I met Rachel Kalom at a queer book group that met at a bar. Not a ton of book-discussing went on, but we did manage to get drunk at 3pm one Sunday every month. When she told me that she was co-curating a show with her coworker Brian Gillham, I was really excited to see her take on the fancy shmancy space that is the Zolla/Lieberman Gallery.

I was relieved to see a show about the recession without a dollar sign or Wall Street reference. Instead was work that was clearly created in a time where money and labor and the global economy were being examined on the daily, or work that was complicated by the current economic climate.

The first piece you confront when you walk into the space is “Horse Drawn” by Shannon Goff, a life-size carriage a la Cinderella constructed completely out of cardboard. This piece, along with others like Vijay J. Paniker’s ceramic works of to scale everyday objects (boots, paint cans, cheese whiz) and Katherine Webb’s hand stitched portraits, all utilize a practice that is both labor intensive and skill based, and the resulting work is very easy on the eyes. I liked the almost optimistic feeling from these works; the confrontation between the acknowledgement of the intense amount of labor required and the ease of pure visual enjoyment. These pieces made me consider how I might not (well, I don’t) look at a car and consider the labor involved the construction of it, but when I am in the space with a carriage made out of segments of cardboard by one person, I do consider the labor involved. I also was really into the different facets of “labor” examined. Webb’s work focuses on her children and domestic spaces, and this executed in hand stitching brings to question women’s work, and the artists role in her own home. Paniker’s pieces could be mistaken for the actual things they represent, and exhibit skilled craftsmanship. Goff’s carriage turns the artist into machine constructing fairy tale imagery.

It was nice to see work that was created before the shit hit the economic fan that was rendered more compelling in a context other than in which it was created. Tom Berenz’s paintings of disaster imagery (“Flooded GM Dealership (Midwest Flood)” and “ Dead S.U.V (Midwest Flood)”) are given an even more somber tone post-bailout.

I think that this show was a successful balance of politics and aesthetic, inferred significance and cultural commentary. There was a rich visual texture of photography, video, painting, installation and sculpture. Thankfully every piece did not scream RECESSION DAMMIT but there was a delicate common thread throughout the entire show that made every piece seem to fit and add to the common and timely discussion.

I asked Rachel some questions about her experience with this show…

How did you come to curate this show?
I’ve been the gallery manager at Zolla/Lieberman for three years, and the owner of the gallery, William Lieberman, offered my co-worker Brian and I the opportunity last fall. We were given free reign to select the theme and artists and to co-ordinate all aspects of the show.

Can you tell me about the evolution of this show from the very beginning?

Early in the process we attended different open studios and exhibitions, and there were quite a few artists who stood out, but we were not certain of the connecting theme at that point. It wasn’t until the spring that we developed the theme of the show. It occurred to me that the recession had become an elephant in the room during every conversation about the art world, and that we had an opportunity to examine that, even to celebrate it, rather than sweep it under the rug.

Are you more interested in the work created during this economic hard time or how the context of some of the pieces has shifted because of this?

I think these artists are each handling the concept of recession in different ways, and that variety is really compelling. Some are continuing their previous practices with a newly enriched sensibility (Shannon Goff and Deb Sokolow, for example) while others are recent art school graduates who have ‘come of age’ and developed their vision in the midst of a huge social shift (like Garrett Durant). I enjoy that there are differences in the way the recession theme applies to each artist’s work, but that it is so consistently evident throughout the exhibition.

What is the most difficult thing about curating a show with so many artists?

Having seen the work in separate spaces, and in some cases only over email, it was a leap of faith that everything would work well together and in the physical space of the gallery. While we did a great amount of planning the placement of the show, a lot of that changed once we had the artwork and began installation. But it’s a type of puzzle, and placing the show to maximize each piece of artwork was also one of the best aspects of the project. We have also used the gallery’s space in a way that is very different from some of our more traditional exhibitions, and breaking out of seeing the space in that way was liberating.

What is the artist’s role in the current economic situation?

I think these artists have embraced the limitations of the current economic situation, and that their works present cheerful possibilities for recession-era art making. In the bigger picture, I see their work reflecting the enthusiasm shown by many for taking up a simplified lifestyle.

The show will be up until August 20th at Zolla/Lieberman, 325 West Huron – Chicago, IL 60610.

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