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Art Letter (01/27/06)

It is hard for me to describe how much I like the art of Preston Jackson, how much I respect his vision and how much I wish for great success for him. Chicagoan Preston Jackson has a one person exhibit opening in two of the three Michigan Avenue Galleries in Chicagoís outstanding Cultural Center.

(Note: The first 4 images have links to written narratives.  Click on the image to read them.)

Sometimes life is serendipitous. Iíd been chosen to curate and select art for the McCormick Place West Expansion - an addition of a 4th convention center to the McCormick Complex. Someone from the Bronzeville Community - the historically Black - culturally rich, vibrant community immediately south of McCormick had recommended Preston Jackson to my employer and it was passed on to me.

Iíd seen Prestonís work before, specifically his 70 foot long diorama presenting the narrative titled Bronzeville to Harlem.  It sits on tables of his creation and can be configured in a variety of ways. Preston had made it about ten years ago and it was traveling the college circuit, but wanted a permanent home. I was agonizing over how to include it and couldnít find a way to incorporate this art on tables because of the heavy traffic in a convection center.

So I made an appointment to talk to Preston and tell him in person.  When I walked into his Chicago studio and small scale gallery I saw a totally different body of work - some of the same work that opens tonight at the Cultural Center and I was overwhelmed.

I had goose bumps. I was shocked. The work was and is that powerful. Hey, Iím a professional. Iíve looked at art every day for over 30 years.  Iíve learned a lot. Iíve seen a lot. And I know a fair amount. Preston Jacksonís art blew me away.

Most people seem to think that because the gallery I used to own and guide only showed abstraction that I only like abstract art. And thatís not true, though it is safe to say thatís what Iíve looked at the most.  Prestonís art is obviously figurative thought mightily embellished and he certainly is not dealing with tame content.

One might say that Preston Jacksonís art is reminiscent of Kara Walker, but since Preston is over 60 and Ms Walker is in her mid-30ís, and Preston has been making art in this vein since before Ms. Walker could walk - well you get my point.

Letís not take anything away from Kara Walker. She is a great and powerful artist. This 4 and a half foot tall piece of hers, to the right, made from cut-out construction paper sold for $57000 last fall. Itís unique. And so too are Preston Jacksonís one of a kind bronze sculptures in his Cultural Center exhibit, and they sell for substantially less than 50% of Ms. Walkerís paper pieces.

The point that Iím making is that I sincerely believe Preston Jackson is a giant in our midst,  superior to Walker, with a longer history of making great art.  He is incredibly undervalued.

His show at the Cultural Center is intensely powerful - more than I can absorb in one viewing, full of layer upon layer of meaning, derived from a history of hearing his mother and family recount handed down stories of the familyís experiences of slavery and a contemporary overlaying of optimism, hope, and harmony.

Thereís a lot of text that accompanies the sculptures and it clues us in on the personal narratives that inspire Jacksonís art. Like no other exhibit Iíve seen, they are worth reading.

The work is great and the man is fascinating.  He is a wonderful teacher at the School of the Art Institute, where his ability, knowledge and passion inspires students daily, and what is not know by many is that he is a helluva jazz musician jamming most Wednesday nights at the Velvet Lounge, on the South Side, not far from McCormick Place where he is going to have a very substantial commission honoring him and the rich cultural history of Bronzeville.

As if Preston Jacksonís show isnít enough to convince you of the strength of the Chicago Cultural Center head upstairs to the 4th floor and enjoy Los Carpenterosís poignant, tongue-in-cheek, intelligent, vibrant, not quite young, convincingly executed commentary on life in Cuba. This team of artists from Havana pokeís fun at their culture, the influence of the First World on their Third World and on life in general. We can all relate to the ironic wistfulness that pervades their work.  It is charming, effective and poignant.

Tonight, thereís a membersí preview for the Hyde Park Art Centerís last show in their longtime, Del Prado Building home. How the HPAC has grown, nay flourished, under the guidance of Director Chuck Thurow is a wonderful tribute to the Art Center, the man, the community and the Hyde Park Art Centerís very long history.  Unequivocal, profound congratulations are completely appropriate.

This is the last show - well only in a manner of speaking - because they are moving to new space; a vibrant, exciting, proper space - especially compared to where theyíve been and how much theyíve accomplished with a, shall we say, compromised exhibition venue.

This last show, titled For Real grew from the indefatigable, fertile mind, and cooperative attitude of Southside artist and arts activist Marie Krane Bergman and her team, Cream Co.  Oh, I do love these cooperative efforts where quality pushes quality and the synergistic result surpasses even the accomplishments of the individuals.

Iím going tonight, but maybe it makes more sense to wait until their public opening Sunday afternoon and tie it in with attending the opening of the ĒseasonalĒ show at the Renaissance SocietyYutaka Soneís, freewheeling extrapolations of Snow, ranging from the architectural implications to their psychological states, makes this an exhibit Iíve been wanting to see for some time now.

There is a fabulous show called Art in the Abstract at the Illinois State Museum Chicago Gallery that is only up for a couple of more weeks. It has dozen fascinating paintings by Manierre Dawson, an Illinois artist we should all be familiar with and a Rodney Carswell that amazed me.

And then there are the shows that I havenít seen yet, but probably will this weekend. 

Made in China at The Museum of Contemporary Photography featuring half a dozen contemporary photographers including one of my very favorites Edward Burtynsky.

And at the Loyola University Museum of Art an exhibition about the art of Caravaggio, a truly great artist of the 16th Century and a fascinating character.  Notice I said ďaboutĒ and not ďofĒ the art - because this is an exhibit of 60+ lighboxes reproducing Caravaggio paintings true to size. Iím fascinated and truly wonder if I will love, hate or be ambivalent about this presentation.  I think weíve got to see it to decide for ourselves.

So, per usual, thereís a lot of great art to see in Chicago. And I look forward to seeing you out there,

Paul Klein