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Art Letter (12/8/09)


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.