Art Letter


As you can see, I've solicited a guest writer:

My name is Curt Conklin. I am a passionate supporter of the gallery scene in Chicago and I love to talk.  So it makes sense that I would fill in for Paul (but let's hope no one checks my credentials). The opening schedule is pretty light these last two weeks, but the weather's finally inviting us out. 

One of my favorite shows of the week is Jim Dine at Richard Gray Gallery. Jim Dine resonates in my memory as the guy that paints muddy large-scale bathrobes and other banal objects. For this show the theme is Pinocchio, but there is nothing banal about it. Anchoring the show are seven wooden Pinocchio sculptures evoking the craftsmanship of Stephan Balkenhol.  Most are striking particularly lifelike poses that seem incredibly human, in spite of simple lumber limbs which shouldn't want to cooperate. They seem gleefully life-affirming like elderly men having a morning stretch in the center of a public space. There are also two series of paintings; one painted on the felt scraps of a print maker, the other a triptych including two paintings and a collage. The metaphors of Gepetto as the artist (breathing life into his art, creating beauty from remnants) are rich and lovely.  This show officially opened last week so don't show up on Friday night looking for wine and a handful of nuts. Check the regular hours and give yourself enough time.

Also on the opened-a-while-ago tip, is Kutlug Ataman's Stephan's Room at Rhona Hoffman Gallery. Paul mentioned this in the last Art Letter, but it's worth a little more attention. I first saw Ataman's obsessive people studies at Documenta 11 when he introduced us to a real-life woman that loved orchids. This time the character (and he is a character) is fascinated with butterflies. He lives with them, paints them, kills them, collects their corpses, and attaches their attributes to the people in his life.  Meanwhile five other screens displaying related footage distract and further immerse the viewer.  For art video, it's a long piece but its worth a good sitting.

Formally similar is Su-Mei Tse's The Ich-Manifestation at the Renaissance Society. Both pieces use multiple large video screens hung throughout a darkened space. Both videos rely on images from the animal kingdom for their impact. But where Kutlug Ataman is giving us a focused portrait, Su-Mei Tse's is vaguely asking us to question what it means to be human. Her subject is turtles; viewed close and projected large. There are three in the back, following, and one in the front leading with a portrait of another turtle mounted to his back as some sort of motivational carrot. The viewer is invited to stand between them, where he too becomes a follower. The huge scale of the animals draws attention to their anthropomorphic qualities, and our own unavoidable knowledge of turtle myths (slow, long lived, clever) further muddy the water. I found myself wondering how the piece would change if the subject was monkeys, with their similar Darwinian connotations, or simply people.  Our species specific baggage changes but the point is the same - we are what we follow.

A silver lining of writing about a slow opening week is the opportunity to check out the less traveled galleries.   My next recommendation is for just such a space. The NIU gallery is showing Research a show featuring the work of Jessica Almy-Pagan, Paola Cabal, Dianna Frid, Gisela Ensuaste and Edra Soto. There are at least three things that I can think of that tie these artists together, but apparently I'm not supposed to talk about that. Instead, I'll focus on the art. The first thing the visitor will notice upon entering the gallery is the room filling piece by recent Driehaus Recipient Gisela Ensuaste. Large flat stones of coal or charcoal float wistfully, illogically in the room.  Below them thin spindly legs stretch organically to the ground, the natural effect heightened by vines growing here and there.  The illusion is disconcerting, until closer inspection reveals that the stones are not stones at all but objects convincingly constructed from electrical tape and (we can assume) florist foam.  All of a sudden, what seemed dangerous to the viewer shifts to impossibly fragile and we are aware that the breeze of our passing could send the whole system crashing.  It's odd, impressive, and really beautiful. This is an artist to watch.

Even more interesting is the work of recent Artadia recipient and University of Chicago professor Dianna Frid. Now in the interest of full disclosure I am on the board of Artadia and a product of Midway Studios, but neither of these has anything to do with the impressive body of work that this woman is amassing.  Furthermore, I'll admit that when I first met her, I didn't get it and she probably mistook my confusion for disinterest. I still don't get always get it, but I appreciate the direction it sends me. Dianna likes to make big art.  The first piece I saw was a Ferris wheel like structure, too tall for most ceilings, but made completely out of cloth so that it draped to the floor like a downward growing plant. Other architectural objects she has done literally fill gallery walls. She has three pieces at the NIU gallery - one large piece and two more consumable pieces. She uses unconventional materials like tape and tin foil sparingly and fabric liberally.  The main piece in the NIU Gallery show renders hub and spoke shape on the floor in multiple types of tape and foil - the pattern of the spokes difficult to quite discern. Atop this circular field are three objects, two of them shaped like stars or old military forts, and one a small hill. Each is made of dozens (scores? hundreds?) of pieces of fabric cut to shape and stacked into a seemingly solid shape.  Small holes of concentric circles bore through parts of the structure.  The objects have a numeric and masculine feel while the method of construction evokes historically feminine craft work. The draft lines she uses to guide her cuts tint the edges of one shape a soft pink, its brother a pastel green, and the hill yellow. The result is a set of intriguing attractive objects that possess an obvious but elusive relationship to each other. If anyone sees Dianna, tell her I'm a fan.