Now in its 12th year, Art Chicago opened on May 6, 2004, with 159 exhibiting galleries, mostly from the US -- and with a sprinkling from Europe and the Orient. There are roughly a dozen booths for publications, four exhibiting bookstores, and 21 "project rooms," where artists represented by a gallery at the show made individual installations.
Anne Wilson's project room
Anne Wilson, a Chicago-based textile artist, presented Errant Behaviors, a two-screen video and sound installation, in her project space. This work stood head and shoulders above any of the other special projects at Art Chicago. To make sense of it, we need some history.
In 2002, Wilson completed Topologies, a 29 x 432 x 74-in. tabletop work made from fragments of black lace and hair stitched onto white linen with black pins stuck into the surface. Topologies is a species of drawing, an extended landscape created from deconstructed textiles. It was later seen in the 2002 Whitney Biennial and at museums in Massachusetts, San Diego and Houston.
Topologies was presented at tabletop level so that visitors could engage with it and study the designs on its surface. Wilson says that viewers projected "sci-fi scenarios, battlefield strategies, odd cityscapes and futurist worlds" onto the work. Amused and inspired, she decided to "animate some of the esthetic ghosts" in Topologies and "try to capture them in moving images."
Supported by technical advisors and a wonderfully resourceful composer, Wilson took digital close-ups of details in Topologies and used stop-motion animation technology to create abstract narratives with what she calls "characters, props, scenes, actions -- or at least glimpses of such fictive possibilities." This became Errant Behaviors, a video with music that recalls the spirit of Dali's and Cocteau's films.
We see fantasy creatures, made of thread, pins and bits of lace, which suddenly appear in empty white landscapes, scuttle about (one defecates several times like a dog), relate in odd ways to similar creatures for a few moments, and disappear. One episode begins with an empty (glaciated?) world. Vaguely rock-like forms pile up and then are smashed and driven away, leaving detritus behind. In other episodes, black pins with bits of thread or lace attached minister to each other. What does Errant Behaviors mean? We don't know, but it sure is fun to watch!
Douglas Holst presented an abstract geometric mural in bright colors in his project area and Mike Lash pinned up 20 paintings on paper inside and outside his project room. These were characteristic Lash images -- cartoonish figures in simple outline with written titles that relate to sex, personal relationships and the life of art. Lash presented elaborate "Rules" for buying his work. Anyone who wants a painting can have his choice for $900. Buyers who wish to gamble pay $300 in advance, choose a rubber duck from a swimming tank in the booth, and look for a number beneath that corresponds to one of the paintings. Those who dispute the duck's choice may bribe the artist $10 for a second chance. Only one bribe is permitted, Lash claims.
Reality is the theme of Markus Wetzel's project space. We see a spectacular photomural of a mountainous tropical island surrounded by the sea. At first glance, this image recalls a page in National Geographic magazine, but a closer look tells us that the artist made it on a computer. Hanging in front of the mural so it covers the "island" is a plaster model of a tropical mountain island that we might see in a classroom. Mounted atop it is a tiny plastic bald eagle, which is lit to cast its shadow over a repeating video of an eagle in flight. Wetzel delivers multiple non-realities -- a computerized island, a plaster island, a plastic eagle, a video eagle and a shadow eagle.
Several project rooms featured photographs. Nancy Mladenoff takes her paint box into the woods, decorates toadstools, fungus and mushrooms in bright colors, and photographs the result. She installed several of these gorgeous images along with a semi-abstract painting and a huge constructed mushroom in her project room. Brian Finke shows "2-4-6-8 American Cheerleaders and Football Players," a series that seems to combine photographs of real high school students and professional models. Alec Soth presents handsome photographs of Mississippi River people that were recently published in Blind Spot magazine.
Poorly defined and wildly uneven, the Art Chicago project spaces cry out for a rethink. Some rooms, such as those of Wilson and Wetzel, are actually projects, while others simply extend the exhibition space of the artist's gallery. A few of the projects are downright stupid. Frank Haines filled a booth with devil worship imagery (truly a fresh subject, Frank! Is a James Bond spoof on the way?) and Susan Meiselas wasted hours of her life photographing prostitutes servicing perverts in a Manhattan bondage and discipline den. Meiselas seems morbidly fascinated with fallen women -- she photographed carnival strippers in the '70s -- and we sincerely hope that she grows up someday.
Numerous photo dealers at Art Chicago 2004 showed fresh, unusual work. We give the 2004 best of breed prize to Isidro Blasco. The artist photographs interior spaces of the New York apartment building where he lives, digitizes the images, cuts them into pieces along roughly architectural lines (i.e., walls, doors, floors, windows) and mounts them on elaborate wall-hung frameworks fashioned from square wooden dowels in the form of an open book. The result combines sculpture and photography to create a three-dimensional architectural collage-like construction.
Lauren Greenfield showed photographs of teenage girls that she has published in her book Girl Culture. We liked the images of ten-year-old girls in huge t-shirts with designs to make them look like babes in bikinis -- and an even smaller girl in horn-rimmed glasses selecting clothes. Lynn Bianchi showed photographs of women, either naked or in lingerie, devouring ice cream and gateaux, and giving deliciously wanton looks to the camera. Bianchi's ladies are pretty long in the tooth to be posing thus. They seem to know this and not to care. Everyone is having a wonderful time.
We also liked Jeff Brouws' "Freshly Painted Houses" portfolio of homes in Daly City, California. All the houses are small, with huge attached garages in front and slanted roofs. The sides and trim of these houses are painted in pure turquoise, yellow, purple, red, tan, pink, and orange. There will always be a California!