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.




The Woodmans

February 14, 2011 · Print This Article

PhotobucketAt first, C. Scott Willis’ latest film “The Woodmans” appears to be a film documenting Francesca Woodman, who at the age of 22 took her own life and left behind a body of exquisite photographs. Instead, it is a rare portrait of an artist family, all of which have been successful, in their own right. This is not the first documentary on Francesca Woodman. In 2000 Elisabeth Subrin created the film, “The Fancy” in which she models a linear time line by “[reorganizing] information from the catalogues in order to pose questions about biographical form.” But unlike Subrin, Willis had an all access pass to Woodman’s diaries, photographs, some of which have never been exhibited, and her family – the three together trace the artist’s early life and death.

Growing up in an artist household – mother Betty a ceramist who has shown at the Met and father George, a painter who has exhibited work at the Guggenheim – both Francesca and her brother Charlie spent much of their time in and out of their parents studios. “Our children learned that art is a very high priority; you don’t mess around. They learned this is a very serious business at an early age,” George Woodman says as he sits near one of his paintings. The family spent time between Colorado and Italy with Francesca and Charlie switching back and forth between schools. As an act of defiance as a teenager, Francesca enrolled in the Abbot Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts – her father gave her a camera to take with her.

Francesca quickly began photographing herself and her friends, often in the nude. Willis interviewed childhood friends who expressed their perplexity at the time. But, George and Betty were not phased by her daughter’s comfort in front of the camera; “I looked at Francesca’s photographs almost more as formally what they were rather than getting myself tied into knots over the subject matter. I don’t see them as autobiographical but I guess in some way all the work we make is autobiographical; it’s about us,” explains Betty.

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Between the years 1975 – 1978 she created some of the iconic photos we know today while an undergraduate at the Rhode Island School of Design. After graduating she moved to New York where she briefly worked as a fashion photographer’s assistant. The use of her journal as a partial narrator gives an intimate look into her troubling final years. Towards the end of her life she struggled to create work and seemed dissatisfied with the lack of notoriety she was receiving.

Towards the end of the film we see the family continuing with their artistic practices. When asked how the loss of their daughter affected their work Betty says that they have each “dealt with it in different ways.” Although Betty took a break from creating work George shifted his practice to photography – creating unsettling images of young naked women that resemble his daughter’s work.

Willis is really able to build a great tension – the film can really make you feel uncomfortable at times. Preconceived notions of a privileged artist family can be hard to avoid. Although I feel as a director he strived to present his subjects in the best light they do not always come off that way. The inevitable jealousy of Francesca’s fame comes up several times in the film. Handling the estate themselves, the family has seen her work eclipse theirs. But candid statements of their frustration humanizes the family who come off a bit disconnected at times. While sitting near the family’s pool George expresses his concerns, “She was so good; she made my own work look kind of stupid…I wouldn’t mind getting a bigger slice of cake myself.”




“The Woodmans” Documentary Premieres at Gene Siskel Film Center Tonight

February 11, 2011 · Print This Article

Please take note: “The Woodmans,” the much-buzzed about documentary film by C. Scott Willis, has its Chicago premiere tonight at 6:15pm at the Gene Siskel Film Center and will be screened there daily through February 17th. We’ll have a review of the film up on the blog early next week. Francesca Woodman was a very promising artist who used her body, and those of other female models, frequently in her psychologically-charged black and white photographs. Woodman committed suicide in 1981, when she was still in her early twenties. What looks particularly fascinating about this documentary’s approach to its subject is its focus on the artist’s entire family unit, and hence the dynamic between the artist and her family, as a means of portraying the artist herself.  Click on over to the film’s website for more background on the film; here’s the trailer, which really makes me want to run out and see it NOW:

Photo by Francesca Woodman. Untitled 1977-78 (Rome). Lorber Films / Betty and George Woodman.

Portrait of Francesca Woodman and her father George Woodman, taken by Francesca Woodman. Untitled 1980 (New York). Lorber Films / Betty and George Woodman.




Gene Siskel Film Center | AOKI

April 6, 2010 · Print This Article

Photobucket“Japanese American Black Panther Party founding member” reads at first like a mislabel in the description of the 2009 documentary AOKI. Mike Cheng and Ben Wang chronicle  the life of Richard Aoki (1938-2009) from his early years in a WWII internment camp through his days as an activist in Oakland. Shot over the last five years of Aoki’s life, we follow him as he continues his career as a social activist in Oakland. Clocking in at ninety-four minutes the film is pretty much what you would expect. Straightforward framing and first person narration steers us through Aoki’s life as an early activist. Aoki is a very charismatic, opinionated, and often blunt character who’s peers speak of him with the utmost respect.  Although the film lacks much of an artistic direction (the film poster would have you think differently) I really enjoyed revisiting famous photographs of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale but locating Aoki as a background character. The documentation of  his search for social justice involves him in not only the BPP but also the Asian American Political Alliance and the Third World Liberation Front.

In 2006 Wayie Ly taped an interview with Aoki about his life. It is pretty in depth and worth checking out. Below is an excerpt about his thoughts on Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy:

People Change, History Moves On

Politically, I would be labeled a conservative at the time, because of the fact that I voted for Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election, when he ran against John F Kennedy. Now I will explain the logic of my political position to you as weird as it may sound today. First and foremost, Richard Nixon was from California. Kennedy was from Massachusetts. Richard Nixon was a homeboy. Kennedy spoke with a foreign Boston accent. Richard Nixon married a good housewife. Kennedy married some arrant socialite later to be known as Jackie O. Richard Nixon grew up poor and humble. Kennedy grew up rich. I think his father’s or his family’s fortune was based on the rum running trade during the prohibition days when alcohol was outlawed here in the United States. I think rumor has it that his family built their fortune up smuggling (laughs) hard liquor across the border.Photobucket

Richard Nixon was a Quaker. The Quakers were the only religious group that, or were one of the few that opposed the internment of the Japanese Americans during World War II. Kennedy was a Roosevelt man, and Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that put us Japs in the camps. So, it’s payback time… Meanwhile, one of the other reasons why I voted Republican was the fact that Abraham Lincoln, who was the first presidential candidate of the Republican Party, freed the slaves. And to me and my sensitivity to African Americans, indicated that I should be in favor of somebody that emancipated the slaves.

For the entire article please check out the Richard Masato Aoki Memorial page.

Aoki will be playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center

April 8th—8:15pm
164 North State Street
Chicago, IL 60601-3505




An American Journey: In Robert Frank’s Footsteps

January 12, 2010 · Print This Article

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Map charting Robert Frank's route while shooting The Americans

During the month of January the Gene Siskel Film Center hosts a series that spotlights new works of documentary films in a series called, Stranger Than Fiction: Documentary Premiers. For this month we will check out a couple of films including Mine, Prodigal Sons, and this week’s pick, An American Journey: In Robert Frank’s Footsteps.

Directed by Philippe Seclier, An American Journey: In Robert Frank’s Footsteps documents the filmmaker’s attempt to capture scenes from Swiss photographer Robert Frank’s seminal work The Americans. Published in 1959, the book first came under criticism before it was heralded as a body of work that portrayed a complex portrait of American life on the cusp of the 60s. Beginning his journey after winning a Gugenheim Fellowship Frank traveled 15,000 miles documenting a side of America that typically was not portrayed in photography at the time.

While meeting with friends and collegues we get a better idea of how the artist worked. Primarily editing from contact sheets and often throwing away unwanted negatives Frank appeared to have an intuitive approach when it came to selecting his frames. A scene that really stands out in the film happens near the beginning when we get a chance to see the mauquette Frank put together for the first edition. It’s worn down and dirty but the object almost feels as if it reflects many of the subjects within the series, humble, dignified, and underrepresented.

I have to give Seclier some credit, he knows how long to make a doc. Clocking in at only 60 minutes, the film, although filmed with a handheld (which I hate), quickly moves through the American landscape. It is unclear if he visited every location from the book but after viewing a handful it would be hard to show all without feeling repetitive.  Although we walk away with small stories about Frank’s travel it is not a particularly powerful portrait of the artist. Instead, we are left with the notion of changing landscapes, urbanization, and mortality.

An American Journey: In Robert Frank’s Footsteps will be playing:
Thursday, January 14th at 6:00pm
Gene Siskel Film Center
164 North State Street
Chicago, IL 60601-3505
(312) 846-2600