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by Victor M. Cassidy
|Sir Anthony's ceramics|
Sir Anthony Caro is best-known for sculptures made from wood, steel and stone. Since 1976, when he and several other artists were given a studio by Syracuse University and invited to "play with clay," Caro has created seven bodies of ceramic sculpture. Fifteen of these works were recently on view at Chicago's Perimeter Gallery.
Caro's ceramics are intimate assemblages of simple organic and architectural shapes, two or three feet wide, made from unglazed or slip-glazed, rough-surfaced stoneware and mounted on wooden slabs. Caro favors earth tones and it is easy to overlook his skillfully varied surface colors and patterns.
Most of the sculptures at Perimeter Gallery came from the "Can Co Series," which Caro produced in 1975-76 at the Continental Can Company building in Syracuse, N.Y. The works are assembled from thick, gently folded sheets, rectangular slabs and smallish hollow cylinders of stoneware. Some (Can Co Slide; Can Co White Creek) suggest stream banks or other landforms that have experienced flooding or erosion. Others (Can Co Red; Can Co White Plains) look like artifacts that an archaeologist might find. The later, more architectural pieces (Anatolia) recall ancient desert fortresses. All the work looked tremendously old.
In the catalogue for this exhibition, Caro explains his first responses to what was in 1975 an unfamiliar medium. He had worked with ordinary clay as a student, but stoneware was a new experience. As he tells it, "I began to get a picture of the way clay (i.e., stoneware) asserts its needs, how it likes to turn in on itself, how it needs to be cradled when damp. I quickly discovered that clay exhausts itself if overworked and the moment I felt the clay 'tiring' I would discard it and begin with a fresh slab."
To handle the heavy sheets and slabs, Caro laid them on canvas. He used rollers and other tools, but carefully avoided the industrial look, and any marks of his hand. Each time he made ceramic sculptures, he teamed up with a full-time clay artist who provided a workshop and helped him with technique.
The "most radical" space|
"At the end of the century, the canvas is still one of the most radical spaces in which to work." These words come from the introduction to "Examining Pictures," a show of 54 paintings, each by a different artist, that was up at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art until Sept. 19.
Organized by MCA curator Francesco Bonami and Judith Nesbitt, head of programming at London's Whitechapel Art Gallery, "Examining Pictures" included works from the past 40 years, but focused on the '90s. Along with well-known artists like Jannis Kounellis, Sigmar Polke, Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer were many unfamiliar names. These people -- some are real discoveries -- made "Examining Pictures" the MCA's most enjoyable show in a long time.
The curators displayed the work "in provocative groups suggesting unexpected affinities," they said, in order to generate an "open-ended discussion about painting." But many of the canvases were much too large for what they contained and seemed to have been created to impress museum goers. These works did not provoke much thought or "discussion."
The smaller pieces, of more human scale, communicated better. Margherita Manzelli's Stillnox is an arresting, ambivalent portrait of a woman reclining awkwardly on a hard surface with her legs seeming to hang over the side. But her thighs seem unnaturally long and we wondered where her legs end -- are they stumps? Her arms are distorted too -- is she maimed? We were drawn to the woman's large, intense eyes, which are rendered very realistically, while her hair is much more painterly. Her gaze reveals little. Is she happy or sad? What is her history? Is she making a statement of some kind? We do not know.
Michael Raedecker's Drift is a daring painting that exemplifies in a most unexpected way the canvas as a "radical space." He paints flattish gray-green acrylic backgrounds and lays or sews threads and yarn on them to suggest the lines and volumes of trees, hills and a barn. Drift marries a tired image to tacky techniques, but seems fresh and alive. This risky painting succeeds because it is based on concise draftsmanship. His landscape scene is banal, however.
Peter Doig's White Out is an attractive all-yellow landscape with trees, a figure and many white dots that could be snow. We were also drawn to Ian Davenport's scrumptious Poured Painting-Lime Green, Pale Yellow, Lime Green; Thomas Schiebitz's lively House (No. 157); and Margaret Dumas' The White Disease, which shows a male head with white paint on it suggestive of leprosy. Dumas comes from South Africa.
Also at the MCA are 71 photographs by Malick Sidibé, who lives in the West African nation of Mali. Sidibé photographs young Malian adults partying and courting one another. We learn that young Africans, like their counterparts elsewhere, are fashion-conscious, self-absorbed and insecure. Once the novelty of Sidibé's subject matter wears off, we see that he does almost nothing with lighting or composition and rarely catches his subjects off-guard. We have 71 glorified snapshots of young folks doing their thing -- about 60 more than we need.
"Skrebneski: The First 50 Years"
Victor Skrebneski, a Chicago-based photographer nationally known for his fashion images and celebrity portraits, recently donated 162 of his photos to the Museum of Contemporary Photography. To celebrate this gift, the Museum organized "Skrebneski: The First 50 Years," through Nov. 6.
"Skrebneski" contains dazzling fashion images and portraits of Orson Welles, David Bowie, Diana Ross and others. We see many city scenes and numerous nudes, mostly muscular males with glistening, hairless bodies. Skrebneski photographs women too, but as mannequins or props.
Skrebneski's color photographs are glamorous studio fantasies, which he carefully poses, lights and prints in saturated colors. His black and white work is more adventuresome and satisfying. He photographs moving subjects, deliberately blurs the focus, and employs odd camera angles and lighting. He makes the Chicago River look like a Lyonel Feininger painting. His double-exposed portrait of the French artist Philippe Anthonioz is especially effective.
Mesmerized in West Loop Gate
"Flickering Signifiers" are ambient light sculptures concerned with the rhythmic nature of television light and how it is used to seduce and compel the viewer into a kind of hypnotic and passive inaction," writes Kenneth E. Rinaldo whose installation fills Gallery E.G.G. until Oct. 9.
"Flickering Signifiers" makes an important point and makes it well. We see five hollow glass spheres suspended from the gallery ceiling. Each sphere contains a tiny television set whose case has been removed to expose its wiring. An antenna and power cord project from the back end and the screen is aimed at a large aluminum dish whose matte surface reflects moving televised images as a colored glow. We hear voices, but cannot distinguish individual words. Light and sound combine to mesmerizing effect.
"Flickering Signifiers" is more economically conceived and much better constructed than most installations we see. For example, the spheres, which suggest the human eye, were blown by glass artists. We imagine that much experimentation went into finding the right distance between the television screens and the reflectors. Rinaldo has the soul of an artist and the hands of an engineer.
Gallery E.G.G. occupies a loft on Chicago's dilapidated near west side. Several small art galleries that moved here to get cheap space are now promoting the area as the West Loop Gate Art District. If they make this part of Chicago fashionable, non-commercial venues like Gallery E.G.G. may be forced out and we will not have shows like "Flickering Signifiers."
"Hands-On . . . Real Issues"
Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman says he wants to "break down barriers between [academic] disciplines, between the academy and practice, between design and community." Five years ago he and the interior designer Eva Maddox co-founded Archeworks, an alternative design school in downtown Chicago. Archeworks, they say, is a "multipurpose education and retraining design laboratory dedicated to advancing a social agenda."
Tigerman has designed buildings and products for about 50 years. He has written five books, taught in many universities, published countless articles, and lectured absolutely everywhere. Vain, verbose, diffuse and endlessly stimulating, Tigerman produces ideas the way radium throws off particles.
Maddox is equally accomplished. She set up her own interior design firm and serves as its president. She has exhibited her work nationally and lectured throughout the world on design, interior architecture, marketing strategies and interior graphics.
Archeworks enrolls just 24 students (called "interns") each year, who work in small groups under design professionals ("facilitators") on projects that benefit the poor, elderly, underprivileged minority women and others who have received little attention from designers and architects. All work is done collaboratively. Every Archeworks project team has at least one member from outside the design community; such as a biologist or systems analyst.
Most students come to Archeworks with prior training. They can credit their time at the school toward internship requirements for an architecture or interior design license. "Students find us," says executive director Beverly Russell. "They know what we represent and are in our corner politically." Archeworks, which is unaccredited, charges $5,000 tuition for its one-year program and confers a certificate upon completion.
An Archeworks team recently designed a prototype living unit for clients of the Lakefront SRO, a non-profit that operates Single Room Occupancy (SRO) buildings in Chicago with active encouragement from the city government. People who live in SROs are typically old and homeless with diminished motor skills.
The Archeworks team set up a focus group to ask SRO residents what kind of living unit would best serve their needs. Residents replied that they want their possessions stored so they do not have to pull doors open to get at them or try to remember where things are. Also, they want many items within reach near the floor.
Based on these discussions, the team constructed a prototype living unit in the Archeworks studio and presented it to the Lakefront SRO. Archeworks hopes that its design will become standard, but the SRO and the City of Chicago have yet to make a decision. "We can only initiate," says Russell.
Douglas Garofalo, a practicing Chicago architect, worked with the Lakefront SRO design team as a "very, very active consultant." Though he "immensely enjoyed" his role in this "constructive, unconventional" project, Garofalo acknowledges that his firm could not afford to do such work pro bono.
"The project was very time-consuming," he says, "and the interns worked for free. My practice is all architects anyway, but there are many sorts of people at Archeworks. Even if the Lakefront SRO could pay my firm, we would not have approached the problem in such an imaginative way."
One Archeworks creation, a head pointer for victims of cerebral palsy, is a commercial product today. These people normally communicate by touching a pointer (it's worn on the head like a baseball cap with a long bill) to a keyboard. When interns discovered that existing pointers were clumsy and heavy, they produced a lighter, more comfortable and practical product, which Archeworks patented and sold to a manufacturer, who now pays the school a royalty. Says one intern, "At Archeworks you are dealing hands-on with real issues and with people in the field who look at you seriously."
VICTOR M. CASSIDY is an art journalist based in Chicago.