. And that’s even true in specialist niches. I’m not knocking art historians, but I’m saying this is an artifact of the way that academics works.

When I was first here and realizing what a wealth of people there are in Chicago, that I’m teaching at an art school in Chicago and that those [Chicago] people don’t get talked about, I couldn’t contain myself. I would say the first four or five years that I was doing this and doing that, a lot of the energy I had, teaching-wise went into teaching classes, the basics of which were about region. Or trying to infiltrate some of the standing art history with a little bit of a sense of outrage that there wasn’t more interest in a wider canon. One that would include as common knowledge what was going on, not only in Chicago, but in San Francisco, in LA, in London, in all of these major centers. Chicago is one of the major cities in the United States and just had no profile on a national scene: it just seemed ridiculous.

Now I feel like that is all part of who I am and what I do and I feel much less inclined to get on a soapbox about it. I just did, but in my teaching I don’t feel like I’m as inclined to do that. Now I feel like what I do [at the gallery] is just part of what I do.”

JH: You two are collaborators together, and I think that’s a really unique thing about the way that you exist in the art world, because it’s still a very masculine-centered world. Probably it’s a lot easier for two men to run a gallery, rather than if you were two women doing it. But what I appreciate is that you’re not ‘monolithic mavericks,’ running an institution that is one name only; you’re doing it together, and I think it tempers the phallocentric nature of the business.

JD: “Some of the best moments are when I think I have a good idea and I’m talked out of it, or vice versa, and I’m happy to completely give up something that I thought was good. Every year I’ve learned that the more I let go of those things and not take ownership of them, that ultimately it makes for a better process.”

JC: “You bring up the gender issue, and it’s something that’s important to us. It’s important to us to keep up a diverse program. [In terms of collaborating], the problem with a lot of not-for-profits is that it’s decision by committee. The problem with a lot of monolithic situations is that no one ever really questions, interrogates the decision-maker. If you can find a place that’s in the middle, […] it’s a trusting environment, a charmed circle, and I see it as a place where we can experiment all together and kick things around that we could never come up with [independently].”

JH: I like the idea of you two starting a business with virtually no gallery experience, and I wonder if you could talk about some important things that you’ve learned over the years about running a business in the art world. Was there a point that you remember thinking, ‘Oh. We’re a gallery now.’?

JC: “Neither of us was a business person, but we both were older when we got involved in it. We weren’t inexperienced, and neither of us was inexperienced at dealing with managing people and managing events. So that part of it we kind of had under our belts. “

JD: “And we came at it from a free and improvised music background and art house cinema background. So we knew the challenges of people paying attention to what you were doing. Those kind of muscles were already in great shape. And we continued to do other things while we worked on this. Things that took the pressure of paying bills slightly off and we could really just work on presentation and not think about the economics of it. Ultimately it’s a good strategy for any type of business.”

[…]

JC: “We try to make decisions not always based on the bottom line, but really thinking about things as cumulative and long-term. All of the things that we do, they create a sense of goodwill. They create—to use a flogged-to-death term—‘community’ around a set of objects and ideas.

JH: In a 2006 Bad at Sports podcast, Jim, you described the gallery as a place where “we hang the work and tell the stories.”  Is that still the case? What stories have you told recently?

JD: “That seems to have shifted slightly. Early on it was a combination of setting the stage and telling the stories. I think the stage somehow now is already addressed. There can be riskier things that can happen on the stage […] and we don’t necessarily need to have people get to know us and our personalities before they get our jokes or the mission of the gallery.”

JC: “Whatever we do, both Jim and I work by looking at context and thinking about if there is a narrative. […] We have a baseline interest in the history of Chicago and how the things that we’re doing can relate to Chicago. I think we’ve become less reliant on that as an exclusive how-do-you-do.”

[…]

“Also, the things that we do are different from what a lot of other gallerists do, which has ended up being a plus for us in some ways. Anything that sets you apart is attractive. The fact that we have musical connections here and we do musical events here, it is a novelty for some people in the art world. Very often the art world gets stuck about 1979 in terms of its musical interests. We end up bringing in some contemporary musicians, and we’ve got these film connections. It has ended up being really useful and really interesting.”

[…]

“A really exciting story to tell, one that was unknown to almost everybody, including its participants in a way, is the secret history of the relationship between Christopher Wool and Joe McPhee. That was really something that came out of conversations. Literally just sitting down and talking, and realizing that Joe McPhee was not only somebody that we’d had this long-term relationship with, and adoration and support of (I re-issued four of his records on the Unheard Music series, in fact the first record we had on that series was Joe McPhee’s Nation Time), realizing that was also something shared by Christopher. Then developing the entire program of having that exhibition around that story. What was gratifying was to realize that was no longer the side show to the whole thing, it ended up being really central to it, giving a title [Sound on Sound], this real centerpiece. It was really a magical thing for all of us involved. That whole experience of having the performance here, with the work, it created something much more than just having the work, or just having the performance, as great as those things would have been.”

JD: “I think one interesting thing—I’ve been so deep in [preparing for shows] that I sort of felt that I know every aspect of that process—but Michelle Grabner wrote a nice review of the [Wool] show, and she started it off with a quotation. As I was reading it I instantly thought it was Christopher Wool talking about his paintings, and of course she set it up that way, and afterwards it’s actually Joe McPhee talking about his music. It was exactly the same spirit that they had, making things, and the [same] struggle. That was a great moment for me, too, because it was a surprise and it really made me think that Joe and Christopher, in addition to being fans of each other, are speaking a similar language in how they make something and put it out there.”

JC: “We end up talking with a lot of musicians about art, and with a lot of artists about music. We get caught in the crossfire, which is really exciting.”

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If you’re interested in joining the conversation about art or music this weekend, on Saturday, February 26th at 2:00pm Brian Labycz will be playing the solo synthesizer at the gallery, amidst Peter Saul’s paintings and drawings (1120 N. Ashland, 3rd floor).

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ABOUT:

Julia V. Hendrickson is a native of eastern Ohio who lives and works as a visual artist, writer, and curator in Chicago, Illinois. In 2008 she graduated with a B.A. in Studio Art and a minor in English from The College of Wooster (Wooster, Ohio). Julia is currently the gallery manager at Corbett vs. Dempsey, as well as the office manager and design assistant for Ork Posters. She is a teaching assistant at the Marwen Foundation, an active member of the Chicago Printers Guild, and has taught at Spudnik Press. A freelance art critic and writer for Newcity, Julia also keeps a blog called The Enthusiast, a documentation of the daily things that inspire, intrigue, and inform. She is currently exhibiting at Anchor Graphics (Columbia College Chicago) in a solo show titled FANTASTIC STANZAS, on view through March 26th.




Somewhere In Time : Wool & McPhee at Corbett vs Dempsey

November 24, 2010 · Print This Article

There is nothing I enjoy more than the intersection of musical performance and visual work. At Sound on Sound, a Christopher Wool exhibit at Corbett vs. Dempsey, I watched Joe McPhee activate that intersection. As stated in the CvD press release, “the title of [Wool’s] show comes from a 1968 recording of [McPhee’s] that has never been issued,” a gesture that echoes in Wool’s wall-length abstractions which play with what is, is not and what was there. With those paintings as a backdrop, McPhee ‘s performance created a touchstone of literal, temporal experience–a positive reminder that history is not simply a spectral projection.

Wool’s larger abstracts pay homage to modernist painting just as they undermine that homage. The focus is on surface rather than paint. The paintings are flat and slick. The action of the paint appears to have taken place behind the surface–an implied, impossible-to-reach space. A space the viewer can never touch. These paintings ask you grasp for an idea–to strain through the mark-making, and parse their accumulated gestures. While the more obvious marks are high contrast–blocks of white paint that seem applied with a paint roller, or finer snaking black lines that seem straight from a can of spray paint–the meat of the work is behind those singular pronouncements. The meat of the work is the background wash, variant erasure-marks where singular phrases might have existed before. It is about what Wool erased–a project of deduction for any viewer bordering on a Rorschach print: while some of those deductions are accurate, any number of personal associations come into play, disguising the process. Looking at Wool’s work is like shadow boxing–what becomes a metaphor for his project of painting abstracts at all.

The contemporary abstract painter must account for The History of Painting. Wool seems to suggest, via these spectral works, that history is impossible to grasp, elusive in it’s Truth, unstable, even, as it is reliant on a present’s interpretation. History becomes more an image of one’s self than any real vision of what was. The viewer parses Wool’s process, (or the history of each specific painting) just as Wool is reflecting and parsing the history of painting. In either case the result is subjective and, even, maudlin. It will never be requited. There is no true history.

Larry Clark, by Christopher Wool

Images of Wool: The giant bare room with countless paintings lined up along the walls. The boxing bag hanging on the periphery of a studio shot. Photographs of broken-down cars. Artist in a El Paso tank top with a breathing mask and paint gun. Wool is a painter’s painter; in a frieze article his nose is discussed at length as an ideal, “A seriously tremendous nose, something a rock climber would gaze at in awe, especially if it were on the scale of Mount Rushmore. How would one begin to climb it?” All of these images, both self-created and perpetuated by others amount to a decidedly male tradition; it echoes of Pollack and yet, as one of many in a patriarchal succession: how to fill the shoes of a predecessor? How to achieve some recognition? Especially when the death of said predessor boasted a simultaneous “death of painting.” A death no one really believes in, but nevertheless enjoys to bat around. (An article I read years ago, I wish I could remember suggested that every ten years we exume the body of painting to see if, indeed it is dead, before reburying it). Wool is not asking if painting is dead or alive, instead he presents ghost-paintings: after-images created out of smoke. He admits the smoke-and-mirrors archetype, while nevertheless being married to its tradition.

Last Saturday, McPhee served as a kind of in-between orator, one who played directly with the Wool’s themes while creating a connection between Wools contemporary-image-of-the-past and the present moment. There was something grounding about McPhee’s presence–a positive gesture on this side of the paintings. McPhee is real. He is not a ghost. His relationship to history, while profound (he came on the scene in the 60s and 70s and boasts a significant reputation as one who integrated emotional content with experimental improvisation), is nevertheless active, contemporary, literal. At the same, his work with recording equipment–particularly this devise of “sound on sound”–speaks directly to Wool’s process, wherein an improvised (and emotional) recording of gesture is layered on top of other temporal gestures to create unpredictable layers.

McPhee stood between the work and the audience–a man of medium height. He wore a baseball cap and carried a soprano saxophone. The beak of his saxophone was dressed in a little furry hat–a fake animal head with two plastic yellow eyes. I liked imagining the saxophone, animated with this “hat” and McPhee in his basement, staring at the yellow eyes: no doubt they have a deep relationship. He carried the audience through a range of sounds, using the saxophone’s percussive potential with windy toots and bellows; sometimes it sounded like he was blowing through a large metal pipe.

photo by Angeline Evans

At the beginning of the performance, he called the thought of Houdini into the room, mentioning his name and encouraging the audience to close their eyes: he promised to make sounds about illusion and suggested a literal connection between himself and Wool. “We are both interested in illusions,” he said. He played the saxophone and, with my eyes closed, the notes seemed to come from various directions at once despite his standing in one place the whole time. In other instances, McPhee played two songs at once, blowing through the reed just as he hummed simultaneously; eliciting a crying underbelly-sound that followed the upper sax-melody. These discordant melodies struggled to overcome one another other; neither one strong enough to do so. Like Siamese twins sharing a heart, the melodies shared one finite breath. Then this too would break off into a new song with sometimes sharp and shrill passages of music, like a fast forward bird–McPhee activated my inner ear, so that I heard the notes occurring outside of me, while experiencing an interior wiping sensation/sound inside of your head. And suddenly I recognized a passage–he played God Bless The Child, with some trembling, discordant defiance, pleasing in it’s surprise. He took us on abstract tangents only to return in time to rescue any listener from doubt with the refrain. He then read a poem.

Joe McPhee at Corbett vs Dempsey video by Angeline Evans

I think it’s important to remember any abstract improvisation can illicit a insecurity–the viewer/audience can’t know where it is going. It’s a little like going on a hike as a kid and not knowing where you’ll end up, only that you’re supposed to follow and trust the adult ahead of you. Here again there is an image of the Elder, the person showing you the steps, the person you must trust. Whether it’s the history or experimental jazz, or the history of painting, we are walking down a familiar path, trying to contextualize ourselves to that history, to understand where the contemporary “I” fits in it and figure out what the next step is. Part of learning that history is falling in love with that history, just as one must recognize a life in the present, where that history is only a shade. Like Christopher Reeve’s character in Somewhere in Time (1980), one must, in the end, let go old ghosts.

Somewhere in Time