As the art season winds down, a profusion of photography shows can once again be found in Chicago’s galleries.
Andrew Rafacz, director of Bucket Rider Gallery, says he’s "not going to take it lying down." He means summer, of course. Bucket Rider debuted last September in a hastily converted back room; since then, it has grown to fill the space recently left vacant by Van Harrison Gallery’s departure for Chelsea. Perhaps prefiguring the future of the gallery business, these new kids in town plan to forego summer vacation, staying open through August with a four-person show.
In the meantime, though, the gallery has on offer a solo show by photographer Michael Schmelling, titled "The Plan." The name comes from the advertising shtick of a "crisis management" company called Disaster Masters (www.theplan.com), whose activities Schmelling has been documenting in New York City for the past two years. To understand what they do, think of the PBS show "The Life Laundries," with extra helpings of grime and pathology: If your pack-rat tendencies have gotten the better of you, Disaster Masters will come muck out your house, then offer counseling.
Of the exhibition’s 28 photographs, most priced between $1,000 and $1,800, six depict workers somewhat dramatically uniformed in gloves and respirators (and, of course, t-shirts that say "Disaster Masters Crisis Management: 1-800-THE-PLAN"). They haul threadbare bedding, broken lamps, dead plants and boxes and bags of random detritus out of apartments that appear uniformly mired in filth and neglect. Rendered in tacky, saturated color reminiscent of old film stock, Schmelling’s images focus intently on moldy tiles, dirt-caked corners, peeling paintjobs and other gross details.
Maybe they’re just smiling dutifully for the camera, but whether or not they’re aware of it, the Disaster Masters come across as thoroughly amused by their work. In Untitled (Ron, curlers), for example, the subject grins widely as he displays a box of blue plastic hair curlers that must have been last used in about 1970. Like the stern hostess of "The Life Laundries," these crisis managers don’t evince much compassion for their crisis-ridden clients.
Certainly, there’s an anthropological aspect to this task of excavation that must be genuinely fascinating. This is most evident in a series of smaller images (priced at $550) that frame individual objects, several held up to the camera by disembodied hands. A beheaded Howdy Doody doll in particular is at once creepy and pathetic. But more than any single image in the show, a shot of a baseball bearing a handwritten inscription commemorating a Red Sox win over the Yankees hints at the personal memories contained in these objects -- presumably the reason we save useless things.
Another of these smaller pieces, Untitled (blanket, mask), encapsulates the formal intricacy unique to trash and decay. In a smartly considered composition, a single gloved hand and the nose of a respirator mask peek around the corner of the fantastically tattered old comforter that fills most of the frame. As a subject, clutter offers a compelling wealth of visual interest, human pathos and even spiritual resonance (a large image of profuse fake flowers surrounding a figurine of Michelangelo’s Pieta clearly depicts not a mound of debris but an altar).
Given the quantity and variety of clutter Schmelling depicts, from stacks of ancient Time-Life books to boxes of even more ancient packaged snack foods, it’s bewildering that he doesn’t seem to plumb the full extent of meaning available in these collections.
Schmelling’s chief subject, rather, is that which is not seen in his photos: the individuals who have amassed and lived amidst these piles.
(The one exception to this absence -- a depiction of a man Schmelling met in the subway who creates and catalogues thousands upon thousands of casette-tape recordings -- appears in the gallery’s project room as part of the artist’s "appendix" to the show. In this section we can peruse some of the actual items Schmelling collected from the sites he visited, and read found poetry in the form of lists of book titles he encountered.)
The artist identifies his subjects as "people who have obsessive-compulsive hoarding disorders." Schmelling seems to be searching hard for pathology. With the exception of a few truly weird moments (why would one carefully hang old plastic shopping bags in the shower?) the hoarding seems extreme, but not really extraordinary. Looking at the first photo, an image of a densely laden kitchen counter, I was reminded of my own kitchen when the dishes have been piling up for a while. Maybe my slobbishness is more pathological than I think -- or maybe the familiarity of the messes they depict is the point of these photographs.
To be fair, Mothersbaugh never would have been a rock star were he not an artist who decided to start a band as a "college art project" -- and a series of small, darkly humorous pen and ink drawings, which were not part of the Packer show, go much further in supporting the premise that successful musicians can also be successful artists. The photos, which are custom-framed in editions of 20 and priced between $250 and $600, read like the afterthoughts of an overactive mind that just can’t leave stuff alone.
Titled "Beautiful Mutants," the works are hand- and computer-manipulations of antique photographs, mostly portraits, drawn from Mothersbaugh’s thousands-strong personal collection. Working with the idea of symmetry and its fictions, the artist has turned each image into a vertically bisected, self-mirroring mandala along the principle of Rorschach blots (a source consistent with the artist’s interest in Victorian obsessions with the psychic properties of symmetry).
Mothersbaugh calls his process "correcting" the photos, thereby constructing the circular irony at the center of his idea: We falsely believe that to be beautiful something must be symmetrical, but when "corrected" for absolute symmetry these well-dressed children and Victorian gentlemen in their opulent settings become both comical and monstrous. The resulting oddities are interesting to look at, though they’re not much more than parlor tricks.
For instance, in several images that employ mostly black and white, the artist poses against a black backdrop, sometimes in blackface, wearing (presumably marriage-related) headdresses from different tribal cultures. In another set of photos the artist poses done up in variously configured lengths of crinoline. Each of these is saturated with a monochrome wash of color: royal blue in The Icy Bride, bright red in The Spanish Bride, or sunshine yellow in The Pokemon Bride. The latter image, one of the most engaging in the show, is the only one that at first appears not to feature the artist: It seems to depict a large stuffed Pikachu doll wearing the frothy fall of crinoline, but on closer inspection we realize it’s actually Yoshida wearing a Pikachu hat, her face almost completely obscured by the fabric.
The video work, Birth of a Geisha, drives home the somewhat glancing exploration of identity at the heart of this work -- in case the first piece in the show, in which the red sun motif of the Japanese flag is superimposed over the white-clad artist’s face, hadn’t already made it obvious. In the video, the artist progressively dons the kimono and makeup of a traditional geisha while dancing to the song Godzilla by the Creatures. The video is projected on a screen that hangs in the middle of a darkened room surrounded by yards of fabric draped across the floor. The screen is translucent enough to allow the projection to fall on the rear wall as well, creating a double image for an extra wallop of blunt symbolism.
In her curatorial text, gallery director Susan Aurinko relates the story of Yoshida’s escape from an unwelcoming home and an arranged marriage in Japan, where the artist "could never possess either equality, or artistic freedom to create the art that filled her soul." Certainly, the issues of identity, tradition and sexism that preoccupy Yoshida are neither irrelevant, nor invalid as artistic subjects, simply because they have been addressed at length by other artists.
Rather, the primary weakness of Yoshida’s work lies in its derivativeness, as though the artist simply mixed equal parts Cindy Sherman, Mariko Mori and Lorna Simpson. Nevertheless, Yoshida displays enough esthetic and technical proficiency that one can hopefully expect her output to evolve, allowing her to come at this overexposed, but still pertinent, topic in a new and more complicated way in the future.
KATHRYN ROSENFELD writes on art from Chicago.