Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  
    Chicago Five
by Karl Erickson
Chuck Jones
Sodomy is Good for America
at Bodybuilder and Sportsman
Chuck Jones
one of his abortion bumper stickers
Andreas Fischer
from the series "36 x 24: Reproductions of Color Pencil and Marker Drawings that Sorority Girls I Hired Did of Their Underwear Patterns"
at Zolla/Lieberman Gallery
Andreas Fischer
from the series "36 x 24: Reproductions..."
Andreas Fischer
Cheerleading Squad That I Made from a Group of Friends' Drawings of the Indianapolis Colts Cheerleader I Used to Date
Krista Peel
Cushion Energy Recharger
Krista Peel
T-shirt Monitor
Krista Peel
Glacial Pace Assimilator
Helen Mirra
from "Map, Film, Record..."
at Chicago Project Room
Helen Mirra
"Map, Film, Record, Picture, Sculpture"
installation view
Rob Davis and Mike Langlois
Raekwon & ODB
in "Hot Sauce"
at TBA Exhibition Space
Vincent Darmody
Bd. of Ed.
of Law Office at TBA
Rebekah Levine
Charles Irvin
Mommy We Miss You
Ben Stone
Uncle Sam Bong
Zeus did in Kronos, Oedipus killed the king -- the kids just can't stop rockin' the boat. So, who on the Chicago art scene is most likely to succeed in usurping the esthetic throne? Today's five candidates are Chuck Jones, Andreas Fischer, Krista Peel, Helen Mirra and the collective Law Office. They hail from art-history central, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and from the conceptual stronghold of University of Illinois at Chicago, where such luminaries as Kerry James Marshall, Tony Tasset and Inigo Manglano-Ovalle teach. Separated as Chicago still is from the prevailing trends in the art world, these artists are creating something new and powerful.

Sodomy is Good for America
"Jones is our superhero." Greg Purcell wrote in a review of Chuck Jones' 1999 debut solo show at Bodybuilder and Sportsman gallery in Chicago. Jones received his MFA from the University of Illinois in 1997, and has been exploring the semiotics of communication ever since. To Jones, trust and authority are the primary products embedded in messages, rather than any specific content.

Currently Jones is engaged in what he calls a project of "liberal patriotism." More exactly, he is studying the esthetics of left-wing radicalism; of ways that the spray-painted "Free Mumia" or agitprop leaflets and magazines may actually hurt their causes in the popular mind.

To this end, Jones has begun a campaign on the theme of "Sodomy is Good for America." He has created a public service announcement of a daughter questioning her mother about what sodomy is. The mother responds that sodomy is way of showing love for someone special and that if anyone tells you it is bad, to tell them that they are wrong. He has also made bumper stickers and postcards.

The idea here was to conceive the worst way possible to promote a basically good notion, of allowing for different lifestyle choices. By defining his message with a vilified term -- "sodomy" -- Jones is undercutting his chance for a receptive audience.

Similarly, with his bumper stickers, which state only "abortion," serve to both cause confusion and de-camouflage both sides of the abortion debate. No one is pro-abortion, they are pro-choice. Purcell's work is not activism, but is about activism.

In his 1999 exhibition at Body Builder and Sportsman, titled "Boxed Set," Jones made a compendium of messages. These included a CD of a street preacher on Michigan Avenue in Chicago telling his listeners exactly what a penguin is and is not (it is not a party animal, an English gadfly nor a waiter. It is a hard-working flightless water fowl to be found at the zoo); visual meditation instructions that end with the practitioner visualizing being attacked by bees and crows or falling through ice; his niece singing made-up songs; and a 74-minute epic recording of the first riff of Black Sabbath's Sweatleaf called The Sweetest Part of the Leaf.

In these projects, Jones points out that once someone has the gumption to grab a megaphone or television spot or distribute a leaflet, they take on an aura of authority and trustfulness that the message does not necessarily justify. But it is too late. They have already got your attention.

Panty raid
Speaking of grabbing something that isn't rightfully yours, Andreas Fischer's recent exhibition at Zolla/Lieberman Gallery is an attempt to get into girl's panties. His work titled 36" x 24": Reproductions of Color Pencil and Marker Drawings that Sorority Girls I Hired Did of Their Underwear Patterns (2000) consists of five paintings of just that. Fischer gave money to the president of a sorority who then hired members to make the drawings.

Fischer explains the project as a way to access a potent fantasy fetish -- sorority girl panties. Apparently, many of the girls weren't aware of the "art" part of the project and thought that the drawings were being made for some weird guy.

In the Revenge of the Nerds and other titillating comedy films of Fischer's adolescence, the comedy invariably turns on frustrated desire. Whenever the nerd is about to finally see the popular girl naked or get laid or whatever, he is thwarted by some sort of comedic happenstance -- someone bursts in, for instance, or our hero trips on his own underwear and knocks himself out.

Likewise, Fischer's paintings, though promising titillation, never deliver on the promise. The underwear patterns, grouped by color, come across as infantile and raw. A friend remarked that the only thing he could think of is some big ugly butt in the depicted patterns. A grim reality in the face a romantic notion.

Fischer talks about the project being a surrogate relationship with the girls. Through the patterns, he (and we) can get a kind of knowledge of the girls, one that doesn't involve risk or self-disclosure, but neither does it allow for true intimacy.

Fischer, also a recent graduate of the MFA program at UIC, shares with his alumni a strange kind of conceptualism, one that seems cold on the surface but involves a kind of elaborate structure being applied to personal experience.

In an earlier project, Andreas made paintings of drawings made by his current girlfriend of his ex-girlfriends. This work promised similar revelatory intimacy, but again, such closeness is denied by the absence of further information. We are not given any kind of knowledge of Fischer's, his girlfriend's, or ex's reaction to the images.

Fischer's strategy is to bring us to the edge of a breakthrough, a closeness, then leave us to swing in the breeze. He seems to be on a quest for intimacy but is unwilling to provide anything but the most uncomfortable surface details.

Worm grabbers
In contrast to Fischer, Krista Peel's deliberate line drawings of imagined interiors and objects are a form of generosity. The School of the Art Institute graduate has worked a few times with the Temporary Services collective, which is known for its anti-art-establishment ethics and its expressed goal of giving to the public as much art in as many varieties as possible.

Peel is noted for giving her work away, to longtime friends as well as strangers. Her work has a whimsical idealism that comes on like a refreshing breeze. But any amount of time with it reveals its a dark edge. Her drawings feature uninhabitable spaces or completely mechanized environments. They speak either of a life of leisure for all humans, in which we have a machine for everything, like Cushion Energy Rechargers and Worm Grabbers, or of the unsatiable desire to measure and chart everything with a T-shirt Monitor, a Cloud Energy Recorder, or a Glacial Pace Assimilator.

Each of these drawings features a device out of 1950s sci-fi movies, with tubes and hoses and dials leading to and fro and hooked by suction cups and clamps to everyday items like the t-shirt or chairs or clouds. The unbroken lines give the drawings a combination of surety and devil-may-careness that charms the viewer into their world. Peel says that the machines she draws are stand-ins for people, poking fun at the absurd, nonsensical things we do.

Coming as she does from Wyoming to Chicago, the complete lack of the outdoors in Peel's drawings speaks volumes. Her interiors are all highly idealist and artificial, like something out of the television cartoon show Futurama, they are all tubes and domes and reflected surfaces. Even if the spaces depicted are vast, the small size of the drawings makes everything claustrophobic.

The outdoors does make an appearance in another group of works. For the exhibition "Free for All" at Temporary Services, which featured art works produced in vast multitudes by a large number of artists and given away, Peel made tiny landscape paintings enclosed in swallowable caplets -- as if the art was to be taken as an antidote for too much city-life or urban malaise.

Peel herself has described her drawings as masturbatory, often made just to see what happens. But if Peel gets pleasure out of them, so do we, so they have a wholesome generosity.

A sailor's lonely life
Another graduate from the MFA program at UIC, Tiffany Foundation Grant winner Helen Mirra creates work that is constantly evocative of a romantic tradition while keeping quietly distant from individual contact. It is about what she can touch, what she can experience. Her work has a worn, traveled feel to it, as if it has been folded, unfolded, packed, shipped and handled hundreds of times before it is put on view. It is as if each item has been touched and touched again by Mirra, making sure of its existence, its solidity.

Mirra, who is represented by Chicago Project Room in Los Angeles and has shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and at the Donald Young Gallery, constantly evokes nautical themes, as if she were an old Nantucketeer making things with material at hand.

Her 16mm film A Map (1998), which is hand-colored blue and green and represents the 52nd parallel, expresses a longing for a personal knowledge of each place visited. Rather than referring to traditional cartography, Mirra's work is a tracing of a personal interaction with the world. Imaginary or real, Mirra's work only reveals what she has experienced, what she has touched, smelled, seen or heard. It is if anything else never existed.

Garanimals (1999) is a sculpture that consists of all the clothes that Mirra wore over a ten-year period. Not only does this show the dedication and single-mindedness with which Mirra approaches her work -- imagine planning what you were going to wear for ten years! -- but also her desire to live in her art. Garanimals is tied and bundled in a way that makes it look like it has just been unpacked from some old abandoned freighter. The fact that all she ever wore can be gathered here in such a compact bundle reveals a desire on her part to keep the world in a small, knowable size.

Mirra reaches out to her audience for reassurance that someone is there, rather than to include the audience in Mirra's world. At her last exhibition at the Chicago Project Room, "Map, Film, Record, Picture, Sculpture" in 1999, she had an old, well-used typewriter by the door. Instructions posted next it said to type your name and address on a card and Helen would send you a personalized poem. I did so, and many months later I received my poem.

Even later still, Mirra published with WhiteWalls magazine a book of the poems called Names and Poems. Each verse is short, most often two words; mine was "Kahn Erforscher," which means boat explorer. The collection as a whole serves as another map of locations for Mirra. They chart a series of minute interactions along Mirra's stream of time, marking each moment as real and definite.

Mirra maps out a new territory of life existing specifically, spatially and temporally. She has begun the process of making the world a real place, for herself and through her for us, in a time when artificiality and simultaneity rule.

Optimistic and flawed
The collective Law Office is one of the most interesting developments on the Chicago art scene for quite a while. People love them or hate them. Consisting of Vince Darmody, Rob Davis, Mike Langlois and Rebekah Levine, all BFA recipients from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Law Office stages events that range from traveling art exhibitions to beer tasting get-togethers and sex parties. They something always coming down the pipeline.

Law Office put together Beer Tasting II during Art Chicago 2000 at Navy Pier. Delivering cheap American beer and hip-hop with corporate sponsorship, the group created a party that defied any stable definition. It was a party that was a comment on racial and economic polarization in Chicago, that set the scene with some European gallerist is snapping your picture in front of a trashcan full of Miller High Life while wiggling his butt to Lil' Kim. And they got Wu Wear, the clothing arm of the Wu-Tang Clan, to donate clothing to them. How cool is that?

Currently on display at TBA Exhibition Space and opening on Sept. 7 at DiverseWorks in Houston is "Hot Sauce," Law Office's most mainstream event to date. This is an ordinary gallery show, though the work in it is far from standard fare. Among the most notable items are Rob Davis and Mike Langlois' painting of Raekwon the Chief and Old Dirty Bastard of Wu-Tang Clan on a field of blue, the subjects looking simultaneously trapped, fearsome, objectified and sexy.

Marking the obsessive attention to detail that is in all of Law Office's projects is Darmody's school desk that he colored completely black with something like seven or eight Magnum 44 permanent markers, recalling an incident his older brother was punished for in the Chicago School District. The trashiness and sexiness that is another hallmark of their projects is exemplified in Rebekah Levine's photo P*SSY FEVER. In this we see Rebekah from the waist down, in a red skirt, legs crossed, waiting for the one moment when she uncrosses them and all is exposed.

Also in the exhibition are Joe Baldwin, Mark Booth, Edgar Bryan, John White C., Megan Cump, Dave Deany, Jeff Dick, Katy Fischer, Willie Gregory, Charles Irvin, Ben Stone and Rob Weingart, all of whom have passed through Chicago at one point or another. The show is notable for what Darmody calls its "optimistic and flawed" nature. That is, all of the works are advancements into the world, attempts at making it a better, more understandable place, but, like Ben Stone's Uncle Sam Bong, are just too fucking weird to work.

Law Office though will have a hard time topping its 1999 event, "Sex Party." For this they had four artists create sets for porn films, including an office set with all the furniture at just the right height for bending someone over. The party celebrating the installation was "trashy attire required." Did Chicago ever look sleazy that night! Unbeknownst to most party-goers, the sets had been put to use the night before by some intrepid filmmakers.

KARL ERICKSON writes on art from Chicago.