This month there are two exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Neither quite makes the grade. The first is a retrospective of desert landscape photographs, "Desert Cantos," that Richard Misrach has taken in Nevada, California, Israel, and elsewhere over the past 20 years. The second is "My Little Pretty," which looks at little girls through the eyes of six contemporary artists.
In love with the desert
Misrach's show is maddening because he is a strong artist who disappoints often. His best images are clearly conceived, carefully composed and cropped -- and with superb color. This is a man who's in love with the desert. Misrach also wants to demonstrate how people have damaged this majestic environment. Terming himself a "pissed-off citizen," he denies that he is an activist, but when his work slides from art into politics, it becomes preachy and unconvincing.
A typical Misrach photograph is a panoramic straight-on view of a desert scene printed poster-size. The horizon line divides the image in two from top to bottom. Because the sky is empty and the land is flat and unvegetated, the viewer's eye is drawn to human disturbances such as tire tracks, a railroad train, or even a discarded beer can. Compared to the vast, empty landscape, humanity and its works seem puny, impermanent, and intrusive.
When Misrach records what he finds and lets viewers draw their own conclusions, the work is very rewarding. His photographs of the Salton Sea in Southern California show its fantastic desolation. He records amusing absurdities in the Nevada salt flats -- vinyl-covered chairs and Formica tables arranged restaurant-style in a vast outdoor whiteness -- and the World's Fastest Mobile Home, which set a land speed record of 96 mph.
Misrach stumbles in his campaign against nuclear fallout. Canto VI: The Pit shows an animal dump full of putrefying steers and horses. In an explanatory note, the artist claims that such pits "can be found throughout the West" and infers that some of the animals may have died after crossing land that was poisoned by fallout from nuclear weapons testing.
These photographs are riveting, but are such dumps as common as Misrach makes them? Dead animals stink. They draw vultures and vermin, which are health hazards. The pits would have to be located far from any settlement -- and bulldozed often. How does all this demonstrate the well-known evils of fallout?
"Canto IX: The Secret (Project W-47)" consists of several photographs of abandoned buildings and facilities at Wendover Air Force Base in Utah, where the atomic bomb was perfected in spring of 1945. Misrach writes that "the details of [Project] W-47 remain classified, and most military and government officials deny the project's existence." We are left to conclude that he's exposing a dirty little secret. If the government wanted to cover up Project W-47, why did it let these buildings stand for more than 50 years and how did Misrach manage to photograph them all? He leaves these obvious questions unanswered.
The six artists who are included in "My Little Pretty" -- Kim Dingle, Judy Fox, Nicky Hoberman, Inez van Lamsweerde, Judith Raphael and Lisa Yuskavage -- are said by the show's curator to "look to the form of the female child as a vehicle through which they can explore personal identity, sexuality, 'accepted' behavioral codes for men and women, and issues of representation in our culture."
With one exception, these women advance socio-political agendas in their work. Lacking visual ideas, they project fashionable attitudes upon childhood. The result is a pointless, faked-up show.
Van Lamsweerde digitally manipulates photographs of three- and four-year-olds in ways that make their grimacing features seem corpse-like. Yuskavage robs girls of their innocence by giving them big breasts and seductive features. Dingle makes smallish paintings of little girls in white dresses and ruffled white panties doing things like attacking lambs with hammers. Raphael has nasty girls fighting and Fox exhibits naturalistic terra-cotta sculptures of nude children in poses which resemble familiar artworks like Manet's Olympia.
Hoberman is the only artist of substance in "My Little Pretty." Her paintings show girls with large heads -- and bodies that seem to trail behind or beneath them. She presumably bases these images upon the observation that children have small, uninteresting bodies and proportionally large faces that look up at adults. Hoberman has seen something in life and shown it to us. This is something that real artists do.
25 years of printmaking
Jack Lemon, a master printer who was trained at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop, founded the Landfall Press in Chicago during 1970. From the very start, Lemon personally selected every artist that he worked with. Under his direction, the Press has published more than 625 editions, lithographs mostly, by Christo, Jack Cowin, Jim Dine, Richard Hunt, Robert Lostutter, Ed Ruscha and many others.
In 1993, the Milwaukee Art Museum purchased Landfall's archives -- nearly 3,000 preliminary drawings and prints, along with blocks, plates and litho stones. The museum selected 150 prints for "Landfall Press: 25 Years of Printmaking," which toured to the Cultural Center this spring.
The exhibition triumphantly confirms Lemon's reputation as an astute judge of artistic talent who thrives on experiment and complex technical challenges. Robert Cottingham's Hot (1973) is made from a matrix of 17 aluminum plates and William T. Wiley's Once Upon a Time When All is Flawless (1982) is a color lithograph printed on four scarves. One of the show's most winning works---Karl Wirsum's Blue Burger Quartet a la Carte (pie in the sky not included) (1994)---is a lithograph sculpture whose pieces were printed flat, then assembled.
Landfall's artists share a mastery of the basics. They think clearly, understand form, draw well, and know color. This -- plus Jack Lemon's silent but vital contribution -- helps explain why this work looks so good.
Sculptors on Navy Pier
Art Chicago 1997, the big dealer expo, came and went in early May. One of the most successful events of that weekend was "Pier Walk '97," an international exhibition of 111 large sculptures that filled the outdoor areas of Navy Pier and environs.
Organized by the artists and backed by a $100,000 grant from Sears, "Pier Walk '97" is the "largest exhibition of its kind in the world," says Terence Karpowicz, a local sculptor who helped put it together. According to him, Navy Pier has contracted for shows through the year 2000.
"Pier Walk '97" is the most recent of many outdoor exhibitions that Chicago's sculpture community has organized over the past 20 years. As a direct result of this activity, Chicago has been chosen to host the International Sculpture Conference in 1998. Illustrated is a maquette for David Nelson's "Pier Walk '97" sculpture, one of several exhibited earlier this spring at the Wood Street Gallery.
Michelangelo and his influence
It was through his drawings that Michelangelo Buonarroti decisively influenced other artists of his day. The master's most famous works -- the Sistine Chapel, the Pauline Chapel and the Last Judgment -- were inaccessible and impossible to study.
This is the theme of "Michelangelo and his Influence: Drawings from Windsor Castle," an exhibition of 68 drawings and five engravings by Michelangelo, Agnolo Bronzino, Annibale Caracci, Sebastiano del Piombo, Perino del Vaga, Francesco Salviati, Raphael Sanzio and others. The show was up at the Art Institute from April through June.
Michelangelo has 18 works in this exhibition -- ideal heads, presentation drawings, religious compositions and anatomical sheets. Seeing his work next to that of his contemporaries proves beyond all doubting that he was one of the great draughtsmen of all time. His drawings are so very wondrous, in fact, that experiencing them first hand justifies the cost of a year's membership in the Art Institute. This writer saw the show four times.
Ingrid Fassbender's German connection
German art is "my passion," says Ingrid Fassbender. It's "much more intense, more soul-wrenching" than work made elsewhere. No surprise then that Fassbender has become Chicago's premier dealer in contemporary German art -- and in work by local artists that displays a like sensibility.
Fassbender certainly didn't plan things that way. Born in Germany, she emigrated to Chicago at the age of 14. Her parents had rejected their heritage, so they never spoke German in the U.S. They wanted Ingrid to become 100 percent American, which she did. She did not use her mother tongue and learned to speak English like a native.
Trained as an occupational therapist in college, Fassbender worked in hospital psych wards and with disabled people. In 1976, she moved to Los Angeles, where she met and worked with the head of a university art department. She took some art classes and soon found herself repping artists.
When she returned to Chicago in 1981, Fassbender had two children of her own by a first marriage and a new husband with two more. Though she was raising four children -- all between five and six years of age -- she still managed to work in art galleries.
Rediscovered her roots
A few years later, two German dealers were scouting Chicago as a possible location for a gallery. They found Fassbender and made her director of the Asperger-Bischoff Gallery, which represented German artists in the US. "That job was a call to action," she says. "I rediscovered my German roots, relearned a language I'd half-forgotten, and realized how much I loved German art."
After leaving Asperger-Bischoff, Fassbender curated art exhibitions and worked for dealers. In autumn of 1994, a friend gave her gallery space gratis in an out-of-the-way location. Operating on a shoestring, she opened the Fassbender Gallery there, getting good reviews but precious little traffic. Late in 1996, with support from a backer, she moved to a 4,500-square-foot space in River North.
Because she started out as an artist's rep rather than coming up through the gallery system, Fassbender sees the art world "from the artist's viewpoint," she states. Her mission is "to take the best Chicago artists out in the world" where people don't know them. "We spend a lot of time on activities that have nothing to do with sales," she says.
This tireless organizer and networker has gotten her artists shows in Germany, Spain, and Italy -- and has brought work to Chicago from all over Europe. Recently, she sponsored the Chicago stop of "Art Beyond the Conflict," a touring exhibition of ten artists from Belfast and Dublin. This was the largest show of Irish art ever held in Chicago, she says. Next year, she'll have an exchange show with a Mexico City artists co-op.
German artists that Fassbender represents include Helma, Henning Kurschner, Hubertus van der Goltz and Birgitta Weimer. Among her Chicago artists are Leslie Eliet, Linda Horn, Michiko Itatani and Thomas Skomski.
VICTOR CASSIDY is an art journalist based in Chicago.