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by Victor M. Cassidy
A "people" show|
There were two major exhibitions at the Chicago Cultural Center this winter, one awesome and the other disappointing. The better show was "India: A Celebration of Independence, 1947-1997," which has been traveling in North America and India since 1997 and closed in Chicago on Dec. 30. "India" features 250 images by 21 photographers from India, Europe and the U.S.
As befits a nation of 650 million men and women, "India" is a "people" show. There are many historical photographs -- immense crowds watching Gandhi's funeral cortege as it approaches the cremation ground, for example, and Indira Gandhi seated on the floor at a session of Congress. There is an exquisite photograph of a Sikh couple in a Sikh temple, a horrifying image of adolescent girls who were rescued from prostitution, and stuffy pictures of Hindu royalty.
The most compelling photographs in "India" are by Raghu Rai and Mary Ellen Mark. Rai's Burning Ghat on the Banks of the Ganges, Benares (1992) is a spectacular panorama of a place (Burning Ghat) along the Ganges where the Hindu faithful bathe themselves to wash away their sins. This scene could hardly be more Indian -- and more filled with life. Rai has an international reputation, but he is a discovery for us and we will spend more time with his work in the future.
Mary Ellen Mark has photographed India for years and published her images in Falkland Road (1981), Indian Circus (1993) and elsewhere. Like Rai, she presents exotic scenes, but always captures what is most human about her subjects. Snake Charmer with His Son, Outside Delhi (1981) is one of the most delightful -- shall we say charming? -- images in "India."
The second exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center, "Bookish," a group show of book-related works by nine Chicago-area artists, is pretty uneven. For her work Aquatic Fiction, Margaret Wharton cuts up book pages and immerses them in a home aquarium filled with bubbling water so they look like preposterous underwater beasts. Photographs on the wall behind show a book-page creature as it rises from the sea like a cross between the Creature from the Black Lagoon and Botticelli's Venus.
In Object of Knowledge, Frances Whitehead "cores" a set of supermarket encyclopedias and mounts some of the paper circles on slides as if for microscope viewing. Her "scientific" apparatus is wonderfully fussy and academic. Jno Cook's Readings from the Book is a plastic skull on a metal neck, clacking its teeth as a recording apparatus mumbles passages from Janson's History of Art. In addition to these works, there are examples from Buzz Spector, who has done much better, and some other, very weak, artists.
Trailer park treasures
In the popular imagination, trailer parks are often depicted as shantytowns filled with low lifers and ultra-available females. But many respectable people live in manufactured housing because they prefer it. Others cannot afford anything else. "Wheel People: Mobile Homes in America," an exhibition of photographs and texts at the Chicago Architecture Foundation until Jan. 31, 2000, shows this form of vernacular architecture -- and trailer park people -- at their best.
King Tut's Tomb, an imaginatively transformed mobile home, is located in Blue Skies Village in Palm Springs, Ca. Blue Skies was founded in 1950 by Bing Crosby. Tenants of this classy place were required to add at least $6,000 in improvements to their lots. Along with Egyptian and Asian themes, they created a contemporary Mount Vernon with water features, a Cape Cod home, a Georgia O'Keeffe ranch house, Shangri-La and more.
Not all trailer parks are quite so grand. Charles and Mary Keim live in a $6,000 mobile home in Airway Trailer Park, just south of the Chicago city limits. Charles has decorated his home, indoors and out, with found objects from nearby neighborhoods. "I know all the trash pickup schedules," he says, "and beat the trucks." He keeps four salvaged artificial evergreens in his yard all year round. "That way they're already up when Christmas comes," he says.
Nobody knows its name
A dispute over a lease threatens the Chicago Athenaeum (TCA), an important but little-known architecture and design museum located on several leased floors in an aging downtown high-rise.
TCA landlord J. Paul Beitler wants to sell the office building so it can be transformed into condominiums. Last July, he sent an eviction notice to TCA. His lease permits eviction if the landlord is forced to demolish the building. The construction work required to make offices into condos amounts to "demolition," Beitler says.
But TCA argues that the lease prohibits eviction before 2009 unless the building must be "demolished," which, in TCA's view, means completely torn down. So far, TCA has refused to budge. The museum has filed suit. Soon, a judge will decide which point of view is valid.
TCA is the creation of Christian Narkiewicz-Laine, an architectural journalist and curator who has been architecture critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and editor of Inland Architect. For years, he organized architecture and design shows at Chicago's Merchandise Mart. Narkiewicz-Laine and several other architects founded the Chicago Athenaeum in 1988. It moved to its present home six years later.
The Chicago Athenaeum has exhibited the work of internationally known architects -- Christian de Portzamparc, Ricardo Bofill, Kenzo Tange, Richard Meier and many others -- along with projects by younger practitioners. TCA's design exhibitions are similarly broad in geographic scope, and it has presented touring exhibitions of Chicago architecture and design in Western and Eastern Europe, Russia and Brazil.
Immensely likable, gifted and energetic, Narkiewicz-Laine is a leader who inspires powerful, extremely busy people to support his activities. TCA's strong board of trustees has raised funds from government, foundations and U.S. and overseas corporations. A typical show at TCA has a half-dozen sponsors. This very young museum has secured thousands of gifts to its permanent collection.
The collection is especially rich in Chicago design history, with archives of the designers Anne Swainson and Ellen Manderfield, two forgotten women who were active during the 1930s and '40s. "Landmark Chicago" is an ongoing exhibition taken from the museum holdings that traces the history of Chicago architecture from 1880 to the present. There are drawings and models drawn from the permanent collection, fragments of Louis Sullivan buildings and even a film of Frank Lloyd Wright making pronouncements.
Narkiewicz-Laine believes (and Prairie Smoke agrees) that it would be a disaster for Chicago if TCA were forced to close or seriously to curtail its activities. "This building was dead when we came to it," he says. "We've brought it to life, made it a destination, and increased its market value." He claims annual attendance of 100,000 to 150,000.
"We've invested a half million dollars in our two floors of public exhibition space," Narkiewicz-Laine continues. "Our permanent collection is stored on three additional floors. We cannot afford to pack and move all those objects. The museum just gets by each year."
True. But if TCA is so important, it should be much better known. Chicago's cultural community should be up in arms about the threatened eviction. Unfortunately, Narkiewicz-Laine works much harder at organizing shows and expanding the museum than at building its public image in Chicago.
To our knowledge, TCA has no press officer. In years of writing about the arts in Chicago, we have never received a TCA press release, only show cards. We cannot recall a single feature article about TCA in any Chicago newspaper or magazine. The museum needs friends now, but nobody in Chicago knows its name. Narkiewicz-Laine replies that his marketing efforts are "totally geared" toward developing an international reputation.
We hope the Chicago Athenaeum survives the present dispute and believe that it will. But once this crisis is past, the museum must review its priorities.
Theodore Halkin's retrospective
What is an artist? If it is someone like Picasso who makes gigantic breakthroughs and transforms art history, then artists are very rare. But if it is someone who makes art seriously -- and well -- for decades and influences many others, then we should celebrate Theodore Halkin, painter, sculptor and teacher, whose retrospective of more than 100 works is installed at the Illinois Art Gallery until Jan. 7, 2000.
Halkin, a member of the painting faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has passed through many stylistic changes during his 40-year career. He does best with conventional subject matter -- such as the still lifes and garden scenes that he painted in the 1980s.
Halkin's still lifes show vases, flowers, fruits and the like in deceptively simple arrangements. There is an inevitability to these compositions that Halkin's draftsmanship and subtle color relationships help to create. Everything -- light, shadow, color, and object -- is married together.
The artist's glowing paintings of his garden suggest that he has looked closely at Odilon Redon. Scenes that others have painted 10,000 times before become new again because of Halkin's remarkable skill with color and his feeling for nature. Altogether, this is a joyous show.
VICTOR M. CASSIDY is Artnet Magazine's Chicago correspondent.