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Back to Reviews 97

Ray Martin
Stigmata  from 

Ray Martin
Sysco Kid  from 

 Hartmann Schedel,
Page from the
Nuremberg Chronicle,

Jan Nansson,
Wind Chart,

Johann Elert Bode,
Celestial chart 
from Vorstellung 
der Gestirne,

Nicole Alger, 
Daphne, 1996

 Nicole Alger,
What?, 1996

Akemi Nakano Cohn,
Taking Root, 1995

 Akemi Nakano Cohn, 
Growth-II, 1996

Lee Godie, 
Flaming Youth, (n.d.)

Bill Traylor, 
Exciting Event, (n.d.)

chicago report 

by Victor M. Cassidy

Chicago is "The City that Works" -- even in art! Every year, the city's Department of Cultural Affairs sponsors more than 35 exhibitions, predominantly by local artists, at the Chicago Cultural Center, a handsome 19th-century building on Michigan Avenue. The consistent high quality of these shows -- we've had them for 20 years now -- has led many to compare our Cultural Center to Europe's Kunsthallen.

Two recent exhibitions at the Cultural Center exemplify the breadth and excellence of its programs. The first is "Recent Prints" by Ray Martin, Chicago's premier lithographer and the creator of about 30 artists' books. The second is "Awestruck by the Majesty of the Heavens," a show of 61 works on paper from Chicago's Adler Planetarium.

Trash we carry and leave behind us
"Recent Prints" includes work from Martin's continuing Detritus (1995- ) suite of lithographs. This series is "concerned with the detritus of our existences," the artist says. It is about "the physical trash and also the emotional and psychological 'trash' that we carry with us and leave behind us."

On walks through his neighborhood, Martin collects crushed soft drink cans, broken toys, torn candy wrappers and the like. He scans these found objects into a computer and manipulates many of the images. Some of his reworkings are "computer Cubism" -- all four sides of an object shown at once. In others, he opens up an object to display its interior or combines two images.

The artist makes four-color separations from his scans, "doctors" the inks, "tones down" the colors and prints. We see elegant, deceptively simple lithographs -- invigorating reinterpretations of the found object.

Since 1960, Ray Martin has headed the printmaking department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Widely respected for his work and his teaching, he has inspired hundreds of printmakers.

Majesty of the Heavens
The Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum on the shore of Lake Michigan is best known for its star shows, which have delighted families for decades. The Adler's library owns many rare astronomical books and engravings that it has no way of exhibiting in public. Anna Felicity Friedman, a curatorial assistant, has sorted through this collection, assembled a show, and written a catalogue. "Awestruck by the Majesty of the Heavens" is a lively, informative exhibition that marries art and science.

People have always observed the heavens and recorded the movement of the stars, but it was not until the development of the printed book in the mid-15th century and the invention of copper-plate engraving about 100 years later that modern astronomical literature was born. Though the engravers of celestial charts and atlases are mostly forgotten today, they were serious artists who did excellent work.

Perhaps the grandest piece in "Awestruck" is Hartmann Schedel's woodcut page from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493). It shows the Aristotelian planetary system with the earth at the center surrounded by 13 spheres representing water, air, fire, several planets and the fixed stars. Beyond the spheres is the kingdom of God with the heavenly host and the deity enthroned.

Jan Jansson's Wind Chart (1650) shows the winds configured around the points of the compass. The winds assume the forms of the races of man. "Awestruck" also includes a handsome depiction of the constellation Leo, which was engraved in 1782 by Johann Elert Bode, a self-taught German astronomer.

The Adler's Website has 20 images from "Awestruck." For more celestial cyber-art, see the online catalog of a 1996 show at Linda Hall Library in Kansas City, MO.

Comeback for the Terra?
The Terra Museum of American Art has long been one of Chicago's more problematic institutions. It was founded during 1980 in a converted suburban flower shop by Daniel Terra, a self-made millionaire. The original museum was low-key and fun, a maze of rooms jammed with cowboy and Indian sculptures -- and numerous paintings of ladies in white dresses on windswept hillsides.

In 1987, the Terra went big-time and moved to Michigan Avenue. When the collection was seen in a professional setting, it became clear that that there was not enough first-class art in it to fill a museum. Soon, stories about Terra's vicious temper began to circulate. He fired one museum director after another. There were reports of financial shenanigans. The quality of exhibitions varied wildly.

Terra died on June 28, 1996, and there are indications that his museum is returning to respectability. Stuart Popowcer, the current director, told ArtNet that the Terra's focus on late 19th century and early 20th century American art will continue, but that he's made "a lot of changes" in the past six months. He will run the Terra "like a business," he says, but with fuller participation from its 40-plus employees.

Popowcer "absolutely" wants attendance to exceed the current 80,000 to 100,000 visitors each year. He foresees a "continued diversification of shows" and points with pride to "Across Continents and Cultures: The Art and Life of Henry Ossawa Tanner," a 1996 exhibition which was enthusiastically received by Chicago's black community.

The Terra's current show -- "An American Century of Photography from Dry Plate to Digital: The Hallmark Photographic Collection" -- may indicate just what form the Terra's "diversification" is going to take. The 253 photographs in this survey include work by all the famous names -- Hine, Coburn, Stieglitz, Weston, Arbus, Weegee and many more. There are gifted amateurs too, like a farmer named Bentley who spent twenty-five winters of his life photographing snowflakes and got to be quite good at it.

"An American Century" is selected with care, taste, and intelligence -- and very professionally installed. No other Chicago museum would have given us this attractive survey. We hope the Terra continues to improve.

In the galleries
Nicole Alger showed portraits at Lyons-Wier & Ginsberg Gallery in January and February. The artist lived abroad for several years, studying in Paris and Florence. This is her second solo exhibition.

Alger is such a straightforward, classically accomplished kind of painter that she's easily underestimated. But her work is very skillfully made -- and bursting with life and personality. Alger's paintings stick in the memory. We need more artists like her!

If Alger's work is easy on the eye, Akemi Nakano Cohn's definitely is not. Her brightly-colored silk hangings, which she exhibited in the suburbs during February, are dense and busy, reflecting her cultural confusion.

Born in Japan, Cohn came to the U.S. in her early 40s, studied art, moved to Chicago and married an American. "There is a tension in my work between the Eastern values in which I was raised," she says, "and the Western values to which I have been adjusting."

To make her hangings, Cohn uses several traditional Japanese dye methods, mostly Nassen techniques in which she mixes dye chemicals into a rice paste to create color and resist. She may also screen print, appliqué, embroider, interlace, and stitch her work.

Plant images in Cohn's hangings suggest the slow growth in her personal outlook. Words like transplant, variety and immigration also appear, along with Japanese characters. Cohn is a difficult artist, one with much to say.

Art Institute on the Net?
Jack Brown, director of the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago, recently lectured about art on the Internet. He said that the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco , the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, and the Uffizi in Florence, have substantial numbers of works in Internet image bases. You can see 60,000 images at San Francisco's site. The Ambrosiana has put up nearly half of the 12,000 drawings it owns and will continue until all are on line.

Will the Art Institute follow suit? According to Brown, "image bases mean that people can see museum holdings without damaging the objects or taking staff time." Still, a degree of control is lost. "The Art Institute has limited staff and hardware resources," he adds, "and many ways we can share our collections with the public. We're still in the talking stage here."

Dealer and crusader
During the Sixties, Carl Hammer, a high school English teacher, purchased a country house with his then-wife and began to decorate it. The couple filled the place with work by amateur artists of all kinds and obsessives who had eccentric personal visions. These people, whose work was disdained by the mainstream art world, are called naives and outsiders today.

"The Civil Rights Movement was big when I was building my collection," says Hammer, "and my students were all excited about the issues. I took up the cause of the outsider, not just in art but in life. This was the vision of the gallery I opened in 1979."

On his gallery's inaugural night, Hammer met Lee Godie, a street woman who drew colorful self-portraits all day on Michigan Avenue and sold them to passersby. Godie sometimes went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, sat down on the floor and drew. She kept her possessions in bus station lockers and slept in cheap hotels downtown, paying day by day.

Godie started a one-sided romance with Hammer. She saw him as a prospective lover, proposed marriage several times (Hammer is tall, slim, and youthful-looking), and thought he was courting her whenever he wore a tie. He became her dealer, built her reputation, and helped her earn more from her work.

Lee Godie, Bill Traylor and other naives are cornerstones of the Carl Hammer Gallery. Today he represents a "50-50 mix" of outsiders and professionals. Still, he says that his gallery will always have "an outsider esthetic."

"I'm a self-taught collector and dealer," Hammer states. "It took me years to establish my tastes. When you collect art by unknowns, you don't ever buy anything you feel you should like."

VICTOR CASSIDY is an art journalist based in Chicago.