Guest blog post by Thea Liberty Nichols
Email interview conducted with Susannah Ribstein
Susannah Ribstein is the director of Corbett vs. Dempsey gallery in Wicker Park. She is also completing an M.S. in Historic Preservation at the School of the Art Institute. Her thesis for that degree focuses on the origins and development of the late modern architectural style known as Brutalism. She received a B.A in art history from the University of Chicago in 2005.
TLN: Congratulations on the recent unanimous acceptance of your historic landmark nomination! Can you tell us a little bit more about the nomination itself— what it is, what you were nominating and what went into writing it?
SR: Gee, thanks Thea! I’ll try to be as concise as possible here, but it’s a long process and one that’s probably pretty unfamiliar to most BaS readers. I think that anyone with an interest in fine art could benefit from a better understanding of how preservation can be used to support investigations into all kinds of cultural history. Although this project required a lot of art history, I’m going to talk more about the preservation-specific parts because that might actually be news to someone.
In the summer of 2009 Lisa Stone, the curator of the Roger Brown Study Collection, asked me to nominate the collection’s building (Brown’s former home and studio, now owned by the Art Institute) to the National Register of Historic Places. I was in the middle of SAIC’s master’s program in Historic Preservation, and I’m the gallery director at Corbett vs. Dempsey (specializing in modern and contemporary art from Chicago) so I thought writing the nomination would be a good way to combine my interests in architectural preservation and Chicago art history.
The Study Collection is one of Chicago’s greatest architectural, art historical, and cultural landmarks. The building, which dates from 1888, is located in Lincoln Park, at 1926 N. Halsted Street. Brown bought the building in 1974 and with his partner, the architect George Veronda, converted it from a rundown storefront with 3 apartments to a modern studio for him on the first floor and an apartment for both of them on the second floor. Over the years the apartment filled with Brown’s incredible collection of art and artifacts, which is now preserved in one of the best house museums you’ve ever seen. All of Brown’s great Chicago Imagist colleagues are represented in the collection (Jim Nutt, Christina Ramberg, Ed Paschke, Philip Hanson, Karl Wirsum, etc. etc.) as well as work by self-taught artists like Joseph Yoakum and Jesse Howard, vintage toys and ephemera, and modernist furniture. The building and its contents are still essentially as Brown left them when he moved out in 1995, two years before his death in 1997. (Read more about the collection here, and plan a visit!) As wonderful as the art collection is, it’s not technically part of my nomination, which is limited to the building itself, the backyard that Brown landscaped, and the frame garage he built out back to house his 1967 Mustang.
TLN: Can you tell us a little more about what the National Register is?
SR: It’s a program overseen by the National Park Service, created in 1966 at the dawn of the modern preservation movement as part of the National Historic Preservation Act. It’s intended to be a method for building an inventory of American architectural, archeological, and cultural landmarks, and anyone can nominate a property, or a collection of properties (as a district) for listing. Every state has a Historic Preservation Office with at least one staff member responsible for helping people with the listing process. It is in theory a very egalitarian program, but in reality the process is quite involved and requires a particular approach to writing the nomination that I think would be hard for a layman to navigate. Most property owners – both individual and corporate – hire historical consultants to do the nominations for them because they are so time-consuming and really do require a relationship with the preservation bureaucracy in order for them to go smoothly.
TLN: So tell us more about what comprises a nomination.
SR: The main written components of the nomination are a description and a statement of significance. The description is supposed to be detailed enough that you could re-create the place without pictures if it fell down. That’s a pretty rough task. Even with an undergraduate specialization in architectural history and (at that point) half of a master’s degree in preservation, I found I still had plenty to learn about building descriptions. As mind-numbing as descriptive writing can be, it’s also a kind of great exercise for a writer to really focus on how to create an accurate diagram of something using only words. Finding the right vocabulary, figuring out how to organize the parts in space – it’s like a puzzle.
The statement of significance is where you make your historical argument for the property’s significance. Coming from a family of lawyers made this a really delicious prospect for me. Using historical narrative and context to build a clear and convincing case for something’s significance is a pretty foundational skill for an historian. In the nomination process it gets stripped down to the essentials: use the facts, make your case, convince someone. It’s fun, especially when you think you’ve got a resistant audience, as I did. Several years ago, based on a much shorter submission, the Illinois preservation office said they didn’t think Brown was significant enough to justify pursuing the entire nomination. That really lit a fire under Lisa (Stone), and under me to prove them wrong. I think most of the problem with their initial understanding was that there are very few art historical landmarks in this state, despite its incredible art history, and preservationists generally don’t know as much about art as they do about architecture and political history. On top of that, the National Register is not friendly to landmarks that have achieved significance within the last 50 years. The period of significance for Brown’s home and studio was 1974 to 1995, which is absurdly recent to preservationists who are used to evaluating buildings that are a century old – and many of whom personally remember 1995 like it was last week. In order to list properties less than 50 years old you have to prove that they are exceptionally significant, either because they are a unique remnant or because the history that they represent is crucially important to American civilization. So I felt like I had my rhetorical work cut out for me with this project.
TLN: So how did you make your case for the significance of the Study Collection within the larger historical, and specifically preservationist perspective, the Council was coming from?
SR: Preservation activism in general relies heavily on establishing historical context, and the statement of significance in a National Register nomination is a great example of this. The emphasis on contextualization is one of my favorite things about preservation writing. I love setting up an environment in which people can come to appreciate buildings and landmarks. It’s no use to try to appeal to taste and nostalgia – those things are too idiosyncratic to provide a solid foundation for the kinds of funding and legislation that support preservation work. You have to paint a picture of a moment in the past, and situate your landmark within it in order to give an objective view of its status and meaning.
In the case of this nomination, I argued for its significance based on its association with Brown because he was an important and well-known American artist, and based on its connection to Chicago Imagism because that was arguably this city’s most important contribution to 20th century American art. Although detailing the history and proving the significance of Brown and Imagism took up most of my nomination, I also wanted to make a case for the importance of the building as representative of the historical evolution of Chicago’s industrial production. Like so much of this city, it began its life as a commercial and residential property built during the city’s population boom in the late-19th century. It then served a variety of retail and light-industrial purposes before (with Brown’s tenancy) becoming a focal point for the kind of cultural production that replaced manufacturing as this city’s most vital export. I love that this one building will always be a way for people to touch and feel the story of how Chicago has changed over the course of the century. Rather than being a pure, embalmed example of an architectural style, it’s a building that testifies to a much broader historical narrative. I think it’s an incredibly valuable place for that reason alone. Preservation is traditionally geared to value landmarks that have impeccable integrity to their original form. Valuing buildings because their alterations tell a story is a practice that is relatively new to the field, and I think one of the more exciting directions it is taking. (I have to also give credit here to Anthony Rubano, an architect in the state preservation office who was an indispensable resource to me throughout this process. He first suggested the idea of adding a discussion of this kind of evolutionary significance to the nomination – among a million other wonderful suggestions.)
The main surprise to me about this nomination process was that the writing was actually a relatively small portion of it, time-wise. I finished the bulk of the writing in the summer of 2009. Corresponding with the National Register coordinator for the state (in Springfield) and going through multiple rounds of editing took many months. Finally, in the fall of 2010, the nomination was presented to the City of Chicago Landmarks Commission. When you nominate a landmark in a city that’s big enough to have its own historic preservation office, like Chicago, they are allowed to weigh in first even though it’s the state that has the final say. The Chicago Commission was really enthusiastic. It was so gratifying to hear from these historians who perhaps didn’t know much about their city’s amazing art history. They really got how important Brown and the Imagists were to Chicago, and made great associations between the art and other social and cultural elements of the city’s history with which they were more familiar. One commissioner picked up on a mention I made of Brown and his colleagues Ray Yoshida, Christina Ramberg and Philip Hanson going to the Maxwell Street market to find artistic inspiration. He knew a bit about some of the Imagists already, and knew a lot about Maxwell Street, but didn’t realize that there was an important relationship there. Learning about connections like that is what makes being an historian in this city great.
After the Chicago commission, the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council votes on it in one of their quarterly meetings. Lisa and I traveled to the meeting in Springfield last December to make a short presentation and see the vote. I was still worried that the council would not understand how something that happened so recently (in geological time, anyway) and in an area of history with which they might not be familiar could be exceptionally significant. But again, they responded enthusiastically and favorably and all voted in support of the nomination (with the exception of one abstainer). Now it’s winding its way through the rest of the process with the National Parks Service, and will be officially designated in the coming months.
I do want to say something about what listing on the National Register actually means for the building. It’s a very common misconception that listing confers some kind of protection for a property. It doesn’t. If federal money is going to be used to demolish or alter a listed property, the responsible agency is supposed to go through a mitigation procedure in which they make some attempt to find an alternative to alteration/demolition. But they can always decide it’s not possible and go ahead with whatever work they want. And if it’s private money you don’t have to ask anyone before you knock the whole thing down. The Register is more of a carrot than a stick. The main reason that people pursue listing (apart from the prestige) is that it makes the property eligible for a variety of tax incentives.
Brown’s home and studio is already a prestigious site as a house museum and there is no danger of alteration or destruction since the Art Institute is a committed steward. So I saw the nomination process mostly as an opportunity to produce a piece of writing that made a case for the broad historical significance of Brown, his colleagues in Chicago, and the building as a cultural landmark. It was also important to me that my product would be available for study at the building and online (via the National Park Service, eventually. They’re in the process of digitizing nominations here. The database is incomplete and buggy, but still a gold mine of historical information). Preservation usually only comes onto the radar of the general public when there’s a heroic effort underway to save an endangered building. That aspect of preservation is of course really important. But I think it’s equally important for people to know that its mechanisms have the potential to support cultural investigations that are much wider, richer, and less desperately functional than architectural maintenance alone.
Thea Liberty Nichols is an arts administrator, independent curator and freelance writer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
1. In A Plain Brown Wrapper at Johalla Projects
Not for kids. Literally, you have to be 18 or over to enter. Work by Steven Frost, Elisa Garza, Elise Goldstein, Emerson Granillo, Jesse Hites, Jacob King, Ivan Lozano, Joelle McTigue, Karina Natis, Clare O’Sadnick, Edward Rossa, Joshua Sampson, Talaya Schmid, Kristen Stokes, Jaroslaw Studencki, Bu Tu, Wayama Woo, and Meredith Zielke. Organized by Barbara DeGenevieve.
Johalla Projects is located at 1561 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception Saturday from 7-10pm
Two exhibitions celebrating the Centennial festivities for the Ox-Bow Summer School of Art.
Corbett vs. Dempsey is located at 1120 N Ashland Ave. Reception Saturday from 5-9pm. Roots and Culture is located at 1034 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception Saturday from 6-9pm.
3. There, Now It Will Last Forever at The Family Room
Work by Stephen Eichhorn, James Ewert Jr, Ron Ewert, Mike Fortress, Jenny Kendler, Michael Ruggirello, Molly Schafer, Ben Speckmann, Davey Sommers, Scott Thomas and INDO.
The Family Room is located at 1821 W. Hubbard St., #202. Reception Friday from 7pm-12am.
4. Sangre, Sudor y Papeles: Artists examine the immigration issue at Antena
Work by Saul Aguirre, Adriana Baltazar, Miguel Cortez, Salvador Jiménez-Flores, Jaime Mendoza, Jenny Priego, and Elvia Rodriguez-Ochoa.
Antena is located at 1765 S Laflin St. Reception Friday from 6-10pm.
5. No Money No Pancakes at Second Bedroom
Something weird’ll be going on. BYOB but there’s free waffles.
Second Bedroom is located at 3216 S. Morgan St. Reception Saturday from 7-11pm.
This week I do have a full Top 5 for you, and this isn’t all there is out there worth seeing this weekend. Golden Gallery is opening a new show, as well as their annex. HungryMan is hosting a solo exhibit curated by Jason Lazaus. NoCoast and Perigrineprogram are both rocking out with new shows over in Pilsen. Revolution Tattoo looks like it’s hosting some fucked-up version of the Muppet show, and the grand ole’ ‘Tute is beginning a fantastic tribute show to Louis Sullivan. And to top it off, you can go see punk-folk at CvsD. And this isn’t even the Top 5 picks yet! It’s squaring up to be a good weekend. No sitting at home drinking beer, get off your ass and go see some art!
The second iteration of a joint show featuring the works of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and Daniel Albrigo. Also opening that night at WesEx: The Power of Selection, part 2, curated by Ryan Travis Christian and featuring the work of Evan Gruzis, Denise Kupferschmidt, Keegan McHargue, and Dana Dart-McLean.
Western Exhibitions is located at 119 N. Peoria St., suite 2A. Reception is Friday from 5-8pm.
Oh ICP, you will never cease to inspire amazing things. My Funhouse, a series from Johanna Wawro and Andy Resekis, is a photo and video installation about the Juggalo Family.
Eastern Expansion is located at 244 W 31st St. Reception is Saturday from 7-11pm.
And I quote, “A conglomeration of new photographs, drawings, sculpture, moving image and sound by the founding members of ACRE, Chicago’s newest Artist Residency (that takes place in the great state of Wisconsin!).” Including the work of Caitlin Arnold, Olivia Ciummo, Scott Cowan, Kyle Cronan, Melissa Damasauskas, Rachel Ettling, Aron Gent, Henry James Glover, John Paul Glover, Emily Green, Brieanne Hauger, Katy Keefe, Jason Lazarus, Greg Stimac and Nicholas Wylie.
The Hills Esthetic Center is located at 128 N Campbell Ave, G. Reception is Friday from 8-11pm.
And I quote, “The images depict influential, yet highly overlooked and occasionally controversial Christian figures who, had they lived in the present, might have been a source of inspiration to gays and lesbians.” Work by Robert Lentz, Lewis Williams, William Hart McNichols, and David Lee Csicsko.
La Llorona is located at 1474 W. Webster Ave. Reception is Friday from 6pm-1am.
And I quote, “Contemporary collage inspired work by Juan Angel Chavez, Lydia Diemer, Stephen Eichhorn, Clark Ellithorpe, Chad Kouri, Alexis Mackenzie, Leslie Mutchler, and Neva Sills.”
NEIU Fine Arts Center Gallery is located at 5500 N St Louis Ave. Reception is Friday from 6-9pm.
It’s that time again. This was another week full of many worthy options for viewing. I’ll be going to quite a bit more than just these five, but these looked particularly interesting:
1. You Can Lose Your Balance at 65 Grand
I’ve been a fan of 65Grand for quite a while. I am not terribly familiar with Scott Wolniak, but I took a trot over to his website, and it looked like interesting stuff. Corbett vs Dempsey or Noble and Superior are both close by, so why not go for a two- or three-for-one? See ya’ll at the top of the stairs.
65Grand is located at 1378 W. Grand Ave. Reception is Friday from 7-10pm.
2. Sarah Best: Daily Photos at Antena
There are two shows opening at Antena this Friday, and this is actually the smaller of the two. The premise involves cell phone pictures, a medium that I still find dubious, but which I need to see more of, so as to fully form my opinion. The one image available is beautiful, as you can see.
Antena is located at 1765 S. Laflin St. Reception is Friday from 6-10pm.
3. UnCommon Territories at Heaven Gallery
A group show of (primarily) SAIC sculpture kids, including: Marissa Benedict, Christopher Bradley, Scott Carter, Lauren Carter, Younghwan Choi, Colleen Coleman, Allison Fall, Elise Goldstein, Katya Grokhovsky, Samantha Hill, Holly Holmes, Scott Jarrett, Selena Jones, Maya Mackrandilal, Lisa Nonken, Luis Palacios, Ben Stagl, Stephanie Victa, Andrew Norm Wilson. Come spend an evening in Heaven.
Heaven Gallery is located at 1550 N Milwaukee Ave. Reception is Friday from 7-11pm.
4. Duncan R. Anderson at Kasia Kay Gallery
The best exhibition I ever saw at Kasia’s place was Anderson’s previous exhibition. I’m super excited to see that he’s back, and I can’t wait to see what new craziness he has on display. This dude’s work is friggin’ awesome.
Kasia Kay Gallery is located at 1044 W. Fulton Market. Reception is Friday from 6-8pm.
5. Room-a-Loom at Swimming Pool Project Space
Come see the spectacular culmination of the Room-A-Loom! People have ween donating their blue weaveable material for almost a month now. It is time now to experience what a giant loom and a giant room can make together! It’s gonna be fort-tastic!
Swimming Pool Project Space is located at 2858 W Montrose Ave.Reception is Saturday from 6-10pm.