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Jessica Stockholder


by Pedro Vélez
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“Aww, colors are pretty! I like green and the red is vibrant,” said a man as he contemplated the intersection of State and Adams in Downtown Chicago. On the corner, the blood red sign of the Bank of America pulsated brighter than ever against the lime green building façade, newly colored, like the rest of the immediate area, courtesy Jessica Stockholder’s public art installation, Color Jam.

Stockholder was commissioned by the Chicago Loop Alliance, a corporate organization that advocates for the businesses in the area known as the Loop, to design what is being described as the “largest public artwork in Chicago’s history and the largest contiguous vinyl project in the country.”

That is 76,000 square feet of colored adhesive plastic covering a major intersection, sidewalks, a few lampposts and portions of four buildings. Stockholder’s monumental geometric abstraction comes in baby blue, lime green, bright orange and electric red, and it blankets Starbucks, CVS, BoA, and the Century Building (1915), an abandoned historical site designed by Holabird & Roche that’s famous for its Neo-Manueline ornamentation.

I walked back and forth through that intersection for 40 minutes just to see peoples’ reactions. Many took quick photos with their iPhones while others debated which color they liked the most in conversations that would last no more than 15 seconds -- more or less the time it takes to cross the street. My fiancé, who loves Instagram, told me that Color Jam has day-care colors and that it looks just like any other display at the Children’s Museum. She wasn’t impressed. My fellow critics also agreed -- over tweeter -- that Color Jam is underwhelming.

Whatever happened to the immersive experience promised in the original plans? There, colored light seemed to saturate everything in its path, whereas the project we have now it’s a colorful patchwork delineating architectural volumes.

In all, Color Jam is pretty, yes it is, but it also feels corporate, empty, unfinished and trivial. It’s backdrop art, the type of thing that makes for nice Instagrams and press releases. So let me warn those of you who might travel to Chicago to see it.

Up close and in person, the story is different. The vinyl on the lampposts looks fragile, on the verge of peeling off, and the painted flooring is already fading, it looks dirty and gross. And unlike the impressive aerials taken from nearby skyscrapers, the average pedestrian does not get to enjoy that view. The work is experienced from the ground up.

Color Jam is the third installment in the CLA’s annual Art Loop public art initiative, following Tony Tasset’s Eye in 2010, and last year’s five-story mural by Kay Rosen, GO DO GOOD.

PEDRO VÉLEZ is an art critic and writer working in Chicago.