“THE SUBJECT IS CHICAGO,” the wall outside the gallery reads. “People. Places. Possibilities.”
Purporting to be a survey of contemporary Chicago by way of exhibiting the work of one practicing artist from each of the city’s 50 wards, this latest addition to an otherwise outstanding series of shows at the Chicago Cultural Center in recognition of the Year of Public Art is not merely a disappointment, but the sounding of a warning bell.
If this is to be taken as a genuine cross section of living artists in Chicago, mined to be reflective of the best we collectively have to offer, let me be the first to say I fear for the future cultural identity of our city.
There are an egregious number of works on view that employ heavy-handed socio-political trappings in a desperate attempt at something like relevance. Jeff Lassahn’s dystopian model train setup Model War Economy, replete with a clash between miniature protestors and miniature police in its miniature poorly-maintained streets and Yvette Mayorga’s gratuitous Really Safe in America, strewn with glitter-dipped toy machine guns and the requisite pictures of Donald Trump (overlaid with such poetic offerings as “go fuck yourself with a cactus”) prove to be two of the worst offenders. Given the current political climate, this seems like the pursuit of particularly low-hanging fruit, and as such I’d like to take this opportunity to remind today’s artists that identifying a problem without offering a solution is not commentary, it’s merely complaining.
Then there are the works so reductive they overshoot accessibility, and actually begin to insult the intelligence of the viewer. Stacey Lee Gee’s Comfort Box, a plywood box lined on the interior with faux fur, encourages viewers to “remove your shoes and climb in.” This is at best infuriatingly derivative and at worst vaguely unsanitary. Meanwhile, Meg Duguid’s Production With Models, 2017 uses audience participation as an excuse for shoddy workmanship, resulting in a piece that has more in common with a fifth grade class project than an art installation.
That said, I’m sorry to report that bad art is the least of this show’s worries. The problem at the heart of this exhibition is one that carries more sinister implications. It is an identity crisis of sorts. To walk through this exhibition is not to know Chicago. For all the pictures of derelict public schools, there is no evident sense of ownership, of responsibility. For every kitsch-laden use of the iconographic stars of the Chicago flag, there is no sense of civic pride to be found, only the cheap veneer of boosterism.
There is a down to earth, working-class quality to the significant works that come from this city. It is rooted in the utility and practicality endemic to the middle west, in the use of vernacular language, in the use of raw and earthbound materials. We hear it in Nelson Algren’s City on the Make, as we hear it in John Cage’s Ten Quicksteps, Sixty-two Waltzes, and Fifty-six Marches. We see it in the architecture of Louis Sullivan, as we see it in the heartrending drawings of Chris Ware. It is at the crux of the compulsively precise craftsmanship of Ian Schneller’s sculptures, it is the force behind the rough-hewn frission of Enoc Perez’s paintings, it is the very soul of Theaster Gates’ works in tar. This kind of art is characterized by a startling sense of self-awareness and a work ethic that meets the tenets of obsession. Dignity. Humility. Never self-congratulatory, but self-effacing in the wake of accomplishments. Ire in the face of injustice, yes, but not self-righteousness. Never that. This is not a city for those who crave moral superiority. And above all else, the best work this city has produced possesses a respect for history; an awareness that we are all standing on the shoulders of those who came before us.
Yet in the entirety of this exhibition, I saw only one glimmer of this ethos. It was there, in Michael and Yhelena Hall’s clever installation, Polished Remnants: the humbleness of the damaged concert and rebar traffic barrier, its quiet installation by the main entrance of the exhibition hall, the glint of light off the polished finish like a sly wink. There is more of Chicago in this single, unassuming work, than there is in the rest of the exhibition hall. It is for this reason I choose not to allow my faith in the cultural future of our city to waiver, and for this reason that I implore all emerging–and especially young–artists with practices in Chicago to make time to see this exhibition before it closes.
50×50 Invitational/The Subject is Chicago: People, Places, Possibilities is on view in the 4th Floor Exhibition Hall of the Chicago Cultural Center (78 E. Washington) through April 9.
Admission is free. Mon-Thurs: 9am-7pm, Fri-Sat:9am-6pm, Sun: 10am-6pm. For more information, see the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE).