"Mike Andrews vs. Brian Taylor," Jan. 26-Feb. 23, 2002, at 7/3 Split Gallery, 971 West 18th Street, Chicago, Ill. 60608.
"The Shining," Jan. 24-Feb. 23, 2002, at Suitable Gallery, 2541 West Thomas, Chicago, Ill. 60622.
Two recent shows in Chicago demonstrate the problematic influence on young artists of the city's two important graduate programs in the fine arts. The School of the Art Institute, on the one hand, is influenced by the once-funny Chicago Imagist school, and its faculty is concerned with teaching the virtues of craft. On the other hand, the University of Illinois at Chicago is a think tank for Conceptual art that puts little importance on finish or sense of humor.
These dual influences can be detected in the alternative art scene, where everything is beginning to look rather predictable. The town's cutting-edge, diverse art production now falls into two classifications -- well-crafted funny pictures or boring conceptual art.
Against this backdrop, Mike Andrews and Brian Taylor, two recent graduates of the School of the Art Institute, have broken out of the mold and found a satisfying way to avoid the Chicago Imagist connection while remaining respectful to its history and heritage. Their recent show at 7/3 Split Gallery (or "seven three split," which was opened by Tim Fleming about 18 months ago in Chicago's Pilsen area, a neighborhood that also includes Deluxe Projects, Dogmatic and MN Gallery), while not exactly deep or smart, had more than enough craft and funny ideas to make the viewer forget the hazards of everyday life.
Brian Taylor is a versatile sculptor with a knack for working with commercially produced materials such as terrycloth, rubber bands, cardboard and Styrofoam. His work is colorful and based in high-school experiences. His best piece, dust bunnies (Dust/Clicks, Beeps, Chirps, Whistles, Glitches), passes almost unnoticed -- it's a mass of multicolor rubber bands, knotted and laced-together, scattered across the gallery floor.
Minimalist in nature, bunnies is offered to the public for the great price of six pieces for $2. It makes a humorous statement about the art market by selling art for laughable prices. Taylor also builds small-scale awnings that look like architectural models for Barbie dolls. A bright yellow awning, titled I'm full of my fondest memories right now, reflects on melancholy without being overly sentimental.
The other artist on the bill, Mike Andrews, uses Pop imagery to investigate the humorous side of teenage fantasies. At the entrance to the gallery is Fudgie, an eight-foot-long floor sculpture of a melting Fudgesicle. The work sits there like a puddle of fudge, or a giant petrified turd, and can't help but be reminiscent of Wayne Thiebaud's coated cakes.
A second work in the show by Andrews is the iconic Kissing.tif, an altered image in purple of two cartoony kids smooching. This poster-size picture could easily pass as the logo for any of the current teenage Pop-music sensations. Fudgie can be yours for $1,500; Kissing.tif, a five-foot-tall ink-jet print, is priced at $400.
On the other side of the city at Suitable Gallery is "The Shining," a show of Conceptual art by Sarah Conaway, Willie Gregory, John Neff, Rebekah Rutkoff and Stan Shellabarger. The artists all made things that seemed like shrines to famous artists or well-known works, though the results don't have much to do with Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick, madness or a writer's block, as one might expect from the show's title.
Suitable, which is run by two recent UIC grads Derek Fansler and Scott Wolniak, seems to labor under a healthy dose of that school's brand of cold Conceptualism. With only five small-scale works, the exhibition doesn't offer much visually, and the scant number of works on display gives viewers only the most limited idea of what the artists in the show are made of.
Two works manage to stand out as something more than illustrations of the show's title. Rebekah Rutkoff, a New York-based artist, brings some feeling to Conceptual art with a series of color snapshots that play homage to Richard Serra. Rutkoff has stenciled a text in white, one word per picture, to 12 photographs installed in a horizontal line. The whole sentence reads "I Saw the Torqued Ellipses Twice Once With Sugar Once With Ice." It has a nice rhythm and sounds like an unfinished answer to an imaginary question.
The imagery in Rutkoff's photos is one part abstract color composition and one part fragmentary images of table tops and round objects. Contrary to Serra's monumental ellipses, Rutkoff's snapshots are small and non-threatening and the whole piece goes for $750.
In another successful photograph, John Neff tries to possess a dead man's soul by recreating John Cage's pivotal piece 4' 33", which instructs the performer to come out and sit silently at the piano for that length of time. The artist only recreates a moment of Cage's performance for documentation. The result is an 8 x 10 in. black and white photograph that generates a creepy and ghostly atmosphere. In the image the artist sits still in front of a piano and seemingly attempts to play the instrument with his mind. Neff's homage is priced at $500, in an edition of five.
Another piece that's not part of the show but does relate the "shrine" idea is a plaque that commemorates the rebuilding of Suitable Gallery, once demolished by a snow storm in 2001. The small shiny plaque on top of the main entrance reads: "Suitable gratefully acknowledges the drywall work of Joel Alpern, completed May, 2001." Joel Alpern, a SAIC graduate, offered his services free of charge as part of an art project based on generosity. It consisted of helping re-build the space by installing dry wall, sanding and painting.
The plaque is now a permanent fixture in the gallery, and makes sure that the Alpern's esthetic aura will be felt long after temporary shows run their course. But Alpern's piece also embodies the two best qualities of Chicago's dueling art schools: UIC's conceptual logic and SAIC's care for craft.
PEDRO VELEZ is a curator and critic based in Chicago.