For a visitor from New York, which has lots of contemporary art but no really big-ticket, new-architecture museum of contemporary art (a condition soon to come to an end, presumably, with next month's opening of the Museum of Modern Art's new Queens facility), Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art is something of an eye-opener.
Designed by Berlin architect Josef Paul Kleihues and inaugurated in 1996, the institution is clearly in capable hands. Downstairs is a huge plastic skeleton of a cat, titled Felix, by the hottest artist of the day, Maurizio Cattelan. Upstairs are spacious, marble-clad galleries installed with pictures from the permanent collection by another art star, Francesco Bonami, the museum's Italian-born curator, who was recently tapped to organize the next Venice Biennale.
Sadly, however, the MCA architecture is about as corporate as space gets these days -- shiny, clean, marble-clad, soaring, with the overall proportions of a skyscraper lobby. The virus of capital somehow infects the artworks on view, converting them into the supergraphic light-box language of marketing. The artistic embrace of ruling-class protocol could hardly seem more avid. Yikes.
So it is with some relief that your correspondent, despite a steady rain that would eventually rise to flood levels, was able to embark on a tour of some of the city's small, new galleries of contemporary art. Places opened by artists and artist-dealers, on the South Side, in Pilson and Wicker Park, on the West Side, with part-time hours and uncertain prospect (if any) of sales. Chicago's famed "Uncomfortable Spaces" movement of five years ago has grown and expanded for the 21st century.
My guides were Rebekah Levine and Vince Dermody, two members of the Chicago Law Office, an artist's collaborative that specializes in mounting exhibitions in random temporary spaces. "Everybody in town is a curator or dealer," said Dermody. "They send you a curator's license in the mail." Law Office once got corporate funding for a $1,000 prize for a paint-ball duel. "It's the branding thing," Dermody explained.
Our transportation was a gold 1978 Ford LTD two-door, property of Vince's sister. We were clearly on a mission, since we immediately found parking right in front of every single gallery we visited.
First up was Apt. 1R, a small gallery run by Van Harrison and two others in an apartment on the city's South Side. "I love it," said Harrison, who is an Art Institute undergrad. "It's fun talking to people." On view is "Variations, a Minimalist Show," May 10-June 7, featuring works by seven artists. One is Pedro Velez, a local artist, curator and critic (he wrote a dispatch from Chicago for this magazine), whose contribution is an untitled, curated refrigerator door. It looks pretty much like any other refrigerator door, loaded down with magnets and postcards. Velez has the wry habit of issuing invitation cards and posters for nonexistent shows featuring art-world celebrities, i.e., Daniel Buren and Julian Schnabel in Damien Hirst's In and Out of Love.
Other works in the show include a grid of Wizard Stick-Up Air Fresheners, called Still Life, peaches with white bouquet, by Matt Mayes. "It smells really strong when they're opened," said Harrison. Another work is almost invisible, up on the wall by a doorjamb, an untitled accumulation of what look like Minimalist egg pods, in fact fashioned out of eggshells by John Reth. Works by Ben Butler, Heather Mekkelson and Chris Wiedemer are more recognizable as formal heirs of the Minimalist impulse.
The most provocative work of the day was on view at 7/3 Split, a storefront on West 18th Street run by Tim Fleming. "Guilty Party," an installation by Rob Ray, who runs an art and technology space called Deadtech, is a custom-made, coin-operated pitching machine that hurls Colt 45 tallboy cans at a target overlaid by a video projection of a series of mugshots of black men. Once the beer hits the target, the image of the gangster disappears, to be replaced with a projection of the viewer's own face. Rap music plays on the soundtrack and the smell of beer permeates the gallery. The installation, on view Apr. 20-May 25, is scheduled to travel to Seattle. "The landlord has left me a note demanding that I cease and desist," said Fleming, who posted the note on the wall.
The most cheerful and engaging work of the day was at Deluxe Projects, a modestly sized room on the fourth floor of a huge former spice factory that has been converted into artist's studios and various other spaces. Curiously, buzzing "414" on the doorbell -- the area code of Milwaukee -- admits visitors to see the current show, an installation by Milhaus, a Milwaukee art and design collaborative, on view for the month of May. At our visit, six young artists were on hand in the small gallery, most preparing food for a barbecue slated for that evening (though one sat mute, hunched over a computer, building a computer game).
Still more members of the group had apparently donned costumes and headed over to Art Chicago 2002, on view at Navy Pier. The Deluxe space is half-filled by two homemade bunk beds, where Milhaus members had their sleeping bags, and that would later be converted into a makeshift stage for an Interactive Superjam performance and, still later, a closing film presentation titled Goodbye (the Movie). Currently playing on video monitors built into the bunk beds were videotapes featuring Milhaus members, each wearing a costume and doing a short performance.
The artists had all picked a crayon, it turns out, and devised a costume and one-minute performance using that hue. It was difficult determining who was who; on hand were Ana D. Antoni (salmon), Destry Domo (Robin's egg blue), Tyson Reeder (green) and his brother Scott (dandelion yellow). Many in Milhaus are attached to the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, which reportedly "has a generous grant program." The level of impulsive artistic energy was palpable. "We thought to found something like a Bauhaus in Milwaukee to make things," Tyson Reeder said. "We always meant to change the name, but we never got around to it and then it just stuck." Milhaus has a website at www.zerotv.com
Then it was off to Standard Gallery, a storefront at 1437 North Bosworth Avenue that is three years old but nevertheless open only on Saturdays from 12 noon to 4 p.m. On hand this day was the laconic co-owner, Michael McCaffrey, who explained Chicago's exploding new-art scene by noting that there's "not much money, but lots of art school grads." On view in his well-proportioned space, which looks both professional and homemade, is "You Mean So Much to Me," May 10-June 8, an installation by Beth Reitmeyer. The artist has pulled out all the stops, presenting paintings of multicolored rose patterns on rose-pattern wallpapered walls, with bouquets of handmade cloth roses in vases in the back room.
Reitmeyer, a 1998 Northwestern MFA grad, gives her acrylic on canvas paintings titles like Friends Forever and Love at First Sigh, and also supplies a printed handout to visitors explaining the language of flowers -- pink can mean rebirth or "please believe me," blue means "the impossible." Visitors are invited, in fact, to help themselves to a rose and pass it on to a friend or loved one. Otherwise, the prices of her works are remarkably low -- large paintings are $1,000, small ones are $250 (four were sold) and bunch of roses are $60.
Next stop was another storefront (at 1152A North Milwaukee Avenue), this time on a commercial strip, holding a brand new gallery in the midst of its first show. The Pond, founded by four artists from the School of the Art Institute (Jeff Ward, David Coyle, Howard Fonda and Pete Fabundo), has an impressive beginning, with a group show titled "Ideal Avalanche" curated by the artists Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam and citing the legendary 1970s art-world interview magazine, Avalanche, which specialized in covering Body Art, Postminimalism and video and performance. "It's a space for debate, contested, not framed," said Ward about the Pond. "With objects selected by artists."
The show features Michael Smith's 1998 video, How to Curate Your Own Group Exhibition (which includes the hip advice, "get a website, that's essential"), a 1980 Lawrence Weiner word work from the Art Institute of Chicago collection ("Weiner was keen on getting the work out of the institution," said Fabundo), a great David Robbins collection of photos called Five Instances of Concrete Comedy, showing famous comics holding signs as props, and a 2002 wall painting by Henrik Plenge Jakobsen, stating supergraphic-style, "The importance of doing nothing."
West of downtown towards Humbolt Park is Suitable Gallery, run by the artist Scott Wolniak and located in the garage behind his house (at 2541 West Thomas). Seeming unattended in the rain, with a "Please Close Door" sign the only greeting, Suitable's empty rectangular space held a simple installation titled F for Fake by the 28-year-old Swedish artist, Christian Andersson. A single theatrical light stands in the middle of the space, shining a bluish black glare onto a plain white wall, apparently casting twin shadows of itself -- shadows that turn out to be illusory, painted in an invisible UV sensitive solution.
Wolniak, once summoned from inside the house, tells us that Andersson, who is in town on a government arts grant, specializes in such "perceptual trickery." The work is named after Orson Welles' final film, a faux documentary on a painting forger. When I ask Wolniak if the installation is for sale, he laughs and says he'll have to find out. Next up at Suitable, after F for Fake closes on June 1, is a video installation by Ben Stone, who is known for his series of trading cards picturing local weathermen, and in August a "Singing Flowers" show.
The last stop before a late lunch (at Cold Comfort Deli) was the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, a sleek, one-story modernist concrete building at 2320 West Chicago Avenue. Founded in 1971, UIMA is programmed by an art committee, and occasionally comes up with shows that pique the interests of my hosts. Such is currently the case, with "Video with Headphones," Apr. 21-May 19, which features 10 videotapes playing on monitors posted around the perimeter of a darkened hall.
One of the exhibiting artists is Suitable proprietor Scott Wolniak, whose five-minute tape Multitask shows the artist sitting in a chair performing a blaze of slacker tasks -- drinking coffee, handling a Rubik's cube, talking on the phone -- at a frantic multi-exposure super-speed like the Flash crossed with Vishnu. Wolniak is still remembered in Chicago, I'm told, for an "action painting" project in which he attempted to make easel paintings of the cityscape while standing in the back of a pickup that was driving around town.
Other tapes show flowers with music on the soundtrack, and a good-looking dude playing some rock guitar. More interesting was a two-minute-long video loop by Jeff Maccubbin called Bathtime with Buddy (2002). It's very white and classically framed like a frieze, showing one young man sitting on the edge of a tub and washing the back of a second guy in the water, while discussing some kind of childhood game involving clenching a bar of soap in a certain place. "Stop it!" says the soundtrack. It's a nice bit of homoerotic . . . soap opera.
Later that night, Monique Meloche celebrated the one-year anniversary of her gallery space in the city's West Loop district (an industrial area that is home to Bodybuilder & Sportsman, Rhona Hoffman, Klein, Donald Young, Vedanta and perhaps 15 other dealers), staying open for a reception with wine and cake till 10 p.m. As it happened, the exhibition featured new photo-realist paintings painted "tag team" style by the remaining two members of the Chicago Law Office, Robert Davis and Michael Langlois, on view May 3-June 1.
Their subjects range from the dark (Meth Lab, a grim scene of tabletop chemistry) to the light (Water, a six-foot-square expanse of blue with a bright white patch, as if seen by a diver approaching the surface), and are quite accomplished. Unlike so many of the other galleries on the tour, Meloche is set up to sell -- prices are in the $3,500-$6,500 range.