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Art Letter (12/4/09)


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 donít 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 oneís work than oneís heritage or inheritance. That is one major factor that motivates the citizenry and the artists who work here.

A second key factor is Chicagoís 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 whatís happening there and then going right on doing what we already were.

Same thing historically for the artists here.  Personally, Iíve tracked this to the early 1900ís, but I bet it goes back further. Artists here known what is going on elsewhere, but they really donít care much.  Itís the courage of oneís 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 isnít much that unites them except a solid work ethic. Thatís why it is, and has been, good to be an artist here.

Okay.  Thatís the history in a way too small nutshell. Now the schism.

Maybe globalization is the problem.  The art schools donít tend to see themselves as Chicago based. They see themselves preparing artists for global art combat. On the surface, thatís 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 íartí - probably not something anyone should feel proud of.

But thatís the nature of the artworld; shallow, trendy, monitized, and demeaning.  Itís also the ingredient for success, yet there are way more artists making art that is searching, educational, spiritual, challenging and sincere.  It just doesnít 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 thereís the schism. There are artists in Chicago who came from elsewhere, were educated here and stayed and are entering a system that doesnít 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 itís 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.

Itís a fascinating issue that Iíve 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. Iím tired of sloppy, limited ability, unconscious prices and expediency over substance.

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

Letís 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 itís a powerful riddle. The images stick with me.  Obviously weíve 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.

Thereís 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 Andersonís pieces. She is looking at the relationship between our commercial society, the design and structure it embraces and itís relationship to aesthetics, art, culture and I guess absolutely everything else. Sheís good. Some of her art is particularly salient in itís exploration of how society at large affects the individual.

Itís always a good time to look at art.

Iíll see you out there,

Paul Klein