Ah, fall -- the time of year when the art critic in your life starts making sweeping predictions. In Chicago, Sept. 10 was the date for the annual debutante ball that turns Peoria Street between Randolph and Washington into a highbrow block party, as galleries throughout the West Loop art district open the first shows of their new seasons.
Signals indicate that, while we werent looking, the Portland-based artist Chris Johanson has succeeded in his bid for world domination. This phenomenon was noted in the new issue of Chicagos art zine Regulator, in which Martin Esteves calls the ubiquitous faux-nave style "adolescent whimsical figurative imagery" and Josh Mannis calls it "hipster art."
All the scatology and wobbly-handed drawing makes me think of my very first experiences with contemporary art -- for instance, when my 13-year-old life was changed by Jonathan Borofskys 1984 survey at the Whitney Museum. Whatever happened to Borofsky? Hes alive and living with Raymond Pettibon deep in the soul of Chris Johanson.
That the "Spirit of Johanson" has settled over the new art season was perhaps most evident at Bucket Rider, one of the newest tenants of 119 North Peoria, a building known fondly as "the art dorm." Formerly a tiny loft apartment tucked away behind 1R Gallery and the Bridge magazine offices, Bucket Riders airless gallery space has been transformed into an almost-not-raw white cube. With the primer seemingly still wet, the Chicago artist and designer Cody Hudson -- whose previous products include a limited edition sneaker -- effused onto the walls a show titled "The Life and Times of Cody Hudson Volume 2 b/w the Parrot on Your Shoulder."
Hudsons sometimes delicate, sometimes precious drawings and paintings, done on small canvases, pieces of wood and the odd skateboard blank, are fastidiously arranged in groups on the walls. With the exception of an inexplicable pink area above the door, the palette is uniformly white, mustard yellow and sky blue. Like Johansons work, Hudsons has delightfully giggly moments. In typical chicken scratch, one cactus says, "So we can expect a lot of Helvetica?" "WORD," the other cactus replies, in Helvetica. But overall this work is so unmitigatedly similar to Johansons that one hopes Hudson, like Bucket Rider, will last long enough to improve with age.
Meanwhile, around the corner on Washington, Kavi Gupta Gallery has rolled out another apparent trend, a style I can only call "nostalgia for 1970s album cover art." In a solo exhibition titled "Wasnt Tomorrow Wonderful," Adam Scott shows acrylic-on-canvas paintings of idyllic suburban houses, all rendered in searing, saturated electric hues and deep black shadows. More recent paintings display a propensity towards mayhem, as latter-day Mickey Mice characters swing axes and aim assault weapons at Mr. Rogers neighborhood.
The 1970s vibe is also in evidence at Wendy Cooper Gallery, also at 119 North Peoria. In Johston Fosters amusing rec-room tableau, Untitled (Couch & Bong), a huge, bright purple bong sits on an equally garish orange couch, belching dry-ice smoke. Down the hall at Bodybuilder & Sportsman, Chicago artist Leslie Baum has semi-abstract landscapes in her show, "My Mountain, My Molehill," that again boast 70s wallpaper colors and vaguely psychedelic compositions. While pretty, and bearing pleasingly paradoxical titles like Tropical Skokie and The Great Salt Hill of East Chicago, Baums paintings seem to retreat toward not-terribly-deep formalism, a move that feels out of place in a time sadly oversaturated with opportunities for topicality.
On the other hand, if were spotting thematic rather than stylistic trends, Baums work typifies one of the most prevalent. Plagued by frustrated desire and, again, nostalgia, artists seem increasingly preoccupied with a weird, fabled version of nature. In this ugly human moment, everyone wants a piece of the natural world, or perhaps simply to dissolve into it. In Coopers group show, for instance, Keiler Sensenbrenners obsessive pen-and-ink drawings place llamas and deer in kitchens and bedrooms.
At 1R Gallery, Sterling Ruby hung several small and lovely close-up photos of words carved on trees next to one of his more familiar large-scale manipulated photo-texts. A video projected in the back room shows the artist-as-mountain-man sitting on a rock in a forest, packing and unpacking trash bags full of clothing and other detritus as though trying to decide whether to move in.
Ruby also participates in the ubiquitous collective nostalgia for the salad days of punk by covering half the gallery with random black spray paint scribbles on a wall of cardboard. While the meaning and purpose of this piece is indiscernible, its esthetic is definitely "Underground Art" circa 1982.
The Chicago art scene has its share of the comings and goings that characterize this unstable industry. Monique Meloche kicked off the season by moving from her vast and gorgeous Fulton Street digs to the narrow Peoria Street storefront that used to house Julia Friedman Gallery, which has jumped ship for New York. With her apparent split personality, Meloche can be hard to figure out. Is she a high-powered commercial dealer, or the fun-loving proprietor of a shoestring alternative space (as her continued inclusion in the invitational part of Art Chicago would seem to indicate)?
Or is she defining the cutting edge of current art, or bearing aloft the torch of late-1990s arch-irony? Her inaugural exhibition of new work by Chicagos foremost masters of postmodernist Photorealism, Robert Davis and Michael Langlois, would seem to indicate the latter. In their smarmily titled show, "I Against I: Paintings & Drawings of the New Spirituality," they mock the pretensions of what can only be called discourses of notions of constructs of the spiritual. A portrait of Haile Selassie, for instance, replaces the artists more familiar images of pot plants, crystal meth labs and naked women.
Proving yet again that the art world can always find it in itself to beat a horse once falsely declared dead, the new season seemed to offer mostly painting. Rhona Hoffman Gallery is an exception, with a show of black-and-white landscape photos by Kenneth Josephson that are beautiful but strangely outside the conversation for Hoffman, a stalwart of the contemporary scene.
By surprising contrast, Hoffmans building-mate Peter Miller, a gallery not generally known for edginess, offers what may be some of the freshest work in the crop of season openers. While the vein of culturally conscious photography in which Brian Ulrich works is not new, his acutely observed images of shoppers lost in malls and superstores add a subtle and welcome new voice to the ongoing, but still keenly relevant, critique of consumerism.