Review: Abandoned Spaces Come to Life at the Oak Park Art League

For many of us, there is a lure to abandoned spaces because they often evoke curiosity about their history while also arousing emotions of nostalgia, fear and sadness. There is also a mystique to an abandoned space because it seems frozen in time, allowing us to get a glimpse into the past.

The latest exhibition, Abandoned Spaces, at the Oak Park Art League explores these concepts. On display are 32 works by 23 artists depicting various scenes and perspectives on this subject matter.  

Over the last few decades, many small towns that were once thriving have suffered economic hardship either due to the decline of local businesses or people opting to move to other locations. Jonathan Franklin’s mixed media/photo collage, Main Street, gives us an almost ghostly view of various scenes of small town America. This work also evokes feelings of despair as we look at structures that have long been neglected and abandoned. This same theme is also explored in Deborah Paige-Jackson’s painting, General Store, where she gives us a view of a shuttered general store that was once a prominent center of activity in most small towns.  Equally haunting is John Padour’s photo of an abandoned mining town in Chacabuco, Chile (shown above). There is an eerie quality to this work because of the absence of people and the decay of buildings that were once a vital source of activity.

Jonathan Franklin, “Main Street”
Jonathan Franklin, Main Street, 2022. Mixed media and photos. Photo courtesy Oak Park Art League.

The pandemic over the last two years has created abandoned places in many cities and towns that once had thriving downtown districts. Maria Gedroc captures a desolate image of downtown Chicago in her photograph, City Blues, where we see an empty outdoor café against the backdrop of hi-rise buildings. Looking at this photo brings back memories of when the lockdown had a negative impact on many businesses while also curtailing people’s lifestyles. Angelica Diaz also addresses this same issue in her photo of the Lake Theatre in downtown Oak Park. This photo acts as a grim reminder of when empty streets were the norm and most businesses were closed due to the lockdown.  

Abandoned structures not only become dilapidated over time but also are reclaimed by nature. In Marzena Bukowska’s Reviving the Legends we see nature overtaking what looks like a long-abandoned structure, covering it with the greenery of plant life and moss. In Bukowska’s work, there is also a mystical quality at play, reminding us how the power of nature reclaims the land that was once dominated by humans. This same theme is also explored in Susan Wolfe’s Spirits in the Garden Shed. In this abstract work, she uses lively bursts of color, showing us the beauty and the force of nature.

Peggy Dee, A longing
Peggy Dee, A longing wells up in her throat like a blossom… 2022. Oil on canvas. Photo courtesy Oak Park Art League.

Two paintings by Peggy Dee explore how an abandoned space can exist on an emotional level. In both of Dee’s paintings, we see a woman with a resigned and lonely expression sitting alone in a room. An empty chair in each of the paintings magnifies that sense of loneliness, telling us that an important relationship, such as with a partner, a friend or family member, has come to an end.  While Dee explores the darker side of emotional abandonment, Julia Ryan in her painting, Open, explores how a positive metamorphosis can take place when one abandons a negative situation. In her work, we see a room that had once seen better days, but despite its dilapidated state, there is a sense of freedom as birds fly in and out of the room through open windows. And the blue sky that is exposed because of a missing roof adds a feeling of promise and wonder for the future. This scene acts as a reminder that we all can experience something better in life when letting go of old patterns.

Julia Ryan, “Open,” 2022.
Julia Ryan, Open, 2022. Mixed media. Photo courtesy Oak Park Art League.

Also on display are a couple of works that convey a strong social message about how abandonment affects people globally.  Bryan Gammage makes a powerful statement about the Ukrainian crisis in his sculpture, Donetsk Regional Drama Theatre. In this work we see a child’s toy that is half buried in a rubble of stone due to Russia’s military assault. This work not only shows how war creates abandonment on a mass scale (as of this writing, 5.9 million Ukrainians had to abandon their homes) but also how war causes children to abandon their innocence. Equally powerful is Diane Ponder’s Earthly Gardens where she makes a strong commentary on how indigenous people across the globe are being displaced from their land due to the greed of political and corporate interests.

Bryan Gammage, “Donetsk Regional Drama Theatre”
Bryan Gammage, Donetsk Regional Drama Theatre, 2022. Sculpture. Photo courtesy Oak Park Art League.

Abandoned Spaces is an impressive exhibition because viewers will see how each artist through their use of different media—painting, photography, mixed media or sculpture—document as well as explore what an abandoned space means to them.

Jeff Jenkins, gallery manager, said that the works on display will allow people to see how abandoned spaces can have many different looks and meanings. He also added, “We hope that through this exhibition, people will experience a catharsis as they reflect on the times when they had to abandon a physical space, a difficult situation or an emotional state in their own lives.” 

Abandoned Spaces will be on display through May 26. The Oak Park Art League is located at 720 Chicago Ave. in Oak Park. Hours: Tuesday thru Friday 1-5pm and Saturday 1-4pm. Admission is free.

A side note: On March 15, Brad Nugent became the new executive director of the Oak Park Art League.  Nugent received an MA from New York University in Arts Administration, Museums/Galleries and studied at Stern School of Business. Nugent has held positions at the Smithsonian’s National Design Museum Cooper-Hewitt and Art Resource and at the Art Institute of Chicago, as department head and associate director (respectively) of Photo-Imaging and Rights and Reproductions. Nugent’s studio is located in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago. He exhibits periodically and his work is in numerous private collections.

When asked about future goals for the Oak Park Art League, Nugent said, “Our goal is to not only raise the awareness and visibility of our organization within Oak Park, but also to really engage with the surrounding communities such as the Austin neighborhood, Elmwood Park, Forest Park, River Forest, Berwyn and Cicero. We want other communities to know that we are a resource for them as well because there is no resident requirement to be involved with our organization.”

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Tom Wawzenek
Tom Wawzenek
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