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chicago circus

by Michael Bulka  

Ed Paschke
at Maya Polsky

Maria Tomasula
at Peter Miller

Dave Stull
at Lineage

Stephen Daniels
The Way of the Cross
at Lineage

Hannah Dresner
at Lineage

Willie Kohler
Landscape with Sheperd
and Giant

at the Coyote

Ernest Garrett
Study in Equestrians at Rest
at the Coyote

Poop Studios

Shane Swank
Doc's Advice:
Don't Drop the Soap
   The first Friday in September marks the beginning of Chicago's fall gallery season, and everything opens at once -- the established commercial galleries, still mostly centered in the River North district, just north of the Loop; the newer artist-run spaces, generally in the near-northwest neighborhoods of Wicker Park and Bucktown; and the annual Around the Coyote Arts Festival that turns every available studio, storefront and tavern wall within a half mile of the Flat Iron Building (at the intersection of Damen, North and Milwaukee Avenues) into an impromptu exhibition space for a long weekend. There is just too much stuff.

River North
In River North, the rule was safe shows by classic Chicago artists: Ed Paschke at Maya Polsky, Harry Callahan at Ehlers-Caudill, Roger Brown at Phyllis Kind, Margaret Wharton at Jean Albano, Vera Klement at Fassbinder, Michiko Itatani at Printworks. It's all very nice -- a good primer on what sells in Chicago. Our fair city still seems to go for monsters -- wild colors, intricate patterns, hints of dementia and obsession -- despite years of effort to change things by thousands of talented local artists. The Imagist legacy, it seems, won't die until long after the last Imagist artist sheds this mortal coil. But it could be worse -- Chicago could be the hometown of Minimalism!

New Spiritualities
Not nearly old enough to be a classic, Maria Tomasula is still one of Peter Miller's mainstays. In her new show, "Im/Mutable," she presents canvases of contrived still lives of fruit and nails and binding wires that combine Roman Catholic icons with rituals of bondage and fetishism. The canvases are not a big leap from her previous work, but the paintings are rich and beautiful.

A godly theme is more apparent in "Active Faith" at the Lineage Gallery Project. I did help to organize the show, but if it is a conflict of interest to talk about the artists, at least I won't sin very much. Though the work of Dave Stull, Steve Daniels and Hanna Dressner has little in common, the artists are all engaged in a spiritual practice. Daniels' violent slashes of iridescent and glitter-strewn paint in obsessively crafted frames reflect his ongoing inner battle with God. Stull translates a philosophical Christianity into an idiosyncratic symbolism rendered in large painted wooden sculpture. Dressner's tiny gouaches of leaves and patterns are more personally and subtly spiritual.

The Coyote
There is a certain amount of prejudice in the "serious" art community against the amateur extravaganza of the Coyote, which does tend to draw tourists looking for a bit of decoration or people more interested in the neighborhood's real estate. The festival is admittedly a retail exercise, and almost anyone who can come up with the $50 registration fee is allotted a patch of display space. Artists who rent studios in the Flat Iron Building are pretty much obligated to participate, and other artists and galleries in the neighborhood take advantage of the publicity and traffic to display their wares. There is art-ish stuff everywhere.

The work in general is more conservative, smaller, less expensive -- generally more salable -- than what is shown in most galleries. Things are hung chock-a-block salon style. There is a lot of competent photography, jewelry and furniture, and rooms and rooms of very earnest, un-self-critical self-expression. The advantage is that there are whole categories of work that are not often seen in the galleries -- romantic figure painting, for instance. The festival also features dance and poetry readings, film and theater, a fashion show and even an art therapy workshop.

Among the standouts were Willie Kohler, who showed his work in his own large studio space, hanging it very full. His allegorical oil paintings and drawings feature figures and scenes drawn from classical mythology in bright, sometimes perversely colored pastoral compositions.

Ernest Garrett exhibited his snapshot-sized black-and-white street photographs in pairs, illuminating connections between the two pictures that is sometimes formal, sometimes literal, often witty and at worst cute. An image of piles of sawhorse-style barricades is matched with a shot taken through the tunnel formed under the bellies of a rank of real horses. A woman wearing a T-shirt reading "Take Off Your Clothes" is paired with a naked man streaking past a police car. Garrett's photos document the odd congruencies we all notice, or almost notice, every day. They are present completely without pretense, as if to say "I saw this, then I saw that. Make of it what you will."

Poop Studios
Poop Studios wasn't an official participant in the Coyote, but artist Shane Swank does rent the rambling cavernous basement of the Flat Iron. His space is usually host to a variety of exhibitions and performances, musical and otherwise. The weekend of the Coyote he hung a large group show, very much in the spirit of the festival, but with his distinctive twist. His taste as both a curator and an artist runs to kitschy semi-pornography, adolescent rebellion and retro New-Wave graphic design. The trip down to his cellar was certainly a memorable experience for many an art-shopper, even before they got to Swank's depiction of the after-hours adventures of Nancy and Sluggo that Ernie Bushmiller never dared to show, lawsuit-baiting views of Disney favorites, and a collection of happily marginal paintings (and a few sculpture) by his cohorts that test the limits of decorum while having some innocent fun.

There's a lot to see at the circus, and I didn't even make it to one of the main rings. I'll take a cotton candy and beer break, and in the next post get to that ring and off to the side shows, where the real stuff happens.

MICHAEL BULKA is an art critic living in Chicago.