Erik Wenzel on the State of the Chicago Apartment Gallery

December 9, 2009 · Print This Article

Editors’ Note: All this week we’re running some of the essays written for Floor Length and Tux’s “Untitled Circus” event this past weekend. A number of essays on Chicago’s thriving domestic/apartment gallery art space scene were solicited from local writers/artists/curators involved in the running of such spaces, and we’re posting some of them here on Bad at Sports as a way to extend the discussion. Please feel free to email us with your comments at mail@badatsports.com, or if you’d like to contact the folks at FLAT directly, you can email Erik at erik@ floorlengthandtux.com.

Guest Post by Erik Wenzel

For his contribution to FLAT 4, Erik Wenzel answered a series of questions on Chicago’s apartment gallery scene provided by FLAT’s co-director EC Brown. They are reprinted, below.

Do these spaces have real cultural or regional impact?

That is a big question, since it first makes me ask, “What is real culture?” Assuming culture in this sense means something that is a worthwhile activity that promotes things like community, dialogue and experience, then yes, definitely. I would say they do have regional impact simply by the fact that Chicago is known as a hub for this kind of activity. Show’s like Artists Run Chicago indicate that a more “real cultural” impact is taking place, at least at the edges of the institutional level.

Does anyone really care if Chicago has 2.3 trillion small project spaces?

People should care that these spaces exist because without them there would be almost nothing going on in the city. As it is there are only a handful of galleries with worthwhile programs. There are plenty of irrelevant or stagnant things going on. These small project spaces provide a lot of flavor and character.

Do these projects propose alternatives to institutional models or do they reinforce them?

It’s funny because my gut instinct says to be more alternative you have to engage certain institutions such as maintaining a website, writing press releases, having set hours, and building a coherent program or aesthetic. The alternative would be to then present work that is very experimental, risky and strange. And not risky or strange for the sake of edginess or shock. All the stuff trying to do that ends up being the most angsty and conventional. But an approach that says, “we are going to get cards printed, have a professional tone, but we want our artists to feel free to do something crazy.”

I notice a lot of spaces are good about putting together websites and announcements. Some are more reliably on top of providing that kind of information than commercial spaces. I think it would be a good goal to beat these professional spaces at their own game. This is possible, not only in terms of administration but in terms of programming.

This is where criticality comes in. I admire anyone that month after month can put together a show and invite strangers into their living space to come see it in addition to everything else in their life. But a lot of times it becomes about filling slots rather than having a program or an overarching aesthetic. An interesting turn that would signal a cultural or broader relevancy would be an alternative space that is run as though it were a kunsthalle. And not an ironic or fake kunsthalle. Strangely that would be pretty radical.

Do these spaces really provide something that institutions or larger galleries can’t?

I think the main asset that alternative spaces have going for them is that there is a lot of freedom and room to experiment. They provide immediacy. An exhibition at an alternative space can come about very rapidly, which is the upswing of needing to have a regular schedule. This is great to try out an idea, or do something very impulsive.

Not being in a commercial space, there is no need to make money, a show can be completely art for art’s sake. Not being at a museum there aren’t the same bureaucratic and legal constraints. This is also the area with the most room for improvement. On the whole no one seems to make the most of this advantage. Most of the time you see two-dimensional work on the walls and maybe a sculpture or a video on a TV. A lot of times this comes, ironically, from an unrealistic desire to make big sales, be discovered, or whatever sort of secret fantasy all aspiring artists and gallerists (myself included) have.

This is different than being professional, if a space is run with a certain degree of structure and regularity there is definitely potential to make sales, develop collectors and garner recognition for the artists who show there. I would say though, that trying to work backwards from that goal results in art that is not very interesting. There is nothing inherently wrong with making work that ends up fitting into these prescribed modes but it seems very cynical and not very useful to let that be the criterion that determines where a work of art or a gallery’s program is headed. For spaces needing to pay the bills, earn grants or increase membership this becomes an issue to navigate, but for alternative spaces, those concerns aren’t automatically present.

I am interested in work that responds to a situation in a more critical way. And the situation of a garage, a basement, a kitchen a living room, a bathroom, that is at once very common, domestic and everyday, is also radically different than a museum or a commercial gallery. So this is an underutilization both in spatial and economic considerations.

Are these projects a manifestation of DIY, or are they rogue businesses? Or vanity projects masquerading as non-profit cultural services?

I think all of the above and then some. There are many models and motivations for running an alternative space. I think it would be helpful to realize there is a lot of variation within the practice. There is also development, these spaces come and go, they grow, they shrink, they move, they turn into commercial spaces–there is dynamism.

Students get together to have a party, show their art, socialize and practice art stuff like installing work and writing a press release. These are essentially vanity projects as they usually start with the idea of a bunch of friends taking turns putting up their work. But this has value because it is a consequence free environment where people can make mistakes and learn things about the mechanics of exhibition making. And it is a way to get your work out there, potentially have a conversation outside the school environment. Even if students are the main audience.

Problems arise when it becomes too insular and incestuous. Which is the general problem in Chicago. Artists going around from project space to project space showing too much, producing too much of the same stuff and not spending enough time thinking. Chicago is so making oriented, there needs to be thinking in there too. This is another cause of the type of work I mentioned before that comes off as very conventional. There needs to be a critical conversation, not general consensus. Everyone knows it’s great to hear that people like what you are doing, but constructive criticism leads to development.

There have been some criticisms of the business end of alternative spaces recently that are frankly ridiculous and stupid. I find most alternative spaces don’t make a lot of sales. No one shows up at an opening with cash in hand wanting to buy the art off the walls. Those that do have that as a goal slowly move to a more professionalized setting. If an apartment gallery is doing any serious business, sooner or later they move to a “legitimate” commercial space. A lot of the established galleries got started this way. This occurs all over, not just in Chicago, and all throughout the history of art dealing.

Art is very different than other commodities, an apartment that has work on view, and is willing to sell it, is in no way the same thing as someone selling illegal cigarettes out of their house to people off the street. Art is unique, it’s not like delivering the same Marlboro for half the price and stealing the corner store’s customers. But that is the argument some seem to make, that selling paintings by your friends is going to put the real hard working commercial spaces out of business.

Do these spaces provide a solution to Brain Drain in Chicago?

I think it is starting to happen a little. But this is only one key element within a greater problem. If alternative spaces started taking more risks in terms of the art they show and the level of rigor, curatorially, conceptually and critically, there would be something. Art in Chicago is too fun and too zany.

People hold barbeques and cook food as almost a safeguard against boring art. The message seems to be the art isn’t all that great or worth seeing, but you should still come because there will be a lot of beer and fun. The elaborate party atmosphere isn’t even done as art. That at least, would be a step up. The social component is key, and openings are about fun. But art isn’t. If you want to have fun, why are you looking at art? Art can be fun, but it doesn’t have to be, and it certainly should not be a guiding principle. That’s the problem of a one-night art event with a bunch of drawings on the wall. No one takes it seriously, no one can come back later and really look at the work, engage it. I’m speaking generally, but oftentimes that ends up being the case. This is where risk would be interesting.

Assuming it is going to be a one-time only party event atmosphere, what is an art-like moment that can be inserted into the social situation? A lot of art at alternative spaces, and in Chicago in general, is very polite and geared towards accommodating the audience. What about art that confronts the audience, makes them uncomfortable, makes them feel stupid, or alienated or confused? What about art that appeals to or requires an intellectual participation? Or art that you aren’t even sure where it begins and ends? These tend to be the types of art that stay with me, and give me meaningful experiences.

Really pushing boundaries, experimenting and taking risks with ambitious projects also has the potential to start building these other things you are asking about, culture, reputation, collectors and patronage. This would be a reason to stay, or a reason for someone to come here and do a project.

Chicago exports artists, it doesn’t import them. Artists feel there is no point in staying because there is nothing interesting going on. You are isolated from the greater art world because of the pervasive mentality repeated by a few loud mouths with chips-on-their-shoulders: a pride in isolationism. If you don’t fit into the only legitimate mould of carrying on the Imagist tradition in the finest SAIC sense, it’s easy to become alienated and overlooked. Exponents of sticking to the tradition dismiss New York, LA and elsewhere as being shallow and fashionable. But how is staying focused on one blip that is moving further and further into the past signal substance, authenticity or dedication? It’s like one day having a really good meatloaf and then deciding you will only eat meatloaf for the rest of your life. In this climate artists feel like there is no way to escape the gravitational pull of the black hole without skipping town.

I think alternative spaces do, and could increase an open exchange with the world outside. Building a network of spaces across the country and internationally would be a very welcome and meaningful development. This occurs somewhat, but to really push that agenda I think would increase the value of staying in Chicago, as well as do some of the other things.

Erik Wenzel, The White Room, 2009. Courtesy 65 Grand.

Erik Wenzel, The White Room, 2009. Courtesy 65 Grand.

Erik Wenzel is an artist, writer and educator. Recently he was a fellow at the 2009 Sommerakademie at the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, Switzerland, curated by Tirdad Zolghadr. He is co-editor of a related book to be published in 2010. Recent exhibitions include “[RE]-VIEW” curated by Maggie Taft and “Warm For Your Formalism” at DOVA Temporary and “Belief in Doubt in Painting” at 65GRAND. In 2010 Wenzel will present “New ‘N’ Lonelier Laze” at DOVA Temporary and “Live A Little, Live Ennui” at The President’s Gallery of Harold Washington College. His website is artoridiocy.blogspot.com.