Art Letter

December 2009 Archives



There are 3 powerfully strong exhibits opening this weekend.  Good enough to say: "Screw the cold; there's art to see!"

A major foray of
Studio Chicago's, multi-institution, yearlong look art artists and their studios blasts off this afternoon at the School of the Art Institute's Sullivan Galleries.  Titled Picturing the Studio, the show presents a nice mix of 38 artists (20 local) who picture, render, replicate and/or comment on the artist's studio. Aside from one clearly major piece by Rodney Graham riffing on Morris Louis, the show presents work of consistently high quality, a tribute to the curators, Michelle Grabner (SAIC) and Annika Marie (Columbia College) along with the indefatigable Mary Jane Jacob. Healthy. Too often curators try to impose a point of view.  Here they enable and expose many. It helps us understand the creative process, the artists relationship to their space and how it influences what they create. It brings us closer to understanding magic.

I wish I'd bought
Juan Angel Chavez's "rookie card."  This guy is hot!  For 6 years he's been on my radar, a damned good artist who keeps surpassing one's expectations. In another breakthrough blowout Juan gets more complex, contemplative, embracing, profound, humble and humorous all in one show - at Linda Warren Gallery.  In this body of work Juan is inspired by the homeless; their lives and sights (what they see). It's beautiful, compassionate and informed.

In Linda Warren's Project Space
Shannon Kerrigan shows her girly-strong curlycue flowers of roughcut and welded steel - often used to brand paper repeatedly., Searing the surfacing. The paper is both burned and resilient.

Seeing the group of works (they are paintings, though their strength lies in their dissimilarity to paintings) in
Angel Otero's show, opening Saturday at Kavi Gupta, confirms the rumors of his exciting ability. After Miami no pieces are available. Good for the artist, the gallery and an indication that the art world is coming back on multiple levels.   

Each of these shows impress in their own way.

For a rousing end to a year of provocative and groundbreaking exhibitions and works of art take in
Wesley Kimler's "Holiday Party" next weekend.

Here's to Happy Holidays and a Bright New Year for All,

Paul Klein

12/08/09 Responses to Schism Article


I've received solid email responses from quite a few readers of my ArtLetter about a schism in Chicago art. The vast majority were positive, though one respondent, who did not grant me permission to use his 'contribution,' did initially thank me for "leaving a steamer in his mailbox."   Oh well.  There was an email dialog and ultimately he was constructive. Anyway, I particularly like the evidentiary comments.

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Fred Holland wrote:

Dear Paul, I think you hit the nail of the head when you speak about the effect of globalism on the production of art the way it has of "flattening out" the differences. That young artists often chase the current "ism" has always been present to a certain extent it is no different then the drive of curators and writers to be recognized for recognizing a trend first. What I think the gestalt of an education in Chicago can bring to bear on young artist is the ethic of a responsible studio practice. The studio and the accompanying dialog with the work will in the ripeness of time yield work that is wholly the product of the individual.

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Deborah Lader wrote:

All I can tell you, Paul, is that I work damned hard, both as an artist and as a supporter of other hard working artists, and I don't really give a damn about what is going on elsewhere in terms of trends and coasts. And I guess I'm also not too attuned to the schism you talk about, although I don't doubt it exists. With that ginormous pile of tasks waiting for me to tackle each day, most of the extraneous stuff gets pushed aside in favor of making honest stuff with my hands. Down and dirty.

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Barbara Grant wrote:

Thank you for articulating about "the schism" what I was feeling in my gut, Paul. You've reminded me to keep plodding along doing what I'm doing. It's so easy to feel like what I create is less important, because I'm not in the limelight.

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Nick Brown wrote:

Hi Paul,

This is Nick Brown writing you here. I was in a group show with you several years ago called Catching Up with the Sun. I had a white wax relief piece resembling the shadow of a calla lily still life in that show.

Anyhow, I am relieved to read your ArtLetter. It seems the first time any one from the art world is acknowledging this long term cancer of a problem.

I went to  SAIC for grad school and stayed around a few years. Predominantly, I showed with Jan Cicero. After some success I moved to NY. I continued to show on and off there but found a very different scenario. Being a man educated in the windy city I worked hard. Often I worked four jobs, unloading trucks in the near dark mornings, bartending at night, I taught at a private school and also for a year as a visiting professor at Pratt.

All the while I maintained a solid thirty hours or more a week in the studio. What I found was that no one else was in their studio, even though small spaces cost nearly a thousand dollars a month. Artists were out making the scene, not work. I found the exhibitions to be impoverished. Outside of a few excellent shows by artist who are 'made', the average show by the average artists were less than average quality. In my estimation this is because of the very plague that you describe. A pressure or need for fame seems to produce work predicated on simulacra.

On the other end, I think the galleries are under tremendous pressure to sell in order to cover their exorbitant rents. Curators seem tainted as well. In NY getting seen and shown really seems to depend on the residency system. As you know a small panel of people select the up and coming. The curators seem to then cull an artist from these vetted individuals.

I worked out of several studio buildings in my six plus years in Brooklyn. These buildings were high enough profile that any curator should have known about them. However, not once did I see a curator coming around to find out what was going on at the street level. It strikes me as indifferent and lazy.

After about four years of visiting the Armory Exhibition I stopped going. It was the same show every year. Personally I feel the art world has completely stagnated and is in its own Post Modern spiral of mimetics. Overall, it leaves one with the feeling that nobody cares about the work or the history of banal landfill art we are leaving behind to mark our time. It is all fame and money.

I might sound a bit sour but really I had some good success in NY including exhibiting at The Drawing Center and P.S. 122. I did meet a few excellent dealers their including Janice Guy from Murray Guy gallery. She really knows her stuff and really cares. Another NY based entity that is supreme is Artadia. In 2002 I was lucky enough to be an awardee of theirs when living in Chicago. To this day they are still in contact and over the years I have been included in numerous shows through them. That kind of long term support is very rare.

I now live in Los Angeles and am making work and teaching private art lessons. The scene here seems to have its hipster work and nonsense that accompanies it, but I'm finding there are more similarities here with Chicago than NY. There are people making inward looking work and it is getting shown. Rents here are cheaper and dealers much more accessible.  Information is less coveted, people are open and share and are generous. The weather of course is great and perhaps that is why there are so many former Chicago artists here. Perhaps that is why the LA art world feels more genuine.

In all my exhibiting experiences, the most professional relationships I have had were in Chicago. Also, for all the artists I have met the ones who know their business the best and actually worked at communicating it were Chicago educated. It should be no surprise that the word WORK accompanies the word art.

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Catherine Forster wrote:

Thanks for the schism chat, I loved your comments "they invariably create fast, often sloppy, typically poorly executed, invariably soulless 'art'" and "artworld is insanely trendy with curators trying to conjure up what will be hot next and artists guessing what way they should move" - the latter was very evident at the Venice Biennial.

Time to get back to work.

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Mike Helbing wrote:

As to schools I wonder about them in the history of art. Art was taught in a artistic setting such as a workshop or artist studio. The art student was immersed in the business of art. Provide a service, an object or design and get paid. Get paid get laid. Somewhat market driven.  This has really broken down.  The business of art in the schools and universities to teach art for a period of time and collect the $ from the student, their parents or the government. In order to keep this cycle going your have to
be creative and create the myth of the new and a job in the future.  Humm. Is it working? Don't know but you do see an evolution to devolution in the quality and integrity of mass quantities of art. Of course, we have large landfills.

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Man Bartlett wrote:

Dear Paul,

Thank you for this letter, in particular. I got my start in Chicago a few years back (with Susan at Flatfile). I've since moved to Brooklyn and deeply appreciate the work ethic that my time in Chi helped cultivate.

My work is usually very labor intensive and not typically "of-the-moment." I think it's relevant, however, and I've been making some small in-roads here (e.g. being added to Pierogi Gallery's flatfiles).

Point I'm making is that to a large degree I have Chicago to thank. I'd also like to think that the work I'm doing will be a part of something bigger. That there are enough artists working their asses off doing "meaningful" work who will also be appreciated and supported for it.

But I confess being in New York the temptation is enormous to create something that will "get you noticed." This is supported by the community from the bottom of the chain to the top. In going against the grain I have to work that much harder, and I do.

Speaking of which I need to get back to it. Thanks again for fighting the good fight.

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Don Hollis wrote:

It is clear to me that Chicago ITSELF has and is changing - so, how could the artists retain relevancy if they ignored the context of place?

Much "work" has moved to the suburbs and beyond with the inner city being increasingly dominated by educational, medical, professional associations, cultural, sporting, governmental,  financial and other large endeavors.

At the same time I believe the the population mix is tending to be younger (more students) or older (more retirees - who are living longer) with fewer "30 something families" with grade school kids.

I suspect, New York city went through a similar transformation and that Chicago might look to NYC for insight as how to transform more effectively than just letting matters take their own course.

The question is - does NYC (adjusted for size) have a more vibrant art scene than Chicago? And, has this been more beneficial to their local artists - or - to artists in general? And, if it is the latter - what should Chicago do differently (than NYC has done) to have a better outcome for its local artists?

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Robert Kameczura wrote

It is something I have been saying for years. I think part of the problem is the media seems to pay very little attention to visual arts in Chicago and national press gives only token recognition of what is going on here. The truth is Chicago Artists are among this countries most original talents.                 

As you wisely point out... the better artists just do what they want to do instead of following trends from other places. Originality, which is a big word, is what art is supposed to be about, not just following trends promoted by major art dealers and curators on the East and West Coast.

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William Conger wrote:

The schism you refer to is, to me, the schism between art and commerce, a schism between two secular realities, spiritual and material, each with its own value to the other and to society. 

But in this duality of opposites, the spiritual reality is always the weaker because it is immaterial and thus malleable and easily subsumed by the more powerful quantification of commerce.

The power of commerce to subsume art in Chicago is far weaker than it is in some other American and world art centers. There's just not enough excess in the commerce here to encompass art and transform it into commodities defined, sold, used and traded "as-if" art. 

Some of the best Art being made today is being made in Chicago ... Artists here have more of a chance to make Art.



I see a schism occurring in art being made in Chicago. And I doubt most artists who work on one side of the divide or the other even know. Let me offer some perspective.

The same things that imprint citizens of Chicago imprint the artists too.  And so far it always has. Since the very beginning of the City.  But at least in the art world, there is a change underway.  I don't know if it will or already has taken hold, but I see it.

Chicago has always been a town with a solid blue collar base, a town where one is more judged by the quantity and quality of one's work than one's heritage or inheritance. That is one major factor that motivates the citizenry and the artists who work here.

A second key factor is Chicago's geographical location, away from the coasts where an awful lot of trends originate.  Forever, Chicago has been aware of what goes on elsewhere and tends to respond by acknowledging what's happening there and then going right on doing what we already were.

Same thing historically for the artists here.  Personally, I've tracked this to the early 1900's, but I bet it goes back further. Artists here known what is going on elsewhere, but they really don't care much.  It's the courage of one's convictions over me-too-ism.

Take a look at any of your 5, 10 or 25 favorite Chicago artists. What do they have in common? Likely not much is aesthetically similar. There isn't much that unites them except a solid work ethic. That's why it is, and has been, good to be an artist here.

Okay.  That's the history in a way too small nutshell. Now the schism.

Maybe globalization is the problem.  The art schools don't tend to see themselves as Chicago based. They see themselves preparing artists for global art combat. On the surface, that's fine. Artists are coming here to school from all over the country and all over the world.  Their knowledge should be appropriate for wherever they go.

But the artworld is insanely trendy with curators trying to conjure up what will be hot next and artists guessing what way they should move.  Integrity is not a priority in the artworld at large, though certainly artists have more integrity than the rest in the art cauldron  And originality is not important globally either, which is why we see movements that lack sincerity or for that matter much quality.

Artists elsewhere are trendier than Chicago artists. They are more concerned about creating art in the style of someone who seems to be succeeding and they want to do it now, before the trend disappears and their opportunity is gone.  So they invariably create fast, often sloppy, typically poorly executed, invariably soulless 'art' - probably not something anyone should feel proud of.

But that's the nature of the artworld; shallow, trendy, monitized, and demeaning.  It's also the ingredient for success, yet there are way more artists making art that is searching, educational, spiritual, challenging and sincere.  It just doesn't get the same kind of attention. But then again, it may just be a reflection of our country and the macro-trends that we all fall prey to.

So there's the schism. There are artists in Chicago who came from elsewhere, were educated here and stayed and are entering a system that doesn't embrace them.  But because of the schools and a couple of supercilious institutions, they have a sense of entitlement and are making inroads.

To some, the participants and their supporters, this is liberating (though one friend suggests it's all about the bar being lowered so far that it means anyone can have a chance).  To others it seems like an invasion - a violation of what has gone on here historically.

It's a fascinating issue that I've been thinking about a lot - both in practical and philosophical terms.  For a variety of reasons I like and appreciate what Chicago is and stands for. I like good, hard work, sincerity and people who have conviction, who know what they are doing and will stand up for what they believe in. I'm tired of sloppy, limited ability, unconscious prices and expediency over substance.

If you keep your observations sharp, you'll see a whole different dynamic occurring here.  I'm glad to discuss this further with you and will in future ArtLetters.

Let's talk about some art exhibits.

Carl Hammer has a fabulous conundrum of a show by Wilson Bentley (1866-1931).  From the late 19th century Bentley photographed snowflakes. The images are gorgeous, intricate and fascinating,  They have just about everything that a good work of art has, but are they art, or science, or both? For me it's a powerful riddle. The images stick with me.  Obviously we've all seen plenty of snowflakes, but have we ever seen them as clearly as we do in these 100 year old photographs?  A beautiful exhibit, full of wonder.

There's a new project space in Oak Park, in the home of
Tom Burtonwood and Holly Holmes called What It Is.  They, along with many others, exemplify what it means to be a Chicago artist, which is to say they work damned hard - on their art and the art of others they respect. In their new two-person exhibit, opening Saturday, is the work of one of my favorite artists, Bernard Williams, as well as Michelle Welzen Collazo Anderson, who is new to me.  Bernard builds fanciful sculptures from simple materials, relating to Chicago architecture and/or African-American iconography. The work is fresh, honest and insightful, no doubt enlightening both Bernard and his audience. I like what I see in Collazo Anderson's pieces. She is looking at the relationship between our commercial society, the design and structure it embraces and it's relationship to aesthetics, art, culture and I guess absolutely everything else. She's good. Some of her art is particularly salient in it's exploration of how society at large affects the individual.

It's always a good time to look at art.

I'll see you out there,

Paul Klein