The old cliché of summer as the art worlds down time seems to get more obsolete each year. Sure, the commercial galleries mount their summer group shows, and then shut down in August to gear up for the September season openers. But when was the last time the most interesting art was happening in the commercial galleries? Chicago seizes every shred of advantage our warm months will yield, so its only appropriate that this summer, some of the most vital -- and controversial -- art showed up in the citys parks.
Like most branches of Chicago city government, the Cultural Affairs Department has battled intrigue, scandal and not a small amount of ridicule, and earlier this year had to field the sudden and contested firing of public art director Michael Lash. A lot was riding on the way-over-budget, years-over-schedule Millennium Park when it finally opened this July. For one thing, Chicago -- Architecture City, USA, and quick to remind you of that status at every opportunity -- finally has its Gehry. Frank Gehry's titanium edifice crowning the Pritzker Pavillion billows like the rigging of a tall ship under sail, against the stripey late-Modernist blah of the office towers to the north.
Not long ago, it was on this jewel of a bandshell and its celebrity architect that Mayor Daley tried to blame the public-relations nightmare Millennium Park had become. Originally slated to open in the summer of 2000, the project blew through repeated building plans, contractors and budget caps (finally topping out at $475 million) -- not to mention a lawsuit or two. With completion still years away, both taxpayers and the private sector were called upon to pick up the quarter-million-plus slack. The fundraising scheme resulted in the finished parks most distasteful feature: names like "BP Bridge," "Chase Promenade" and "SBC Plaza."
Also ugly is the way in which this spectacle of expenditure along the lakefront starkly highlights Chicagos economic and social inequities. For example, as the Chicago Reader recently reported, the city refused to spend $800 -- $200 less than the cost of a plate at the Millennium Park fundraising gala -- on a new weight bench for a park on the mostly poor, mostly nonwhite West Side.
Given all this, I, like most Chicagoans, really, really wanted to hate Millennium Park -- and, like most of us, I just couldnt do it. Gorgeous waste that it is, the park nonetheless succeeds where almost every public art project fails, wedding contemporary art with genuine, functioning populism.
For example, the title of Anish Kapoors Cloud Gate is irrelevant, because the huge steel amoeboid will now and forever be known as the Bean. Wowed park-goers couldnt care less about Kapoors international reputation -- we just know that the Beans chrome surface reflects every detail of its surroundings, from the Loops architectural pantheon to our own faces, distorting everything in a fun-house-mirror effect thats just really cool.
Similarly, in Jaume Plensas Crown Fountain we finally have a public fountain were allowed to play in, while water cascades over and out of monumental video screens on which we might glimpse the face of someone we know. Plensa seemed to grasp the participatory spectacle that public art should be when, discussing this work, he said he just wanted to give everyone the chance to walk on water.
Other than the economic injustice etched into its stone, the only blemish on Millennium Park is the lattice that domes the Pavillion lawn. Its baffling that Gehry thought this cage-like grid would be preferable to plain sound and lighting poles, since it obstructs the view both of the skyline from the audience, and, most annoyingly, of his bandshell from anywhere. But turn away from the stage and try to ignore the branding opportunities, and the simple pleasure inspired by Kapoors and Plensas work almost makes up for the civic fiasco underlying it.
It would be a mistake, however, to focus all our attention on 24.5 acres of prime lakefront. A few miles north at the Lincoln Park Conservatory, some of Chicagos own tireless cultural workers offer less sure-sell public artworks. One of these is part of "Florasonic," an ongoing series curated by local sound art star Lou Mallozzi for his nonprofit Experimental Sound Studio, in conjunction with the Park District. In the conservatory's fern room, Stephen Lapthisophons audio work Was It For This is installed amidst the primordial flora.
From speakers in each corner, recorded and computer-generated voices recite random snippets of poetry, philosophy and botany, intercut with found sounds like the woosh of traffic and the archaic clack of typewriter keys. This noise weaves around and through the voices of visitors and the ceaseless trickle of small waterfalls.
The resulting cacophony is meant to highlight the ways humans negotiate and attempt to shape nature. In combination with the ambient sound and the sublime green murk of the conservatory, the four discrete sound loops do induce a pleasantly contemplative state. But the most striking moments in Lapthisophons work are its silences, in which you suddenly feel you can hear the plants photosynthesizing.
Meanwhile, local Conceptualist stalwart Frances Whitehead has transformed the gardens outside the conservatory into ecological data-maps of Lake Michigan. Placards explain in minute detail how Whitehead translated digitally generated data concerning the lakes physical properties, biota, water quality and water use into four respective, color-coded maps that were subsequently rendered on the ground in flowers.
As is typical for Whitehead, this piece requires more cognitive busywork than most viewers care to bother with. But even if you get through the reading its difficult to see how Whiteheads design has translated, and the plantings are better appreciated simply as chaotic interventions into the usual ordered symmetry of the formal garden.
Meanwhile, true to his enduring commitment to art that actually Does Some Good, Dan Peterman sited the public component of his Museum of Contemporary Art show in predominantly Puerto Rican, miles-west-of-the-lake Humboldt Park. Originally installed in front of the museum, Petermans purpose-specific "kiosks" have been relocated to opposite corners of the park, where they serve as announcement boards, meeting places and equipment storage facilities for free workshops in the arts and public healthcare.
Taking the working-summer ethos to heart, some of the West Loop galleries did in fact stay open through August. Contemporary mainstay Vedanta (which recently changed its name to Kavi Gupta Gallery, after its owner) delivered "Solo Show/Solo Soul," curated by the ubiquitous San Francisco-based artist Chris Johanson and featuring a bunch of his friends. The standout here was the very un-Johanson-like Ashley Macomber, whose precise, bleakly fantastical paintings of zoomorphic animals fall somewhere between childrens book illustration and paint-by-numbers.
Another highlight was dealer Wendy Coopers summer group exhibition, her third show since relocating from Madison, Wis. Coopers lineup includes the fascinating J. Shimon & J. Lindemann, who live, photograph and concoct stories about their oddball subjects in small-town Wisconsin. With a show by this duo scheduled for November, Cooper could prove to be the upcoming seasons tastiest new blood.