Art Letter


10/06/04

Like us, galleries and museums must plot their course, constantly making decisions about myriad issues, usually beginning with a sense of "mission." "Mission" is balanced by "survival."   A lot of the decisions invariably revolve around money, and there is always a battle between appearances and reality. It is deemed good to appear edgy.  It is bad to look commercial. And playing into, or off of, this dynamic probably has more to do with the gallery's exhibition program than any other single criterion.

In my conversations with artists I always differentiate between vision and strategy. Vision is inviolate. Strategy (how one expresses the vision) is up for grabs. Whenever I go into a gallery or museum thoughts about vision and strategy are lurking somewhere in the back of my brain.

Yesterday I went to see the
James Turrell show at Gallery 400 at UIC (University of Illinois, Chicago).

Turrell is one of those giants of an artist whose work shows up so rarely that it is always a distinct pleasure to see a significant piece of his. The exhibit has two portions.  Entering the gallery one sees a suite of prints from 12 or so years ago and a blackened corridor.  His prints are handsome, but knowing Turrell's work I treat them as being "about art" instead of art, pleasant, secondary things.

What makes Turrell a giant is the scale of his vision.  To seek out and acquire an extinct volcano in the Southwest (
Roden Crater) so that he could retrofit it over a few decades to respond to his fascination with light, the galaxy and our relationship to them is no small task. To fund this huge endeavor (folly?) Turrell must sell a far amount of art at high prices.  They sell, but it is clear to me his heart is not in the insignificant morsels. Still the prints are strong documentation of light projected in a rectangular shape into a corner.  They're nice and allude to earlier work - but they are not stirring.  Curiously they reminded me of Joseph Albers work with squares and color as well as alluding to Dan Flavin's fluorescent tubes that straddled corners.

Having been a fan of Turrell's forever, I knew the hallway led to one of Turrell's few "Space-Division" pieces, a 3 dimensional optical illusion where one enters an ostensibly black room.  Momentarily, as one's eyes begin to acclimate one notices a large rectangle cut out of the wall and a haze that seems to fill the room.  Upon first encountering one of these pieces one doesn't know if this rectangle is flat or has depth.  Soon the rectangle becomes a room, a hazy room and it is impossible to determine the shape, depth, and size of this barely perceptible space. It's a fun and spiritual experience. It is fun to be let in on the secret, to decipher the form and realize we are staring into a void.  And somehow it becomes spiritual. What is real?  What isn't? How do I fit in, etc?  It's good and it is memorable.

I remember seeing a similar piece at the
Art Institute 20 plus years ago.  It was spectacular, like a subtle purple haze (thanks Jimi). This piece wasn't as good. The back lighting (in the room in which I was standing) seemed too high and the light of the void was a foggy gray. All others I've seen (4 of the total of ten he made) seemed to have more of an interior energy and more color, albeit only a hint.

I was surprised to learn that the UIC piece was actually owned by the Art Institute and was the exact piece I had seen 20 years ago.  I'd always assumed that that was a temporary piece and not a schematic and physical aperture for the room itself.  It looked different than I remembered it 20 years ago, but it is still very worth the trip.

After going to a few more galleries I was sharing my enthusiasm for the Turrell when I was asked if I'd read
Alan Artner's review trashing the piece and the show.    I hadn't. I looked up the article when I got back to my office. It was nice to read and see Alan say something constructively negative even though I think he went too far.

It would be fun to learn how Turrell would respond to the piece (which he hasn't seen), but unfortunately (maybe the contrary) the show ends before he arrives in November for the opening of a signature
skyspace, "a chamber for viewing the complex interplay of sky, light and atmosphere through a precisely determined aperture in the ceiling."

It was still a good experience.  I left there changed, probably not for long, but when art can do that it's good.  Exiting the parking lot I looked up at a huge
Richard Haas mural. (He was sure the rage for awhile about 18 years ago for about 15 minutes - funny - sad sometimes - how artists come and go - not quite fair to the human inside.) But anyway I was struck by the similarity of some of the issues and the totally different solution.       

Next, I headed over to
ThreeWalls, a special pocket sized, not-for-profit gallery with a very ambitious mission. They are in the midst of a fun and informative political show.  It doesn't take sides, but provides us with the tool to heighten our political awareness, or at least make our own buttons that are as political as we want.

Wendy Cooper is in the same building, a relatively new gallery to Chicago (from Wisconsin) with an aggressive and spirited agenda. I like that.  Too many galleries try to fit in.  It's a tough concept selling art and how galleries approach it intrigues me.  When I had a gallery, I thought I vacillated between a lot of poles, among them, risk-taking and playing safe.  I can't say that I loved the show at Wendy Cooper, but I can say that it was strong, cohesive, Wisconsiny (kind of clunky painting with a stubby brush so the paint stands up instead of spreading smoothly and thin, includes animals and references Tom Uttech). The show, "Home Fires Burning" deals with each of the words in the show's title.  I liked the show though the work is not the type that rings my bells.

Upstairs
1R Gallery has a show called "Interior Burnout" and that's pretty much what it feels like.  Death, decay, destruction, detritus and disinfatuation abound. Nope, this too is not my kind of art, but Van Harrison, the director,  is a fine, caring, conscientious, concerned gallerist.  There is no doubt that he is going to make a difference.  Besides liking him, I enjoy seeing the shows he  presents. He's a risk-taker and he's solid - friendly too. Paying attention to Van is like watching a performance piece - try it.

Right next door is Bucket Rider
(named after a
Kafka book, I think
- oh joy.), run by Keith Couser and Andrew Rafacz.  These guys are young and eerie smart. I think they are worth paying particular attention to too.  They are presenting a show by Cody Hudson, which reads a lot like an installation.  I feel like I stepped into his diary with glimpses of his love for skateboards, mundane activity and highfalutin ponderings. It would take me more time than I had to fully grasp this show. It seems intelligent and compassionate, nonspecific and young. It may just be an arena to foster personal creative thought or it may be the beginning of a treatise. 
If you figure it all out, let me know.

Across the street,
Monique Meloche has moved into a new space and I like it a lot better than her previous spot. Her first exhibit is a show of tandem painters Robert Evans and Michael Langlois, who posit a "new" spirituality based on Haile Selassie.  Monique Meloche is nothing if not brave. And though I like some of the pieces in this show, I can't say I like the exhibit. (I guess that's the exact opposite of what I said about Wendy Cooper's exhibit.) That Selassie has influenced Rastafarians is okay.  That there is a new spirituality is news to me, not that I care and to generate an exhibit around this issue does not move me.  Nevertheless many others like this work (You know, I seek to express my opinions from which you may extrapolate.  It is fine if you disagree with me at all turns, especially if it gets you out to experience art that you might not otherwise see.)

A block away, Adam Scott's show at
Kavi Gupta Gallery (formerly Vedanta Gallery) is fresh in several ways. The first thing I noticed was the painting technique.  The tiny, frozen air bubbles make the paintings look poured and masked, not painted with a brush (though a brush may very well have been used in numerous parts). The paint flows over the edge of the canvas in parts and leaves other small portions near the edges exposed. I like how they were painted - it's innovative and feels appropriate to the content, a sense of subtle impending doom arises from the saccharin palette. The balance is disarming.  I was taken in by the technique and the ostensible sweetness, almost fairy tale like, before my happy little world was set off kilter by the partially hidden omens which are about to make this sweet picture really ugly.

Downstairs at
Tom McCormick Gallery, John Sabraw is showing glorious, luminous, small, inexpensive, painterly paintings.  The press release says they are 'out-of-focus" landscapes. I prefer to think of them as foggy.  All seven by fourteen inches and priced at $1250 each these paintings are moving quickly and deservedly so.  I've got to admit that realistic landscapes - in or out of focus - do not stimulate me, but I could see buying one of this as a pleasant, not significant, contribution to my home.

I've tried to allude to not only the quality of the work on exhibit but the salability, freshness, and risk. I find the business models of various galleries fascinating. To be respected (we miss you already
Rodney Dangerfield) is important to all galleries. In the art world respect is often equated with new or different. Like Sherman's march to the sea, art must inexorably move forward, but so doing frequently moves one too far ahead of one's support base. "Conservative" art, that does not introduce anything new, has a large support base. Collectors always seem to like an artist's previous exhibit better. 

Chicago galleries need our support.  With no cover charge, they are doing their damnedest to enrich our lives and we stay away in droves. It is often a struggle for galleries to make ends meet.  To garner our attention, they take risks.  Sometimes we notice and care - sometimes we don't.  As you can easily tell, I am interested in growing Chicago's already strong art community.  I encourage you to do so too.  I know how pleasant it is to buy art on your vacation, but I also know how much better it would be if we stashed that urge and shopped at home.  Chicago's galleries are making your life better, even if you never ever step foot in that gallery.  Please do what you can to reciprocate, support them, nurture them and encourage them, even if it is only to attend an exhibit and in leaving say "thank you."

Thank you,

Paul