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by Victor M. Cassidy
|When Chicago's artist-run alternative spaces opened in the early 1970s, they showed fresh, exciting art that commercial dealers ignored. As tastes changed, these galleries lost much of their reason for being and went into decline. Government money kept them going long past their time, but eventually they closed.
Over the past three years or so, a new generation of artists has opened galleries that operate on weekends. Some seem likely to remain personal projects, while others are moving toward financial viability.
Glut of artists
About three years ago, Tony Wight and Timothy Brower opened a gallery in a storefront that once had been the "Bodybuilder and Sportsman" weightlifting store. They named their gallery after the shop and started to show work by young artists.
Every year, says Wight, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago graduates 250 BFAs and 100 MFAs. Other local schools also have art programs, he adds, so Chicago has a "glut of artists," far more than the commercial galleries can absorb.
"Many young artists have one-night exhibitions where they live," he continues. "Apartment shows are very popular and don't cost much -- about $100 for 500 printed cards.
"Our generation is more entrepreneurial than the last," Wight adds. "This gallery is a business. We're free to do as we please. We don't want to be not-for-profit and work with a board. There's no government money anyway."
The work at Bodybuilder and Sportsman Gallery is inventive, well made and sometimes marvelously zany. Neil Whitacre's installation The Zoo shows a tiger (of sorts) in a cage, with a spider web in one corner and a steak on the floor. Harvey Opgenorth stood for an hour in front of an Ellsworth Kelly painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wearing clothes that matched the artist's colors. Museum guards did not seem amused by this performance, but they did not throw the artist out.
Oli Watt's Letter Never Sent is an appropriately uncraftsmanlike work about Attention Deficit Disorder. Brian Willey is scheduled to show Humdinger and other gift box-like constructions at Bodybuilder and Sportsman in July and August.
Did what was common sense
When Iain Muirhead and Amavong Panya were students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, they started a gallery in the student union and learned how to install shows. After graduation, they rented a storefront in a part of Chicago with no art galleries, calling it NFA Space. To support themselves, they built display cases and installed art in corporate offices.
"NFA Space was a situation of artists banding together," says Muirhead. "We did what was common sense to us. We got 200 to 500 people at openings, but no foot traffic. NFA Space was so physically isolated that we had no dialogue with other galleries."
In January, NFA Space went to Art Miami 2000. "That was a real eye-opener," says Panya. "We saw how the art world works, decided to make NFA Space a real business, and moved it to a neighborhood with many galleries. Now we're open five days a week."
NFA Space is Chicago's most promising new gallery in many years. The directors have discovered wonderfully fresh, capable artists -- Michelle Keim, Garrett Jensen, Tomasz Galant, J. Hoel & C. Coon, Robert Lentz and others.
Film has influenced many NFA Space artists, including William Cordova, whose ten-minute video Pause, Play, and Forward shows the artist and a friend in boots and business suits brawling in downtown Miami. The video runs on a loop so visitors can presumably watch it all day. It reminded me of cowboy shoot-em-ups I saw in childhood.
Cordova also exhibited Move, color photographs of a day in the life of a fictional drug dealer. The film noir-like protagonist (Cordova, again) snorts cocaine, shares a hot tub with a tasty lady and has a gun battle in an alley. Accompanying this was Air Traffic, beautiful long-exposure color photographs by Michelle Keim, which show the light trails made by aircraft in the night sky.
On a second visit to NFA Space, we saw Ben Rubin and Cedar Nordbye's The Argument, an interactive installation made when the two artists lived in the space for three days and drew on the wall. The Argument suggests the artists' five-year friendship and their ongoing debates about identity, fear and semiotics. The other show was Jennifer A. Lapham's "Indigenous Interiors II," sculptural constructions with ornate wallpaper backgrounds and painted plaster statues of owls, rabbits and other creatures.
Not bound to real estate
Another promising Chicago alternative space is known as Law Office, a group of four artists -- Vincent Darmody, Robert Davis, Michael Langlois and Rebekah Levine -- that stages events around Chicago. "We're curators," says Vincent Darmody, who co-founded Law Office. "We collaborate on projects and don't own a space. We're not bound to real estate or local esthetics."
Though all members of Law Office are artists, Darmody says the collective is "more about four people" than their work. "We took the name Law Office because we're broke and out of art school. We needed to sound more staunch and sincere than we really are. A lawyer is the scariest thing in the world."
Most of the time, Law Office has staged "P.T. Barnum-ish" events, Darmody explains. "We get the idea first, then the space." In "Sex Party," for example, four craftsmen built porno movie sets and "qualified" artists (not members of Law Office, we were assured) produced films on the sets. A "rowdy" party accompanied this event.
Late in June, Law Office presented "Hot Sauce," work by 15 artists, at TBA Space, the nonprofit gallery run by Thomas Blackman Associates, which manages Art Chicago at Navy Pier in May. "'Hot Sauce' is our most traditional event to date," says Darmody.
The work in this show is a bit funky, but hardly extreme. John White Cerasulo's bc hel.02 is a rather sweet image taken from a Russian Internet site that is said to cater to pedophiles. Charles Irvin's Mommy We Miss You recalls the missing person notices we see everywhere. Darmody's Bd. Of Ed. is a desk from the Chicago Public Schools that the artist has covered with six layers of markings with a black felt-tip pen. We also liked Katy Fischer's simple, formal Bike Racks drawings.
Scott Wolniak and Derek Fansler have created the Suitable Gallery in the garage behind Wolniak's house. This functional yet handsome space has carpeting, white walls, an unfinished ceiling and the large garage door.
Cindy Loehr's one-person show at Suitable Gallery is called "The Nap Room and Other Projects." The Nap Room is a canvas-covered framework containing a bed, a timer alarm, a vacant/occupied sign, a CD that plays white noise and sanitary pillow coverlets which are discarded after each use. The canvas opens in front and can be buttoned from the inside for privacy.
The artist recommends The Nap Room for improving employee morale and productivity in corporate environments. It is the size of an office cubicle and costs only $1,000.
"We started the Suitable Gallery after seeing apartment shows and catching their do-it-yourself energy," says Wolniak. "Our models are project rooms in museums.
"We're informally organized and have sold nothing so far," he continues. "We show people we know and have never called for slides. We were loose at the beginning but are becoming much more selective in the art we present."
The Hat Factory is a rough, loft-like space in a building where four artists live. Jon Stein, an artist, has organized exhibitions here for 2 ½ years. Roughly 400 people come to the openings, he says. Something sells from most shows.
"When artists come out of school, they can't get shows," says Stein. "We're a lab for their ideas, more like an apartment show than a gallery. We live in the exhibition space and move our possessions back in after the opening."
"You Are Here," a Hat Factory exhibition, which was guest-curated by Anna Kolocny and Bobbi Woods, featured an uneven selection of work by several artists. One striking piece was a pile of stuff on the floor, including Sock Monkeys, a work that was intended to evoke the spirit of Mike Kelly.
For photo collectors
Early in June, Susan Aurinko opened Flat File to represent "emerging photographic artists." Though Flat File is a commercial venture, it feels a lot like a weekend gallery.
"I'm a photographer, film maker and exhibition curator," says Aurinko. "I've collected student work for years. Flat File represents 44 photographers whose prints sell for prices ranging from $240 to $2,300.
"I was working on the gallery and didn't even have a written business plan when the ideal space became available," she continues. "I dropped everything, moved in, and put the place together in six weeks."
"Emotional Landscape," Flat File's inaugural show, presents work by 20 gallery artists. Some photographs like Surendra's Red (Window) and Robin Hann's Talented are rewarding, but we found too many echoes of '30s Europe -- Lartigue, Cartier-Bresson and Kertesz.
Another photography gallery is run by Michael and Alexandra Buxbaum are photographers who opened the Stolen Buick Studio in 1995 to show their own work and that of like-minded artists. Stolen Buick Studio is a "street view gallery," they say, whose mission is to "display a view of everyday life from around the world…or around the block -- that most people are too busy to see in their rush to get someplace else."
"This neighborhood was pretty rough when we moved in," they explain. "Someone abandoned a stolen Buick in our back yard. Gradually, it was stripped and more Buicks appeared. That gave us the name for the gallery."
The Buxbaums travel widely and were showing their photographs from Thailand when we visited the gallery. The works sell for $50 to $300, putting them well within the range of young collectors.
VICTOR M. CASSIDY writes on art from Chicago.