Art Letter

January 2011 Archives

Jim Nutt makes unusual, beautiful paintings. Hs show at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, which opens to the public on Saturday is impressive, worthy and an exercise in looking. Slowly and meticulously, Nutt sometimes takes a year to complete a single portrait.  And it's portraits of imaginary women that his been Nutt's forte for decades. 

The slowness, the single haired brushes dipped in thinned acrylic, yields a richness not customary in contemporary paintings.  There is a field-day of activity in the details. Beyond the irregular beauty of the women he renders, I'm drawn to the geometric hash-marks reminiscent of early Jasper Johns.

There is a direct relationship between how much energy and time an artist puts in his or her work and the amount of time a viewer spends looking, which is why I stress the slowness. This is work to be studied and looked at up close, getting lost within the work and allowing it the enable a meditative respect. 

In mining feminine portraiture, Nutt pursues a quirky excellence that is his alone.  Within his consistency is a range of composition, detail, and secondary imagery the transcend the more common portraiture than I'm familiar with.

Jim Nutt is a lifelong Chicagoan, a founding member of the Hairy Who, and anchor to the Imagists.  With Madeleine Grynsztejn at the Museum's helm, the MCA is more responsive to the community and the artists within it. Thus an auxiliary exhibit, which is full-fledged informative on its own, raws on the MCA's collection and exhibits local artists in the company of major international figures.  On the whole local looks damned good.

The companion exhibit to the Nutt retrospective discusses portraiture and includes art that resonate with Nutt's, either because the pieces are sympathetic, or because the artists who made them, were influenced by him.

There's a lot to think about and appreciate in the shows.  Slow down and let it happen.





L1040299.JPGThanks for reading - and looking,

Chief Museum Art Curator Explains

Klein Artist Works hosted Chicago's, Museum of Contemporary Art Chief Curator, Michael Darling last Fall, for an online webinar.  His generous insights into what he looks for in art and artists, and how he looks, are highly informative for artists and appreciators of culture anywhere.  A glimpse into how Klein Artist Works - a program to empower artists and enable success - functions, Darling's extensive comments were so valuable that I asked him for permission to transcribe and distribute them broadly.  He agreed, suggesting that how museums and curators operate should be transparent and available.

Michael Darling   A lot of the thinking I pass on to you tonight is based on experience I've gained over the last almost twenty years.  Though I've worked as an art historian, a critic, and a curator I think first of myself, first and foremost as an art lover.  Then I try to define what it is that I love about art, and often times it's really the excitement about finding something new, the excitement about having my mind opened up to new experiences and to learn new things. 


So, my real mission, whether it's me writing about art, and whether it's me kind of putting on exhibitions, is really trying to translate that excitement, or open the doors to that excitement, to a public, whether it's a large public or a small public.   I see myself in some ways as kind of a proselytizer about contemporary art, and wanting to show and talk about and foreground the best art that's being made today. 


Of course, when you set out to do something like that, you start to have to come up with ways to communicate What's good?  What's bad?  What's exciting?  What's worthwhile?  What's not?  That's been, in many ways, kind of a process that I've been going through over the last twenty years; trying to come up with definitions that work, trying to come up with rationales and a way that argues for work that can be clear, that can be transparent, that makes me accountable in some ways so it's not just, "I know what I like when I see it" but really have some sort of rationale as to why THIS art is worth putting on the museum walls, why THIS art is worth writing about, why THIS art is, perhaps, worth spending somebody else's (usually not my own) money on in order to bring it into a museum for eternity. 


One of the things that I've found to be most useful lately (as an analogy) is really thinking about art, or I should say artists, as comparable to advanced researchers in, say, medicine or maybe mathematics or physics.  I've learned  to accept a certain professionalism that has crept into the art world and has clarified it in a lot of ways, which is something that it didn't used to be.  It used to be more mysterious and artists just went into their studios and made things and hopefully amazing things would come out.  With the proliferations of art schools over the last 50 years, really, since the G.I. Bill after World War II, the art world has become more and more professionalized with, of course, MAs and MFAs and BFAs, and all those sort of degrees. 


For a lot of people it may seem like it was taking some of the mystery and mystique out of art.  But I actually think, or have come around to appreciate the fact, that this is the best way for artists to gain a certain kind of critical approach to their work that allows them to know what they're doing, that allows them to know what's been done around them, or what's been done in history, and, in many cases to really equip themselves with the tools to help to deliver their art to the world. 


One of the things that makes sense about this idea of an artist being some kind of advanced visual or perceptual researcher is, also for general audiences,  that it allows...justifies why we would pay attention to these artists and, "Why you would come to a museum or a gallery?"  Well, it's to kind of find out what is going on at the advanced edges of culture where visual art is being pioneered. 


Now, opposed to reading about these things in some kind of specialized journal, art has the fantastic outlet of places like galleries and museums, and it's primarily visual.  So, these are things that can be shared, in many cases, without the need for a lot of text and reading.  The other thing I like about this model is that it also (if you were an advanced mathematician or something) you would know everything that had been done in your field already up to that point.  You knew what all the research was, where all the breakthroughs were, and it was your job to push your field to the next step, at least if you wanted to be a mathematician of any kind of note.  That's really the burden artists bear today - if you're a sculptor  you need to know everything that's happened in sculpture and figure out where you can actually uniquely contribute to that tradition and push it forward in a new way.


For me, one thing that I grapple with is, "Why do I always want to see something new?  What is it about 'newness' that motivates the art world so much?  And, is this quest for 'newness' a superficial quest, or is there something more meaningful to it?"  I think again of the analogy of research in the sciences, what we're looking for - what I think I'm looking for - is a breakthrough every time.  


Every time I see something different, it probably means that it hasn't been done before, and that this artist knows where the field is and is pushing it to a new boundary, or new limit, and so that's where these discoveries come from, where this "newness" can come from.  It helps to really quantify that.  By the same token, I think it's a tool, or a comparison, or analogy, or whatever you might want to call it, that also will allow for a certain amount of objectivity on the part of the artist and go back to a record of achievement and compare this object, this offering, to those other achievements and judge it to see whether things have been pushed forward.  It tends to bring a certain objectivity to the practice of judging art and determining validity and in this age of increasing transparency and increasing accountability on the part of curators and museums that really allows us to explain what it is people are seeing, why this is important to look at or pay attention to, and why this art is being shown, as opposed to the hundreds of thousands of other things that are being made out there that didn't quite make this cut or proceed to this level. 


Those are the kinds of things that I have in mind when I go out looking at art, and whether that's in a studio visit with an artist one-on-one, whether that's just walking into a gallery with absolutely no idea what I'm going to see at that moment, or whether I'm going into a museum that's hopefully having this knowledge and this background of what's happened up to this point - and then being surprised by something if it's a good outcome, or being let down by something, which I've probably already seen before, or done a million times before.  


I think it also accounts for this jaded quality that so many of us that have been hanging around art for a long time might have an "Oh, been there, done that, seen that."  It's because these are probably reiterations of things that we've already processed in some way already and we're looking for that "next thing." 


The thing that also is useful about thinking about art this way is that it does privilege the breakthrough, it does privilege experimentation, it privileges people that are willing to go out on a limb, do something that nobody else has done before, at least enter into the equation, which is something that, for me, really often times sets apart the ambition that somebody's really trying to hit a home run with this art object, rather than just merely getting by. 


I think it both brings the quality of objectivity to the discussion, but it also allows for this sense of wonder that we all feel when we're in the presence of something truly, truly fantastic and magnificent, just as maybe a mathematician would when he or she sees some kind of new equation or theorem that tends to kind of explain everything for that moment and bring a moment of clarity to your life, or to that particular field. 


When I'm in there, in an artist's studio, I want to know that that artist knows what he or she is doing, that they know that this type of painting had been done this way before and, "I'm going to do it this way", to really be as big of a geek as possible on that particular topic or that field or tradition that they're working in, and know more than I know about that so that when I go in there I'm learning something and I know that this artist is a real caretaker of that tradition and is really willing to  take it forward.  This is a quality I see increasingly in the art world.


In this day and age of the internet, so much material is at people's fingertips.  Communication and travel are easier, too.  Travel is key in some ways.  You know, travel has been made easier, less expensive than before, but it's still pretty expensive to get out there and consider works for acquisition and visiting with artists. 


The internet really gives people one less excuse for somebody not knowing what's going on out there.  If you really want to be a contributor, you know what everybody else is doing.  On one hand it can lead to a certain generic, international, homogenization of the art world, but also it could, if used correctly, allow somebody to recognize what is really special and unique in trying to, maybe, regionally inspect what they're doing - something that could, for instance, only exist in Chicago, perhaps, or only exist in Los Angeles, or take advantage of certain references and resources and a vernacular language that maybe exists in painting that's made in Dallas.  That is also something that I look for because there is a certain kind of slick, Artforum-approved art object that circulates around in the world that you can tell kind of checked all the right boxes, and looks a certain way, and has all the kind of references that people are looking for but yet still feels a little bit hollow or superficial. 


I am a firm believer in trying to pick up on some of these unusual quirks and idiosyncrasies of a place and how that also can bear on what you're doing and lead to something, again, that is very unique and hopefully will set your practice apart from somebody else.


Some of the things that I really look for is one, really knowing what the state of the field is and how you're working within that, and then two, this sense of ambition - that you were willing to take that and run with it and do something really truly new and exciting, even if it's absolutely beyond your means, beyond the capabilities of your studio, at least if you're trying or pushing it to that degree.  I think that's something to really strive for.  When I lived near and around Los Angeles in the 1990s into the early 2000s, it's one of the things that, I think, really characterized the L.A. art scene; this sense of ambition, the sense of being willing to do anything in order to advance your art.  That's something that was passed down from artists in the art schools themselves (places like UCLA where you had Charlie Ray and you had Paul McCarthy and you had Richard Jackson and people like that) that were teaching artists like Jason Rhodes and others that were willing to just sort of go to wild extremes in order to make their art.  That kind of drive and ambition characterized the scene and elevated the level of discourse in the art world in general. 


Sometimes that ambition doesn't have to show itself just in sheer virtuosity; it doesn't necessarily mean scale; it doesn't necessarily mean that there's some quotient of time that's measureable that's been put into this work that you often find in certain works that display the kind of obsessive quality where if you make 20,000 brushstrokes to make that painting, all of a sudden you have this sort of seriousness to it.  But often times that ambition could be in the form of the scope of the project you've taken on and maybe it has this dimension that you can imagine expending for long periods of time and that will cover all different kinds of territory and content. 


In a way this brings me to one of the other criteria that I'm always really looking for in an artist's work, and that's growth.  One of the things that I find to be the most threatening about contemporary art is sameness, and people that hit upon a certain kind of gimmick, maybe, or something that might possibly feel like a breakthrough at the beginning, or might really be quite unique and exciting, but then continue to return to that gesture over and over and over again.  Often times, in this art world repetitive ways of working are really rewarded.  There is a certain Wall Street/Hedge Fund collector-mentality that really respects a signature gesture that their colleague can recognize when they come to visit their Park Avenue apartment, and that they see when they go and visit their Hedge Fund friend in Paris or whatever.  So, there's this certain signature redundancy that's definitely rewarded in the commercial art world, but that ends up being terribly boring and is not the kind of art that you want to see brought back together for a Retrospective because there are no chapters.  There is very little difference from one body of work to the next and those are things that I'm often looking for. 


Sometimes with the younger artists, you might not actually see that growth or that progression from one body of work to the next because maybe they've made only one body of work so far, in which case, maybe I'd be inclined to kind of wait on them a little bit longer just to see where it's going. But oftentimes I can tell just by talking to artists (getting a sense of, again, that kind of scope of what they're after) that there is growth potential in the work; to diversify this practice and continue to add to the dialog and maybe grow it. 


I'm always curious to see how artists can build that growth potential into the work from the beginning because oftentimes it's very obvious to see that they've hit upon this thing, that they can continue to keep doing, and they're very willing to keep doing that and could really lead to a trap that'd be very difficult to get out of.


I really admire artists that are willing to grow, even if they've hit upon something that's commercially successful and has real popular appeal; that they're willing to abandon that once it gets boring for them and move onto the next thing, because that's the way that really good artists stay on that edge and continue to push forward, which is staying away from that comfort zone.


One of the things that I do continue to hear from artists, especially the ones that I really admire, is this sense of drive to keep themselves away from this comfort zone, keep themselves in this slightly uncomfortable/slightly self-conscious and maybe even insecure position because it's there that's this visceral inner energy comes from.  So oftentimes, say maybe a painter that's really good at portraits but has no knowledge about doing landscapes, will do a landscape just to find that edge and struggle with that and try to break through.  And I really respect when I hear that kind of motivation coming from artists, too, that they're looking for ways to keep themselves in that very creative zone of not knowing exactly what they're doing.  This is something that I hear from savvy, young artists, but also from artists that are in their 60s and 70s and still charging along - that they want to keep making art, and oftentimes they keep doing it at a high level because they keep themselves in that zone of anxiety. 


Dave Hickey, the art critic, told me "Anxiety is consciousness."  I think he was getting at the same idea; that staying in that position where you don't really know what you're doing, but you're mentally focused and you're aware of what's going on, and that's often when you could really have these kinds of breakthroughs.  So, those are, in many ways, the kind of things that I return to over and over again, is this idea of looking for growth, looking for change, and making sure that this is an artist that I can imagine developing well over the decades and making fantastic work all along. 


That's not to say that things don't happen that might interrupt that. That's not to say that somebody that's making really boring work is not going to have this breakthrough and kind of change course.  I try to think of myself as being very open-minded and willing to keep watching artists and art that I might find to be not terribly exciting now, with the hopes that maybe it will get more exciting later, and never write anybody off altogether, because things do happen.  Sometimes people do change things up to make things good.  The other side of it, though, is that oftentimes artists that look incredibly promising and I feel very excited about end up kind of just running into a corner and not being able to get out.  Of course, someone like me at a museum where you're trying to identify the kinds of things that you're willing to put money down on and bring into a museum collection with the idea that it's there in perpetuity becomes a little bit more risky, and you really want to try to bet on the right horse that's going to continue to make good work and that you're going to be proud to have in the museum's collection. 


The other thing that I think is worth mentioning is that even with all this notion of wanting to find the best art that's being made, of looking for artists that are pushing the field forward, there are other factors that also come into play, especially with museum curators like myself that work at museums that do have collections, which is that you have this whole body of work when you come to a museum that already has a certain history that might already have certain strengths, certain narratives in that collection as it is, and some art that you might really like sometimes just doesn't fit with that. 


It might not have any connection to what's already there; it might not be able to build on some of these narratives.  I actually think that that's okay.  It's just not the work that's right for that museum, but might be right for some other place. 


That's when one realizes that it really allows you to play up on these peculiarities of a place and how a museum has grown over time, whether that's through the intervention of curators, whether that's through the gifts and patronage of collectors, over time, that have given things to the museum.  Hopefully along the way that collection has accumulated lots of examples that come from that city where that museum is located. 


If we're able to draw on those things and bring those out, again, I think it will allow somebody who comes to the MCA in Chicago to recognize that they're in very fundamentally different place than if they were going to see the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, or if they were going to be at MoMA in New York - just those kind of regional quirks that really make this interesting and make it fun, and once things start to become more of a cookie-cutter, repetition from place to place to place, it really becomes very boring very quickly.  So, that's something that I've tried to encourage and bring forth in museums that I've worked for, and also really one of the reasons I think it's very fun to be at a collecting institution because you inherit this incredible, crazy quilt of material that you then have to work with and interpret and even be willing to bend your own ideas about what's important about art to fit this new reality. 


One example, even from my recent move from Seattle to Chicago, is when I moved to Seattle I had no knowledge about the Studio Glass Movement, so people like Dale Chihuly, Ginny Ruffner and William Morris and all these artists that really were born and bred in the Seattle area, in that culture and were important there, but really weren't that important in the context that I worked in Los Angeles, and now coming to the MCA in Chicago are also not part of that history. 


I've inherited this new group of important artists that, in some cases, I didn't know that much about.  Some of the Chicago imagists.  I knew maybe some of the most well-known people like Leon Golub or Ed Paschke or Jim Nutt, but I didn't know about Christina Ramberg. I didn't really didn't know about Gladys Nilsson; I didn't know about Karl Wirsum.  So, learning about these people has been fantastic.  There's a potential for those collections to really set us apart from other places and other parts of the world, which is really exciting and renewing. 


One of the other things that Paul wanted me to talk about in addition to some of these criteria that I usually hold in my head as I'm walking around is where and how I find out about artists.  For me, working at museum, I tend to try not to hang around art schools too much and look at artists that are too young, or are still in school, even though if I was a collector, I would probably do that and to see what's out there and keep tabs on that. 


I think that there can be too much pressure put on young artists if the museum curators are sniffing around school shows.  I would want to sort of see the work grow a bit more before it's something I would want to put on view at the Museum or certainly buy for the Museum. 


I think galleries are absolutely crucial in our art-ecosystem.  Galleries are often the places that can be that "first filter" that would be the ones that would find artists from grad school, hopefully nurture them along, put them on view.  Even sift through all of the art that's being made out there and deliver, hopefully, good work that people like I can find, or collectors can find, or other people can find. 


One challenge is finding dealers that have the same standards that you do.  That's one of the most crucial things to look for in a dealer; somebody that's really putting together a rigorous program that is making choices based on the quality of the work, making choices based on artists that might have something to do with one another, whether that's a shared vantage point or certain concerns in the work.  But I really look for, and kind of single out, galleries that have put together a rigorous program and aren't just filling it with fluff that can be easily sold, but really find people that are pushing things forward.  It is more rare than you would think to find galleries that have a very consistent standard from artist to artist in their program, but that is something that I look for and value.  I value the opinions of those dealers who are out there holding these artists to the same kind of standards that I would want to hold them to when I'm making decisions for the Museum. 


I look to certain dealers I really trust to give me advice on new artists that are coming up, or ask for tips on who's interesting in addition to people they're showing in their own gallery program.  I tend to do that through traveling. 


Of course, if you were in Chicago, I would do it with the galleries that are here; as I'm traveling, I would try to sit down with some of these better galleries and find out what they're showing, even if I haven't seen their recent shows. 


And then, increasingly, art fairs.  Even though they're often a horrible place to look at art and get a sense of who an artist really is across multiple examples of their work, it is great place for someone like me to network with dealers, to catch up with what they're doing, to look back at photo documentation of shows that I have missed, to get a sense of who they're working with and who might be worth keeping track of in the future. 


That kind of network of dealers is really important.  I've seen that art magazines are another place to at least keep tabs on what's going on out there in the world, although I have to admit that I haven't been reading art magazines quite as regularly as I'd like to.  


The other absolutely tried-and-true place that I look for artists, or try to find new artists to become aware of is from other artists that I respect, which makes it all the more important, for an artist working today, to maintain a network of friends and peers that you look up to, that you might have common goals and common values with, because if a curator or a dealer comes to see that artist, that same artist might refer this dealer/curator/whatever to your studio knowing that you are  making good work.


That kind of artists network often starts in graduate school  and be a really useful tool.  It's also something that's great to maintain in terms of getting feedback from your peers.  Artists often find a vacuum after they graduate from school - not having all those students, not having all those teachers looking over their shoulder, and the network of artists' friends can be crucial to keeping you on your toes and keeping you fresh.


Of course, if you didn't go to the hippest, coolest art school in town, and don't have those same contacts...I know it can be difficult.  Or, if you move from one city to another and you don't have that same network it can take time to replicate that network. 


One little bit of advice that I think is worth mentioning is we get cold-calls all the time, people sending in packets of information all the time, and I think it's probably a big waste of time because oftentimes the level of quality in the material that comes is usually so bad that we become hardened to the fact that there's almost nothing good that ever comes in that way.  I would definitely encourage people to not write form letters to museums saying, "I would like to have a show in your museum" because things don't work out that way. 


It's usually a showing at a gallery, or having an artist recommend your work, and interpersonal connections and networks of trust, and shared values within known relationships that tend to make new connections. 


Likewise, just going up to a curator or a critic and saying, "Please write about my show" or, "Please give me a show" usually doesn't work.   Creating new relationships tends to be more subtle, and it usually is about the work itself, not some kind of a personal appeal. 


I really like it when I come to art without knowing the artist, or having a connection that has to do with personality or anything, coming to the work on its own and appreciating it, and then hopefully coming to get to know that artist.


Having a certain stand-offish quality and not being a salesperson, not being in people's face trying to force them to look at your work, can be a good strategy and it is definitely a better strategy than being out there as a wheeler-and-dealer and really trying to force the issue.  I think you've got to use really subtle means to get the curator/critic/dealer/whoever to look at the work without being terribly obvious or beating them over the head with it. 


Paul Klein  I think that's been really wonderful, Michael.  Does anyone have a question?


Andrew  Thank you very much for being here and doing all of this.  How often do you visit artist studios and how do you find people that you maybe want to give a show, maybe 12 x 12, or whatever else there is that might be a possibility at the Museum? 


Michael Darling  One of my biggest challenges is just breaking away from the kind of busy work of the Museum and keeping track of all the things going on in order to get out into the studios.  It'd be great if I got a studio visit in once per week.  It's probably not that pace right now, although hopefully after I settle into a bit more of a schedule, I can do that.  It is definitely one of the most rewarding and most fun parts of the job and absolutely where I learn more than I do from reading an art magazine, or reading a catalogue or a book, is that information that I get from an artist in the studio. 


I would say, though, that more and more because of constraints of time I do like to get a sense of what I'm going to go see in a studio, or what that artist is about before I sign on to any old blind studio visit because. In an ideal case, a couple of studio visits per month would be a good start for me right now.


Andrew  When you travel around do you do more studio visits than in Chicago?  The follow up question to that is, how do you determine when you're going to actually be able to do that?  Because I understand you have a lot of time constraints and you're busy and whatever.  What leads you up to actually doing a studio visit?  That seems to me like that might be kind of like a deal closer in some way, so I'd be curious what that would be...that would lead you up to actually doing it.


Michael Darling  Sure, that's a good question.  And you're right - I do, when I travel, tend to work in studio visits, too. So, I was just in New York and I did a couple studio visits on that trip, and when I was in London earlier in the fall, I did studio visits.  So, it's something that I do try to factor into all of my trips - seeing artists and seeing studios.  Oftentimes it might just be out of pure curiosity; maybe I've seen a show by that artist, and then want to follow up and go do a studio visit just to get into the artist's head a little bit, understand what motivates them, because that oftentimes is that deciding factor - whether this is just a flash in the pan or whether there's something more sustained and serious going on there.  It can be just seeing a show; it can be an artist that I always wanted to visit and I happen to be going to their home city and so I schedule a visit with them.  Sometimes I might be doing research towards an exhibition and I formulate a list of possible candidates, and then I systematically go out and do studio visits with them.  It's all sorts of different motivations.  It really doesn't mean that I'm going to give them a show, or it's not that last test, like you said about, "This is the deal closer" to give somebody a show.  Oftentimes it's just out of pure curiosity in wanting to know what they're doing and why they're doing it, and then hopefully that will...I will hang onto that information and hopefully that will become useful at another point.  Oftentimes it might not even be useful to me, but I can kind of tip off another curator, another collector, a dealer coming through town, saying, "Well, you know so-and-so's making this fantastic work that I think you might like, and go see it."  So, oftentimes it's just being a conduit that I think is a really unspoken part of being a curator is allowing information about artists (in particular) in galleries to pass through you to other people, which might allow them to do something.  I find that to be just as rewarding, in some cases, as doing a show or something myself, is maybe enabling somebody else to see something that they wouldn't have seen otherwise. 


Paul Klein  Fabulous.  Michael, thank you very much for your generosity.  I love it.  You covered absolutely everything.  I think you really said a lot in depth.  I've got a couple questions.  Do you think you can distinguish anything among Chicago artists that unifies them?  I could venture first, if you'd like.  I think there's a work ethic that exists here, an extension of the "blue collar" ethic that Chicago has been famous for since, maybe, 1830, and that work ethic still exists today in the people and Chicago artists.  Your turn.


Michael Darling  Well, you know, I think I am starting to sense a real kind of braininess about a lot of the Chicago art I'm seeing,  People take things really seriously, understanding the traditions that they're working in and trying to come up with ways of adding to that.  I'm sensing a pretty high, kind of intellectual content in a lot of the work that I've been seeing.  Some of it, it's by young artists that are just coming out of the art schools.  Unfortunately, in some cases, people that are coming out of the art schools, and then leaving Chicago for other places is a problem I want to try to get handle on.  For instance, I just saw this show in New York over the weekend by a young artist named Valerie Snobeck, who apparently is a recent University of Chicago graduate, and it was really smart stuff and really adventurous and it seems consistent with other things that I've been seeing around that leads me to believe that there's some really good stuff going on in terms of teaching and what students are thinking about and looking at and everything.  That's the quality I'm sensing so far that is real, smart and intellectual.


Paul Klein  I have one other question, but anybody else want to ask a question before we let Michael go? 


Teresa  You've spoken about being adventurous. I'm wondering if your sense of adventurous is related to particular types of media.  Like, do you find more technological media having more of a sense of adventure?  Or painting?  Do you associate it with a particular medium? 


Michael Darling I try to be very open minded and look for that sense of adventurousness in painting and sculpture and photography and video, whatever it might be.  So, yes, I try to really look for that in any of those media. I think if there was one field that seemed to be a bit more open than others, it might be sculpture, just because maybe there are more possibilities there in some way, and you might find a wider range of expression than you would maybe in photography, or painting in particular, and maybe even video, perhaps just because those three tend to be confined to a pretty standard format, in a way.  But I've seen great stuff in all those different media all the time, so I don't know if there's any one that seems more appropriate than another for finding that sense of wonder and adventure.


Paul Klein  All right.  This has been outstanding.  Michael, thank you so much.  Anybody? A last shot?    ...  Michael, I have a question for you, and you can answer me privately if you wish.  Your insights have been so good and so generous.  How do you feel about having this transcribed and making it available publicly? 


Michael  I think you could go for it. I really like to be able to share these insights so that hopefully they're helpful to somebody, and, again, just trying to be accountable for the opinions I put forth, and accountable for what we put on view at the Museum.  I think it's absolutely fair and safe to try to get this out into the world however you want to use it. 


Paul Klein  Wow!  I really appreciate everything you've contributed and I appreciate your attitude and I think you're making a big, solid difference to Chicago, and I think it reinforces MCA Director Madelyn Grynsztejn 's agenda. I'm proud of what you're doing and I'm proud of what it brings to Chicago, and I think it's a great place to have it done.  So, thank you very much for participating with us.  Thank you.  Good night.  

Quality Rises
It may be cold, but there's some very fine, meticulously rendered, seductive, charming art by two women whose works are at opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum.  Both are exhibited internationally more often than in the United States. Both use graphite extensively, have reduced color in their 'paintings, and make beautiful work. 

Jenny Scobel's exhibit of paintings opens at Firecat Projects tonight.  Her work focuses on vulnerable people - mostly women - in postures they appear to have agreed to pose in, but they don't look quite comfortable.  Her process is apparent .  She draws in graphite and erases and draws again.  The tilt of the shoulder may change and the sitter's mood with it.  The backgrounds could make beautfiul works of art all by themselves.  There's a sense of vulnerability in the people were looking at, which leads me to feelings of empathy and a desire to take care of someone.  I feel more tender, calm and trusting after viewing this show,   Already, I want to go back. 


Michelle Grabner wears so many hats in the artworld, but first and foremost she is an exceptional artist.  To me, this exhibt that opens Saturday at Shane Campbell, is an new body of work, a not quite logical extension of her work from the last few years. Still delicate, considered, without room for error, the new work is even more complicated. Like gingham, the paintings, which are predominantly graphite on panel, reference historical women's work.  The mindless activity - the drone of domestic tranquility. The patterns, the repetition, the unforgiving process which doesn't tolerate error seems almost Colonial to me.  A different kind of standard, more strict and sincere, makes a priority of ability - a quality that has all but disappeared in so much of contemporary art making. Grabner's 'performance' here is like a musician's solo, rising above the cacophony of those who wish they could join the orchestra.  Both these women are exceptional.  Together they stand alone.


I believe it isn't sufficient for an artist to have something to say.  For me, it is imperative that they have the ability to say it.  Daily, more art gets passed off as being more accessible because it is mediocre - thereby allowing less sophisticated people an easier time comprehending it.  Hogwash, go to the Art Institute or any other museum with quality.  Take a look at which paintings have the most people in front of them.

The public isn't stupid.  They know what is good and what isn't.  Of course, there are philistines condemning all culture as a waste of time.  Screw them and the hell with those who are subservient to mediocrity.  Art is about excellence, growth, motivation and possibility.   

And these two women, Jenny Scobel and Michelle Grabner, are a tribute to the transcending power of quality. 

Thank you,
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Quite a few shows open the winter art season tonight, and a couple of them are flat-out exceptional. 

This Vivian Maier show, and the story behind it, are as good as it gets.  Vivian Maier was well over 80 years old when she died.  She was a fabulously gifted, female, street photographer and a nanny.  For almost 50 years she took photographs on her days off.  But she never showed them to anyone, not the people she worked for.  No one.

She stored the negatives and a few photos in a storage facility in Chicago.  Advanced in age, she forgot about keeping her rental payments current and the owner of the facility put her contents up for auction.  Fortunately, John Maloof, a young Chicago artist, stumbled upon the sale and bought a significant portion of the 100,000 +/- negatives and 3000+ undeveloped rolls of film.

Unlike the unfortunate story of Henry Darger, whose trove of art was discovered by his questionably motivated landlord, Maloof's heart and actions are securely anchored in doing what's right for the art. Besides a movie and a book, which are in the works, there's a great show opening tonight at the Cultural Center's Michigan Avenue Galleries.

Though some poopoo her lack of artistic training, Vivian Maier was a brilliant photographer with a disarming ability to capture a moment, rivals all our established photographic heroes. What a talent, and how fortunate that it was Maloof who recognized that quality (with help). 

Inspired to buy equipment to scan negatives to generate prints, Maloof put a few prints on eBay.  As the prices escalated he realized he was in unchartered waters.  So, he posted some images on a Flickr street photography blog and the photography community grasped his passion and understood his enthusiasm.  They guided him, sharing valuable knowledge about how to push the developing of out-of-date film, and where, and how to seek exposure for his trove.  

912.jpgWe are the fortunate beneficiaries who get to see this outstanding work first hand - an addition to our understanding of Chicago and the value of quality,beautiful photography.  (My favorite comment from the Flickr blog was about the value of film and what might happen 50 years hence if someone came across a DVD containing an equal number of great images.  Would they even be able to see them?)

And that's not the only great show opening tonight.  The complete graphic works of seminal, Chicago artist Jim Nutt opens this evening at Russell Bowman.  Forty years of work date to the Chicago Imagists and the Hairy Who.   Most were made for the pure joy of making them - not for capitalism, per se.  Most are not editioned and some exist in fascinating, multiple states. This is a lesson in the glory of pure artistic pursuit.  It's not surprising that Nutt inspired followers in town.  His eye and hand remain fresh. A wonderful talent and beautiful show.




Catherine Edelman has another strong photography exhibit at her gallery with the labor intensive work of Lori Nix, who builds ealistic-looking, fictive sets that she then photographs.  Months in the making she carves anything that serves her purposes as she manipulates and makes everything we see.  Fantastic - in more ways than one.




I feel like I've been watching Gordon Powell's work since I landed in Chicago in 1981, but it couldn't be that long.  Powell's work keeps growing in a constant, elegant vein.  Wood is passionately worked, altered and recombined; sometimes as sculpture and this time reading as painting. The is warm, considered beautiful work at Perimeter Gallery. It's fun for me to look into the sides of the art to see the mounts and realize that not every front facing piece is supported by a substructure.  Well done.


I own work by Chicagoan Dennis Lee Mitchell whose aberrant approach to art making is highly seductive.  His former works in clay where typically fired with a blowtorch, in lieu of a kiln.  Still intrigued by fire, Mitchell is making drawings on paper and ceramic plates with smoke, on view at Dubhe Carreno .  Translucent, with thick and thin layers of sooty black, Mitchell heightens the degree of difficulty in his works by braking the ceramic platters before he draws on them with smoke and then recombines them. Obviously he loves the process as well as the results, because it takes dozens of attempts before he is pleased with the texture and aesthetics of a given peace.  Sinuosity at its best.




There are other strong exhibits, but these are the ones I liked the best.  Thanks very much!