There are so many shows opening this month I can barely keep up (watch for my roundup of Chicago’s Fall openings on our next “Center Field” post over at art:21 blog next week) – for this reason, I wanted to draw this little exhibition to your attention, ’cause it’s the modest type that could get lost in the crowded field of Big Fall Shows. And it shouldn’t. The show can be found in the upstairs gallery space at Marwen, an art center in the River North area of Chicago whose mission is to educate and inspire under-served young people through the visual arts. I’d never had the opportunity to visit before, but when I did I was immediately hit with that groovy, good-feeling vibe that you get from a place that’s buzzing with human creativity.  If you haven’t dropped in before, you should! At any rate, I was there to see “By Your Powers Combined,” an exhibition curated by Austin-based artist, writer, curator, and educator Salvador Castillo (a Marwen alum). It’s a  group show of six artists, most hailing from Austin, Texas, brought together under a theme that loosely revolves around the elemental forces of earth, fire, wind, water and (kind of extraneous but still a nice touch) “heart.”

Castillo’s catalogue essay cheerfully acknowledges that his original idea for “a landscape show” turned into something deeper, more personal, and more complex.

“Each artist was chosen for their representation of the five elements that when combined, created the titular character of the early ’90s cartoon, Captain Planet and the Planeteers … every artist counterbalances the real or physical landscape with one that is imagined or perceived.”

Jared Steffensen, Hilltop Trail, 2010

Salt Lake City, UT artist Jared Steffensen makes shoes that wear the earth they usually walk on. They are whimsical and melancholy and in a peculiar way that I can’t quite describe, felt like the most solidly “real” objects in this show. I’d like to see images of these shoes worn on an actual person’s feet. In contrast are Austin-based artist William Hundley’s dreamlike “Clouds”, 2010, a mixed media installation in which discarded street trash appears suspended in the center of the gallery hallway. Castillo’s essay describes Hundley’s related series of photographs, which incorporate sculptures like this one and can be found on the artist’s Flickr page, as “a dazzling magic trick. Colorful sheets of fabric ominously float against a complimentary background. The skeptical jump to conclusions and accuse Photoshop as the true artist.”

William Hundley, Clouds, 2010.

One of my favorite pieces in the show was Roberto Bellini‘s (no, not that Roberto Bellini) one channel-video piece titled  Teoria de Paisagem.

Roberto Bellini, Teoria da Paisagem (Landscape Theory), 2005.

The video consists of an exchange between the artist and a security guard (both of whom remain off-screen throughout the piece).  Bellini wants to film a flock of birds in the sky at sunset – a fairly traditional landscape shot that he finds personally moving, and wants to capture. The security guard–a guy who’s basically just trying to do his job–attempts to dissuade Bellini from filming near the area he’s been hired to police. The tense conversational dance that ensues as each man tries to “claim” the landscape as they see it is priceless.

Eric Zimmerman, Rotating City, Left,(for Heather & Andrew) 2006. [not in exhibition].

Austin-based Eric Zimmerman‘s lovely ink, marker, and graphite drawings from 2006 evoke depict landscape as dream, ghostly possession, and fantasy all at once. (You can see some of Zimmerman’s recent works here). Margaret Meehan‘s gouache and pencil drawings on card recall antique cartes postales and Victorian-era calling cards, yet the freakish alterations made to the faces of the plump infants pictured in these images undercut the sentimentality of their original purposes.

Margaret Meehan. Charlotte, 2008.

Finally, representing “Fire,” Erick Michaud, another Austin-based artist, burns intricately drawn narratives into wooden sculptures that are a cross between spirit stick, scythe, and cant hook (their most direct correlation).

Erick Michaud. Apocalypse, 2009.

Michaud grew up in a small paper mill town near the US-Canadian border, where knowing how to use a cant hook came in handy. As the paper economy went south, so did the town’s economic livelihood. As Castillo’s essay notes, “the tool of the industry, transformed into the Reaper’s scythe, is now an artifact recounting the tale in metaphorical imagery.”

Erick Michaud, Apocalypse, 2009. Detail.

“By Your Powers Combined” is on view at Marwen’s Untitled Gallery through October 15, 2010. Do make some time to check it out!

Claudine Isé