All Over the Place
How do you make something coherent from 700 sculptures, murals, paintings, works on paper, and architectural fragments that were created over 150 years -- and once resided in four separate corporate collections? How do you make a continuity of this work as you install it in reception areas, conference rooms and hallways on 15 floors of an office building? And how do you employ the art to make a corporate statement in a place where people come to work or do business -- but not to look at art? Emily Nixon, corporate art curator, did all this for the UBS Tower Art Collection in downtown Chicago. We asked her how.
Nixon says that UBS, AG, with headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland, is one of the world's leading financial services firms with more than $1.5 trillion in assets under management. Chicago's brand-new $105 million, 48-story UBS Tower houses four merged UBS subsidiaries: UBS Warburg, UBS Brinson Partners, UBS PaineWebber and UBS O'Conner. Before the merger, Brinson Partners owned 500 Chicago architectural artifacts, which Nixon had acquired for them. The other firms had smaller contemporary collections.
Since the combined collection included work in a broad range of media, styles, and different historical periods, Nixon decided to create energy and emphasize continuity by juxtaposing older and newer art. On the 38th floor, for example, she installed an Adler & Sullivan elevator enclosure grille near the elevator and placed metal sculptures by Roy Lichtenstein and Deborah Butterfield in the reception area a few steps away. Nixon says that this installation suggests how metal is used in 19th-century architecture and 20th-century sculpture.
Elsewhere, she contrasts sculpture with works on paper. On the 27th floor, there's a major installation by Chicago sculptor Neil Goodman and lithographs by Gerhard Richter and Larry Brown. One conference room contains a work on paper whose imagery echoes architectural decoration on a nearby structure that's visible through the window.
To shape and unify the UBS collection, Nixon sold some work and purchased roughly 300 pieces. She bought mainstream art that creates no maintenance problems or distractions (i.e., nothing sexual or political). Most of the artists are nationally known, but she's made a point of purchasing work by Chicago artists and younger artists.
How does this add up to a corporate statement? UBS Tower is still a place of work and business, but it has a distinctive atmosphere that such offices normally lack. We visited the collection in the evening when we could move freely between floors and inspect the work without disrupting operations. We saw consistently good art imaginatively installed. The UBS Collection -- and Nixon's presentation of it -- succeed. That's quite a statement in itself.
Nicole Gordon at Peter Miller
Nicole Gordon showed nine paintings and three constructions at the Peter Miller Gallery in January and February. The artist begins with scenes from 19th-century French wallpaper, which she intensifies and embellishes to create lively fantasies. We see Saracens sword fighting; ancient cities ablaze; Egyptians lounging among ruins; a sailing vessel in the Arctic with icebergs and polar bears nearby; and little girls in long dresses playing ring-around-the-rosy on a Sunday afternoon in London.
Gordon's over the top imagery occupies a horizontal strip in the center of each painting. Beneath the horizon, she paints patterns that suggest tiles or bedrock in layers. In the sky we see huge clouds, columns of smoke or abstract patterns. The artist uses lots of impasto and scatters glitter on some paintings. This is the most visually exuberant work that we have seen in a long time.
So far, so good, but Gordon must be "relevant." Her images are "beautiful and uncomfortable at the same time," she says. As we enjoy her exotic confections, we must also recall the horrid history of colonialism, savage destruction of traditional cultures and the white man's burden.
Nothing in Gordon's paintings justifies this politically fashionable interpretation. These are wallpaper scenes, after all, not documentaries of misery and persecution. They work visually. The artist should be satisfied with that.
Chicago's Tapestry Tour
A few days ago, we took a Tapestry Tour of Chicago, traveling with a group to visit two private fiber art collections. Our host was the enterprising Camille Cook, who founded Friends of Fiber Art International in 1991 to promote textile art, support fiber artists with grants and lead tours and symposia all over the world. "The best gift you can give an artist is a collector," says Cook.
On our first stop, at a collection that's largely embroidery, we were impressed with the variety of rhythmic surface textures that these artists create and the delicacy of their images. Linda Behar's Salt Marsh 2 is a small scene of water and vegetation in which each thread becomes a separate plant and seems almost to move. Barbara Lee Smith's Urban Illumination is an embroidered triptych in pale colors whose semi-abstract imagery is said to suggest maps.
Textile artists are very adventuresome. Carol Bryer Fallert's Shark is a quilt made of fabrics that the artist dyed herself to create rich effects. Yvette Kaiser Smith crochets strands of fiberglass into meshwork, which she shapes and hardens into wall-hung sculptures. John Garrett uses an absolute riot of materials in New Year's Snow, a wall hanging of 96 6 x 6 in. squares that are linked together like a quilt. This work is made from wrapped and bound compact disks, metal squares with designs on them, strips of aluminum, copper and enameled steel, raffia, thread and much more.
The second textile collection we visited was so tactile that we could barely control ourselves. An especially inviting piece was Mika Watanabe's gray, transparent squash-like basket (Assurance III) with small fiber spheres inside. Ferne Jacobs' Slow Fire combined suggestions of the vessel and the figure. It looked like a long boot made of reed. Jolanta Rudzka-Habisiak's imaginative tapestry-like pieces (Reeds and Squares) have colored leather strips hanging from their surface.
This collection was quite varied with one of Magdalena Abakanowicz' seated figures, 19 different baskets, numerous works on paper, paintings, and Eskimo and African art. The owners installed everything beautifully in their tastefully comfortable house.
"Really Real" at Gallery 312
Gallery 312, in conjunction with Cream, a "fluid collective including artists," presented a group show called "Really Real" in February and March. Over 40 people participated in this exhibition, which was said to address "cosmology, masquerades, prototypes, evidence of a hostile environment, and family trees." The show catalog consisted of quotations from the artists, who tried to puzzle out the meaning of "Really Real."
One artist explained that his or her work "recreates an unconventional lineage of failed relationships, charming experiences, and personal growth." Another claimed that the show's themes could "fit into the theories of the origins of the universe when you think about the food chain." A third gratefully acknowledged influence from his mother's "love of bad puns."
Among the works in the gallery were Secret Formula in a Glass Vial by David Coyle (2003), Three Artifacts from Near-Death Experiences of Conrad J. Friedberg (n.d.), 6,300 Matches Balanced on a Beer Bottle (1935), Ex-Boyfriend Trading Cards (Edition of 15) (n.d.) by Jaime Arthur, and Four Vials of Pituitary Glands from Human Corpses (n.d.) The label on the glands explains that they are discards from a failed government program of some sort.
Events like this one deepen our faith in the art world.