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Stephanie Knowles
Crop Shot
at Zolla/Lieberman

Allison Ruttan
at Zolla/Lieberman

Su-en Wong
Tropical Pool
at Zolla/Lieberman

Robert Davis and Michael Langlois
Livedog (GG Allin)
at Zolla/Lieberman

John Parot
at Bodybuilder and Sportsman

Joel Ross
Photos from the "Hope Springs Eternal" series
at Monique Meloche

"Fort Quarterly" installation view
at 1/Quarterly
Sex in Chicago
by Scott Speh

It's getting hot in herre. . . so take off all yr clothes
I'm getting so hot. . . I wanna take my clothes off

-- Nelly, Hot in Herre, 2002

Chicago's art scene this summer was really hot. Sex was everywhere -- on the radio, television and in art galleries. One can imagine Chicago dealers humming Nelly's hit ditty while they installed their summer group shows. If I may borrow a question from Sex & the City's Carrie Bradshaw, "Does sex in art turn us on?"

Well, it doesn't shock or offend, especially if a usually staid space like Zolla/Lieberman can mount "Luscious Too," a show filled with representations of private parts and porno acts. Among the two dozen artists, the best stuff was from Stephanie Knowles. Her gauzy close-ups of women's torsos in various states of undress are basically pornographic -- including cropped close-ups of genitalia -- though the paint handling is tender, as if to redeem the imagery. To Have and Hold (2002) is $1,400, and Wedding Present (2002) is $900.

Other standouts include Alison Ruttan's photo collages that block out the naughty bits in large porno images with brightly colored flat blobs, and paintings by gallery veteran Su-en Wong. Her Tropical Pool 2002 ($15,000) features multiple, meticulously painted miniature nude self-portraits cavorting across a pale blue expanse. It's as much about being hot as it is about mocking both the "barely legal" and the "Asian" fetishes in contemporary erotica.

Michael Langlois and Rob Davis, who make photo-realist paintings as a team, contribute a portrait of a couple of beer-ad quality swimsuit ladies splashed by jizz-like water droplets that looks good in this context. Less compelling is the painting of the late shock-performer GG Allin (2002, $3,500), one of the most repellant humans ever to have (dis)graced the planet, unless Zolla/Lieberman hopes to cater to the S&M, scat-loving crowd.

But let's move on. Over in the main gallery at Bodybuilder & Sportsman, an untitled group show offered a dose of pure sex. In the front space were unremarkable watercolors of naked children, winsome pen-and-ink drawings of couples doing what couples do best, and softly nervy drawings of genital piercings. The work ghettoized in the back room was more allusive, as much about human relationships as it was about sex. John Parot's drawings, collages and montages were a highlight. Crazy on You, a india ink drawing on red paper, illustrated song lyrics (from my favorite Heart song) in with a tangled web of thick black lines that turn into an elegant mass of Medusa-like snakes.

In Skyarc 2000, Parot affixes two game-show-like "wheel of fortune" pie charts to a photo of the Chicago skyline. Listed on one of the wheels are quotidian activities (talking on the phone, Wendys w/Jeff, talking w/Ben) while the second contains possible subjects (issues at work, roller coasters, looking at boys, laughing, falling, screaming) that suggest the randomness of daily interactions -- a game of chance that one day can find you in bliss and the next in despair.

The only explicitly sexual piece at Monique Meloche's "Mixer 02" was Joel Ross' six framed magazine photos of penises collectively titled "Hope Springs Eternal" (2002, $350 each). These aren't porn-star members but sad, very ordinary American dicks sent in to Crossroads magazine by swingers hoping to entice their fellows. Utterly straightforward, I guess you could say they're the root of representation.

The relatively new loft space 1/Quarterly in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood organized "Fort Quarterly," a show that isn't about sex, exactly, unless you're an unreconstructed Freudian. It's a full-size couch-cushion fort like kids make in their living rooms -- but here made by nine artists invited by gallery director Heather Mekkelson. The group came up with a sturdy five-room structure made of NFL logo sheets and a hand-embroidered afghan, complete with plush rugs, throw pillows and shams. The place has a comfy, even decadent vibe -- just the kind of place to play "doctor."

The hiding place is not always about withdrawing from the world; it can also be the site where innocence yields to experience under the comfort of covers. Fort Quarterly (2002, $7,000) fetishizes childhood games by providing for a space for "adult" desires.

(I would have written about the group show "Use Your Illusion" at Vedanta Gallery, which included some sexy stuff by Benji Whalen, Yoshua Okon and Melanie Schiff, but Pedro Velez beat me to it [see "Rock 'n' Raunch," Aug. 27, 2002].)

So, after the long hot summer, what do we have? Art that titillates with nudity, art that fetishizes the transgressive, art that shames voyeurs for their hungry gaze. Art about sex either celebrates or scolds, but rarely does it get those entanglements of the human that make it real. There's more human emotion in a single line of another summer hit song, Get Free by the Vines: "She never loved me, she never loved me, she never loved me, why should anyone?"

"Luscious Too," July 12-Aug. 24, 2002, at Zolla/Lieberman, 325 W. Huron, Chicago, Ill. 60610.

"Group Show," June 28, 2002-July 26, 2002, at Bodybuilder & Sportsman, 119 North Peoria 2nd Floor, Chicago, Ill. 60607

"Mixer 02," July 12-Aug. 31, 2002, at Monique Meloche, 951 West Fulton Market, Chicago, Ill. 60607

"Use Your Illusion," July 26-Aug. 31, 2002, at Vedanta, 835 West Washington Chicago, Ill. 60607

"Fort Quarterly" at 1/Quarterly, 1355 N. Milwaukee Ave, 3rd Floor, Chicago, Ill. 60622

SCOTT SPEH is a Chicago artist.