Review: American Framing Highlights Trio of New Exhibits at Wrightwood 659

Wrightwood 659 is a small museum, tucked away on a residential block of Wrightwood Avenue in Lincoln Park. It’s not a collecting museum, meaning it has no permanent collection to put on display. The four floors of this exquisitely renovated structure (design by Tadao Ando) can be used for large exhibits or divided into several small or medium-sized ones. The current set of exhibits is a stunning example of the latter use of the building. Here are brief descriptions of each, followed by more detail. 

The primary exhibit is American Framing, co-curated by two UIC architecture faculty members, which displays the interior structure of soft-wood construction, the most common US construction system for almost 200 years. This is the prosaic interior structure hidden under the more glamorous finishes, sidings, doodads and ornament on a building’s exterior. 

Two other exhibits also are on display at Wrightwood 659—all very different and each with its own charm. 

Rirkrit Tiravanija: (who’s afraid of red, yellow, and green) turns the second floor gallery into a communal dining space while images of protest are being created on the walls by artists. (If you’re there at the right time, you’ll be treated to a delicious curry lunch.)

Moga: Modern Women & Daughters in 1930s Japan is a small exhibit of paintings that depicts   the urbane “modern girl” and reflects on the roles of mothers and daughters. This exhibit is shown on part of the fourth floor gallery. 

In addition, We Shall Defy, a continuing exhibit of photographs and text by Shahidul Alam, Bangladeshi human rights activist, is also on display in the fourth floor gallery. The images and verse, by Alam and others, tell the story of Alam’s protests against the elite power structure and his life in jail.

Installation view, American Framing. Photo by Nancy Bishop.

American Framing

You’re introduced to the concept of American Framing the minute you walk into the atrium of Wrightwood 659. The curators have created a three-story installation, an abstraction of a Chicago wood-framed interior structure that encases the atrium. The structure even has a roof, even though it is inverted. 

The American Framing installation, which fills the third floor of the museum, is a reinstallation of the US exhibit presented at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition at the 2021 Venice Bienniale. The exhibit was curated by UIC faculty members Paul Andersen and Paul Preissner. The exhibit demonstrates how, since the early 19th century, wood framing has been the most common construction system in the US. It’s currently used in more than 90 percent of new home construction. 

“Wood framing is the great forgotten basis of American architecture,” Preissner said. “It’s especially exciting to bring this project to our audience in Chicago, while we build awareness of this often dismissed or ignored form of construction globally.”

Throughout the gallery you will see newly commissioned furniture produced in common lumber, including chairs, rockers and benches, designed by UIC School of Architecture assistant professors Ania Jaworska and Thomas Kelley, founder of  architecture firm Norman Kelley, and his design partner, Carrie Norman.

Scale building models on display were researched and built by UIC architecture students; the models reflect the history of wood framing from its early days into the 20th century. The exhibit also features a series of photographs representing development and use of wood framing by photographers Chris Strong and Daniel Shea.

The American Framing exhibit is also on display at Galerie Jaroslava Fragnera in Prague, Czechia, through June 24. The gallery is one of the few in the Czech Republic dedicated to the presentation of architecture, The program is accompanied by a series of outreach programs at the gallery and at universities and educational centers across the city. 

Andersen and Preissner are also co-authors of the book American Framing: The Same Something for Everyone to be published later this year by Park Books. The book encapsulates the Venice Bienniale architecture exhibition and expands on the scholarly resources of the project. Images and text explore this quintessentially American method of wood construction; it includes narratives connecting wood framing to popular culture. 

Artists Rin Visaney Scholtens and Mack Baker work on a protest mural in (who’s afraid of red, yellow, and green). Photo by Nancy Bishop.

Rirkrit Tiravanija: (who’s afraid of red, yellow, and green)

Tiravanija’s concept exhibit combines communal dining and conversation with protest imagery created by local artists. The exhibit is organized by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC. The selection of images underlines Tiravanija’s interests in social relationships between citizens, the role of government, and personal liberty.

In the second floor gallery, overhead projectors project enlarged images of Chicago protests onto walls, where artists sketch in outlines of figures, banners and buildings, and then complete the murals using their own style of drawing, usually in charcoal. We talked with two graduate students at the School of the Art Institute while they were working.

From 12 to 2pm on Fridays and Saturdays (the days that Wrightwood 659 is open), visitors can sit on a wooden stool or bench and dine on red, yellow or green curry provided by Bliss Resto in Ravenswood. While you’re enjoying the curry (the yellow curry was delicious), you can chat about art and protests and observe the artists at work. 

Ito Shinsui, “Untitled.” Early Showa Period. Four-panel screen 108x75in. Private collection of Naomi Pollock and David Sneider. Image courtesy of Wrightwood 659.

Moga: Modern Women & Daughters in 1930s Japan

This intimate selection of 10 paintings, being shown in the US for the first time, is from the private collection of Naomi Pollock and David Sneider, who lived in Japan for 30 years from the late 1980s through 2019. While there, they collected art and design of the interwar period of the 1920s and 1930s. 

Many of the paintings are from the noted Meguro Gajoen, currently Hotel Gajoen Tokyo, a large entertainment complex opened in 1931. Minori Egashori, a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago, is consulting curator. 

The paintings depict the urbane “modern  girl,” who captured the public imagination in 1920s Japan. They show an independent lifestyle and challenge the traditional ideal of the “good wife, wise mother.” The paintings show mothers and daughters in scenes from everyday life alongside images of the “modern girl.”

The Moga exhibit is enhanced by a beautifully designed and printed 60-page catalog, which contains the exhibit images and several essays, including one by the consulting curator Minori Egashori on how to view Japanese artwork. The catalog is $10 and can be purchased at the gallery or online.

American Framing exhibit. Model of Jim Kaney round barn in Adeline, Illinois, 1905. Photo by Nancy Bishop.

How to visit. These three exhibitions exploring architecture, social engagement and Japanese “modern girls” are on display at Wrightwood 659, 659 W. Wrightwood Ave., have been extended through July 30. The gallery is open  Fridays from 12 to 7pm and Saturdays from 10am to 5pm. Tickets are $15 and are available online only. Admission is by advance ticket; walk-ins are not permitted. Wrightwood 659 requires all visitors to show proof of vaccination and booster plus a photo ID. Masks must be worn while you are in the building. 

Chicago extra. Chicago’s oldest house, the 1836 Henry B. Clarke House on the near south side, is an example of timber framing (using wood joinery rather than the metal fasteners used in the more common stick framing—as carpenters would call it—shown in the exhibit). The house, part of the Prairie Avenue Historic District, is a museum house and open for tours. If you visit, you can see the original construction system through an open panel on the wall of an upstairs bedroom. Guided tours are at 1pm Wednesday and Saturday. Admission is free; only eight visitors can tour at a time.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.