Art Letter

February 2008 Archives


I am frequently surprised by where I find good art.  I think it's important to take some chance, push ourselves out of whatever habits we indulge and go look somewhere new or different.

Certainly the
11th International Open at Womanmade Gallery could be composed of some worn out and tired statements.  But I suspect curator Barbara Koenen had a wealth of material to choose from because the 48 artists she's selected bring a lot of breadth, savvy, humor and insight to one of the best exhibitions I've seen this year.  What's really satisfying is to be exposed to so many new artists who I've been unfamiliar with. I think there were three I knew previously.  This show opens tonight.

It is important to examine the reasons we buy art. For me, one of the main reasons is to support Chicago artists. I like getting a lot of substance for my dollar and Chicago art does that. Buying art by artists who haven't been anointed by the marketplace (which is wrong more than it is right) is another good way.  I am 100% sure that there is more good art for sale for under $5000 than there is good art for sale over $100,000. One of the things this tells you is that money does not buy taste. Another is that the market is hyperbolic with with lemmings void of confidence or insight establishing trends.  Screw that. Buy for yourself. It's much more satisfying, educational and genuine. 

Take a look at
Architrouve. This is a gallery run mostly as a service. Sometimes they have some really choice, thoughtful, small exhibitions; like the one opening tonight of paintings by Marianna Levant and Brenda Barnum.  I've been drawn to Levant's work for a few years now. She reminds me of a young Kandinsky, with flying universes of lofty ideals. Plenty of talent, which makes me all the more sad to learn that she moved from here to Seattle last fall.  This is precisely the talent that we want be able to keep - the one's who enrich our lives and make us look good in the process.

Barnum is a lifer. She's been creating solid artwork for a while. The kind of artist art chooses; the one who has no choice, who appreciates the nuances of a career and how art and art-making evolve over time; consistent growth, subtle progress.  It is the doing that is more satisfying than the product. These are paintings for artists, to examine the process, balance, composition and weight of each piece. They give a lot but insist that we participate.

John Phillips is a lifer too. His new exhibit opens this evening at the renamed, reconfigured and rebirthed Tony Wight Gallery.  Watching an artist like Phillips methodically, deftly explore new territory is gratifying. He and is art are intelligent, considered, thoughtful, studied, honest and sincere. Watching Tony Wight arrive is special too. I know his course has been difficult and his education demanding. Formerly Bodybuilder & Sportsman Gallery, he's learned by experience, and he's learned well.  He cares and his artists like him.  That's pretty much all I need to know.

There's a show closing tonight I wished I'd previewed and spent money at. 
KS Rives' closing is at the Chicago Art Department.  Her collages are painstakingly and meticulously rendered. They work from afar and from close up.  And they're rather wonderful technically for such a young artist when most others her age are still making 'dorm' art.  KS Rives is the first chapter of a Chicago success story, making good art, having a good selling, strong looking exhibit, and getting written up large in the SunTimes. Bravo. It can be done.

Marco Casentini is a marvelous example of how a competent artist can succeed through solidly taking responsibility for his own career. I first met Marco about ten years ago. He was an artist from Italy who spoke almost no English but had this vision that American galleries would like his art.  Through his gumption and agreeable nature, on his first trip to the US he ended up with a gallery in Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Los Angeles. He's good, but rest assured that he didn't succeed solely on the quality of his paintings.  It can be done people.  His new show opens tonight at Roy Boyd Gallery.

Several years ago one of the artists I respect most, T
ony Berlant, referred to Ed Ruscha as "an artist for the ages." Those are the kind of words that make me wake up and snap to attention.  I've always liked Ruscha, but this cast him in a new light.  Opening tomorrow at the Art Institute is a survey exhibition of sorts: Ed Ruscha and Photography This show allows us to track early work in Ruscha's long and steady career.  Despite always being at the front edge of the wedge Ruscha's work still looks fresh.

Better this week,
Paul Klein

PS:  Oh, and thank you to
Alan Artner for a solid critique of the heinous Kilimnik show at the MCA. Sometimes the MCA shows such good art and sometimes such drivel. I hope new director Madeleine Grynsztejn's first step is to institute a no-twaddle policy. Someone needs to take responsibility for the bad that gets shown there and hopefully to get credit for the intelligence that is on the horizon.



The difference between potential and reality can be so damned frustrating. Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art has mounted a new survey exhibition of the half-talented Karen Kilimnik. She has the mildly interesting conceit of placing recognizable faces into art-historically familiar vignettes with a hand so clumsy it looks as she and her brush are in constant battle. I find the Kilimnik show embarrassing. Yet, I am optimistic. The MCA has a new director who steps in momentarily: Madeleine Grynsztejn. I look to her to put the clunky, often irrelevant museum on a better course.

Some of the crap that passes for art these days.

So I gave it three weeks - the well-intended
Museum of Modern Ice by Gordon Halloran.  Sheees. Giving it a fancy name doesn't make it any good - although a lot of foreigners were attracted to it - maybe they saw it as a clue to understanding the Chicago art scene.  I respect the Department of Public Art for taking a ballsy chance and failing publicly.  This 100 foot wide wall of ice is a nice idea, full of potential - and unfortunately vapid.

With the Killimnik show at the MCA we've got a half-vast concept with dreadful execution.  In Millennium Park where hell has frozen over, is the opposite; good technique but no concept whatsoever. 

It takes both.

It's pretty clear that I'm an advocate for people supporting their own.  With
the new exhibit at ThreeWalls we have the opportunity to compare the lot of Chicago artists to those from Detroit. A year ago, in conjunction with ThreeWalls I curated an exhibit of Chicago artists that traveled to Detroit and now the reciprocal exhibit is here. 

It makes me aware of a couple of things. Artists in Detroit have a more difficult battle than Chicago artists. Here artists have been ignored.  In Detroit I sense they're reviled, Some of this I read into the art.

Secondarily, I feel like I'm seeing more Chicago art in Chicago, and out of town as well.  I think more art is getting commissioned here and from here as well more are is getting shown here and elsewhere.

Steven Husby's paintings at Lisa Boyle are a refreshing reminder of the diversity that exists in Chicago. When I curated the Chicago artists show in Detroit I had no difficulty finding 8 artists whose work was unrelated to each other.  I wanted to show the range that exists here.  Husby's technically forward, retro-looking paintings are another example of the range that flourishes here. Guilty of 'old-school' knowledge I asked Husby if the tonalities were by intuition or formula. Neither, he answered. They're worked out in photoshop.

Because I'm a sucker for good sculpture I was eager to see
Eric Lebofsky's show next door at Western Exhibitions.  I'm intrigued by good new sculpture.  I see evidence of it in the work of Jin Soo Kim and Melissa Pokorny. I was hoping Lebofsky's work would be there too. At this point his work doesn't transcend his materials. In person, the execution suffers. His ideas are smart, but that's not enough.

Last weekend I was skiing in Utah and took a day off to seek out
Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty. It was a blast, best navigated in a 4 wheel drive vehicle - well, at least after 12 inches of snow has fallen.  It's about 30 miles of back and off-road travel where we saw eagles, hawks, deer and nary a vehicle. All of which set the stage for finally coming on Spiral Jetty from low.  You have to hike up the boulder strewn hill to get good views. All of this establishes the context for experiencing this transcendent work of art.  A few years ago the State of Utah cleaned up the site. The powerful harmony of human will and nature, to say nothing of irony and humor, coupled with the historical significance of Spiral Jetty made me change my mind.  Oil drilling cannot be allowed anywhere where anything ever might jeopardize this art. Drilling 5 miles away is too close and probably within sight from the hill.

Thanks very much,
Paul Klein


Perhaps you recall my disdain for the Museum of Contemporary Art's ridiculous rock 'n roll show, but you know, in my visit there yesterday, I was thoroughly impressed with how much Chicago art is integrated into the MCA experience. Likely it is just that show's curator who is snubbing Chicago at the MCA.

I entered on the ground floor, where Chicagoan
Michael Genovese has created a studio space for himself so that he can interact with the public and demystify the creative process. He's a damned good artist, a damned good guy and needs us to go over there and play with him.  Fun.

I've always loved
Gordon Matta-Clark's art. A great free spirit and visionary. And for a guy whose art was all about cutting up derelict buildings I was surprised to discover how fastidious he was. He'd cut a hole in a building or the corners off an old house while he was working on splitting it in half. But the thing is I always thought that his art was about the experience of viewing his altered structures. At the MCA show I discovered this other curious element of his work. When he'd cut holes, he'd save the cut-outs and when he removed the corners he'd save the corners. If I were doing his work I'd trash the stuff he saved. I can't imagine anyone saving this crap, which in retrospect is beautiful and worth having. 

On the way upstairs at the MCA is a room and a half of
recent Chicago acquisitions, one of which I'd appraised for a client a month ago.  On view are works by Chicagoans, Jason Salavon, Dan Peterman, Melanie Schiff. Kerry James Marshall, Rashid Johnson, Laura Letinsky, Scott Wolniak, Joe Scanlan and Tony Tasset.  That's impressive.

All these MCA shows have already opened, but they are worth taking in. Curator
Tricia Van Eck has generated a tidy, thoughtful exhibited titled Mapping the Self that is part of the citywide Festival of Maps which runs throughout Chicago concurrently. In Van Eck's show, maps and mapping are employed by artists as a tool for their their content, or is in fact their content.  What's particularly enjoyable for me is the integration of Chicago and non-Chicago artists, making the show globally significant and locally relevant. That's how I think it should be. I'm almost prepared to say that it is unequivocally the female curators at the MCA who should prevail . . .

Opening tonigiht at
ISpace, MCA curator Julie Rodrigues Widholm has curated a discombobulated, cohesionless exhibit; precisely the kind of show I have a problem with.  Yes, for the most part, the art and artists are good.  That's not the problem. The problem is the bleating attempt on the part of the curator to be an artist, to express a point of view that is irrelevant to the art on exhibit, and by definition does a disservice to the artists in an effort to augment the curator's opinion. Groan. The premise here is that this exhibition addresses the continued absence of women in exhibitions (and often the upper levels of arts management.) To further make the exhibition themeless Widholm asked 4 other female curators to select a female artist for inclusion. Um, excuse me, but how does this create a worthy art exhibit?  How does this augment the appreciation of the art on view?  And finally. if the director of the MCA and 80% of the curators there are female who the hell is this show addressing?  Curators are servants.  They exist for the artists; not the other way around. Art does not exist so that curators can use it to make a point. The multiple curators of this exhibit have their heads screwed on backwards, pretending to prop up their subjects, when in fact they are doing nothing but using them.  Well-intended but incredibly misguided is the nicest thing I can say.

Okay, here's a show I really appreciated - a little course, but very considered. At
Deadtech, Chris Reilly has installed a full-scale, fully operational, wind-powered quillotine. Sure, it's safe to stick your head in it, unless of course the wind is blowing too hard. Reilly is young, as in a 2006 graduate of the School of the Art Institute, but he's smart and his work is beautifully executed, which adds to its subversiveness.  Like a child with a transitional object of a blanket or a teddy bear which helps him relate, Reilly makes these objects to mediate between his take on the absurdity of the reality we live in and his sometimes fantastic and sometimes comic knee-jerk reactions to life in general. This is not happy work, but an element of it resonates with a cross of disturbing seriousness and downright fun.

There are two quality shows at
Alfedena Gallery, And though the exhibitions are up the openings are Friday the 15th. Downstairs is a series of small works by Dan Ramirez who created 8 pieces 13 x 8 feet for me at the new McCormick Place Expansion. Here he has a group of works on paper inspired by his studies of the structure and ambiance of the Saint Mary Cathedral in Toledo, Spain.  Vaulted arches exist in the cathedral and Ramirez's work, but it is the treatment of the surface in this, more than just the seductive, intricate forms, that ties the art together for me. Sometimes the texture is matte; sometimes it's glossy.  Sometimes it looks peppered, sometimes there are brushstrokes and sometimes it's smooth. These are thoughtful, thought provoking, sweet humdingers.

Upstairs, former art critic and present gallery director John Brunetti presents Timescape, a multimedia beautiful exhibit of works by
Ben Whitehouse, Louise LeBourgeois, Vera Klement, and Lisa Boumstein-Smalley.  All the works take 'time' as a key ingredient of their content. I particularly respond to Whitehouse's 24 hour video of Lake Michigan, though as much as our lake changes I almost want it to be a month long.

All right.
Go out and make up your own mind. 
Then send me an email telling me I'm nuts and why.

Thanks for reading,
Paul Klein


There are several shows opening today that I was eager to see.  The one that's had me in suspense the longest is Gordon Halloran's Museum of Modern Ice installation at Millennium Park for the month of February.

I haven't made up my mind about what I saw.  For starters, it's a good idea. Working with colored ice that is, But so much aesthetic control is relinquished to the medium - Halloran is not 'painting' with colored ice; he's taking candy-colored ice chunks and 'gluing' them to his ice substrata that's about 12 x 100 feet. Judging by what it looks like before turning it over to nature to melt, drip and refreeze, I'd say it's got potential - which is another way of saying that it's not there yet. Maybe once nature has unified its disparate elements it'll look less like a science experiment and more like art.

Ultimately it really isn't a painting at all, but a performance, or a collaboration with nature. How it'll look in two weeks is going to be the test. It could be awesome. Certainly the
Public Art Department took a decent sized risk here. And sometimes risks like this pay off handsomely.  Here's hoping.

I like Joseph Kohnke's art a lot.  I wouldn't miss an exhibit of his.  And this one pleased a lot; in part because I was already familiar with the work having seen it at ThreeWalls about 18 months ago.  But seeing the same art in a different venue is always intriguing because new issues arise. And I certainly was in for a large surprise when I went to see his show at the International Museum of Surgical Science, mostly because I've never been there and i was treated to 4 floors documenting the development of surgical practices, some of which are over two thousand years old.  Mostly I walked around repeating to myself "Oh my god.  They actually did that!"

And then I reached Joseph's work (he's showing on the 4th floor with
Jonathan Gabel) where he's created a piece that helped him work through his friend's dying of cancer.  In an email Joseph wrote:

    The piece is basically a player piano that reads a belt of photographed skin, playing the imperfections of  the skin out onto a resin body cast of me, and a taxidermy fawn. I made the piece after a friend died from melanoma. At the time it was therapeutic to make the piece, but now showing just brings back feelings and I hate it (but people seem to like it.)

It's a powerful work of art heightened by its being placed into the context of strange medical inventions, treatment and progress.  Yes, art has lots of purposes and yes catharsis is one of them.

I don't know how long it's been since I've seen a show of
Mike Lash's.  I found his work at GardenFresh refreshing today. There're are an awful lot of contemporary artists making lousy art and pretending it is highfalutin.  And most of the time their content is as vapid as their technique.  This is not Mike Lash's plight.  He makes really dumb looking art with some worthy concepts behind them. He doesn't pretend his art is well done. He just makes it direct, meaningful and sloppy.  But charming.  Lash is intelligent with too many divergent notions floating around his brain.  That a lot of these ideas come out in his art is healthy for him (one supposes) and a treat for us.

Also on view at GardenFresh, in their project room is an installation by Holly Holmes, who is most often seen together with her collaborator, Tom Burtonwood whose work, together, is a commentary on the role of the military in our society and life.  Alone, her works are similarly themed but more subtle, more layered and prettier, and just as biting.

I'm perpetually working on grasping the range and styles of John Arndt who has been around Chicago longer than I realized.  His show opens tonight at Rowland Contemporary. When I last saw his work a few years ago he was making large, abstract geometric shapes from large sheets of fabric.  This past summer he "worked" in Italy and has created a body of watercolors inspired by Italians' signs for lost dogs. The work is serious and humorous at the same time and he's particularly good at watercolor.  He's done a video too, overlaying beginner Italian catch phrases on top of touristy pictures of Italy. Given that I'm more Italian than anything else and that my Italian sucks I felt too comfortable watching the video. 

Having been in Chicago about 30 years, and having really enjoyed the talent and paintings of
Chuck Walker at the time, I've always wondered where he went. The answer is at the Hyde Park Art Center's Chuck Walker: Through a Glass Darkly exhibit opening Sunday afternoon and curated by Margaret Hawkins

There is no doubt that Walker is conversant in his medium - beautiful, brooding paintings, unusual paintings, elegant drawings. To me it looks like Walker is invariably trying to find difficult concepts or challenges to render in paint. In most situations he triumphs and in others we can see him wrestling with his technique.  It is fascinating to witness because the ability is definitely there, but what holds me back is that I don't get much sense of what makes Walker tick.  Given that his hands are so damned good, I want to know more about his heart and soul.

Thank you,
Paul Klein

PS:  There's been a lot of press the last few days about Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty being jeopardized. For information look
here, here, and here.