As the new year gears up and frigid Arctic air charges unfettered across the prairie to descend on Chicago, the local art world is doing what it does best -- ignoring the rest of the world and keeping the focus on itself. Yet, perusing current offerings in the galleries, I was struck by the predominance of photography shows at this most lightless moment of the year. Like Christmas lights, solstice-night bonfires and the cumulative flames of the Menorah, all this drawing-with-light almost seems intended to birth light itself back into the world.
You wouldn't gather as much, though, from the title and tenor of Wendy Cooper Gallery's current show, "Deep, Dark and Around," by the team of John Shimon and Julie Lindemann. Last summer, when Cooper relocated to Chicago from Madison, Wisc., bringing along an intriguing and unusually varied stable of artists, Shimon and Lindemann made an immediate impact. The pair live and work in a tiny Wisconsin town, where they take photographs of the local architecture, people and landscape that combine a tonalist moodiness with a very contemporary straightforwardness.
Taken at face value, the street and nature scenes in particular read as loving and genuine portraits of a place that most of the world considers utterly unremarkable. Creating contact prints from large-format negatives -- sometimes several to a single image -- Shimon and Lindemann produce rich black-and-white photographs that bespeak the very textures of their subjects. In Amber and Brad at Home, Manitowoc, WI ($1,800, edition of seven), for example, sharply angled evening sunlight renders a couple lounging on their concrete stoop amidst the remains of a cookout almost heartbreaking.
However, the artists seem unable to resist stepping in with a dose of wink-wink irony, effectively dampening the immediacy and authenticity that the images are able to sustain on their own. Cutesy titles like Lake Michigan or the Universe and Burying Modernism -- for an image of a rundown, wide-windowed warehouse -- add nothing. A series of posed "Tree-Like Portraits," in which several subjects wear wrestler or superhero costumes, also feels forced. The platinum-palladium printing process that Shimon and Lindemann use to infuse their images with sepia-toned nostalgia provides all the retro edge they need. The more documentarian pictures and the restrained, intelligent eye they evince are so strong that one wishes they were served with a little less dressing.
Shimon and Lindemann also contribute to the ever-encroaching ubiquity of Christmas. The most interesting thing about the project-room installation The Aluminum Christmas Tree 1961-1839 is that its repetitive pictures of -- yes -- aluminum Christmas trees are tintypes and daguerreotypes. It's regrettable that these obsolete photographic processes aren't explored in the context of the artists' documentary and portrait work, to which the antique methods seem ideally suited both esthetically and conceptually. The installation is meant to herald the release of the artists' rather giddy book, Season's Gleamings: The Art of the Aluminum Christmas Tree.
By contrast to all this holiday cheer, two stalwart Chicago dealers duly (and perhaps mercifully) ignored the holiday season with new work by two thrice-named art starlets of the last decade: Sam Taylor-Wood at Donald Young Gallery and Lyle Ashton Harris at Rhona Hoffman Gallery. Surprisingly, each show is the respective artist's first solo exhibition in Chicago. It's tempting to spin this coincidence as an art-of-the-90s "Where Are They Now?" episode. The answer in Harris's case is Italy; in Taylor-Wood's, Georgia.
Both Taylor-Wood and Harris are using their cameras these days to investigate place, and Wood's black-and-white scenes of rural and small-town Georgia in particular echo Shimon and Lindemann. Taylor-Wood's signature imagery -- huge, loudly hued tableaux in which subjects enact ambiguous, psychically charged scenarios -- here gives way to quiet, lyrical pictures that return the photographer to the more traditional role of observer from that of director. The 13 photographs, all priced at $14,500, were taken in 2004 during a 10-day trip through the state, and constitute an utterly straightforward travelogue in which the artist expressly emulates progenitors like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange.
While there's nothing terribly surprising in them, Wood's images of timeworn small-town buildings and people, along with a few exquisite see-every-leaf landscapes, are a formal exercise in all that fine-art photography can be -- almost as though the artist had something technique-related to prove. Given the uneasy, densely packed conceptual work for which she's known, Wood's embrace of photography's specific lushness and beauty for its own sake feels like a guilty pleasure.
As for Lyle Ashton Harris, in his new work he also departs from the saturated color and stylized posing of the photos for which he's best known. Once again a documentary impulse prevails, but here it's tempered by the socio-conceptual bent one expects from Harris. Titled "Blowup," the show consists primarily of large-scale, grainy black-and-white images of crowds and riot police at Italian football matches. But it takes a while to realize what we're looking at, as the leadoff scene, Verona #2, resembles a political demonstration, with fist-raising spectators climbing the stadium walls and overwhelming the line of helmeted cops.
These images, which range in price from $4,000 to $11, 500, are contextualized and elucidated by a huge, chock-full wall collage along one side of the gallery. This memoir in detritus begins with a portrait of the artist as a bloodied boxer in naught but a jockstrap. Though black and white, this 2003 work provides the show's only obvious nod to Harris's performative self-portraiture of the early 1990s. But the rest of the collage's contents, which range from post-it notes to newspaper clippings to scribbled-on Polaroids, make it clear that race and sexuality are still the artist's central concerns.
Most of the news clips address the growing problem of overt, extreme racism at European football matches (one shows a spectator in a Ku Klux Klan-style hood lynching a black player in effigy). Also featured prominently is an Italian Adidas ad in which a black man gives the megafamous white football player Zadine a pedicure. Dated 1981-2004, thus presumably containing objects and work (several original photographs are incorporated) spanning that period, the wall installation also gives a nod to the post-9/11 condition, with news images of the Abu Ghraib torture and one picture of the cut-out, K-mart sponsored American flags that appeared in newspapers immediately after the attacks.
Does all this photography signal a long-awaited rebirth of art's interest in physical and sociopolitical reality? The depressed attention to social strife and the conditions of poverty in each of these shows would seem to suggest so. Perhaps we're now living in a world where art about obscure theory texts and cartoon characters just doesn't cut it.