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Art Letter (09/09/05)

Chicago’s fall art season begins tonight.  Just about everybody has an opening.  And there are a handful of shows I’ve been eagerly anticipating.

In River North: 
Robert Hudson, at Perimeter Gallery, has impressed me for over two decades. His is an incredibly gifted sculptor, revealing the depth of his abilities in each of his pieces.  When I first fell in love with his work I saw him as part of a Bay Area motif that embraced William Wiley and Robert Arneson.  Now I see his art in the context of Mark di Suvero and John Chamberlain.  He has complete control over his work, creating picture planes, twisting them and even flattening them by painting intricate vignettes or throwing an offbeat color where one would just expect metal. His ability to manipulate vantage and focal points invariably leads to a much more complete aesthetic experience for us, his lucky viewers.  A major artist, his work has never gotten as much attention as it and he deserve because he follows his own heart, his vision and is frequently out of step with the-school-of-what’s-happening-now. I appreciate his integrity, and the whole issue of which muse an artist listens to we’ll save for the next time we meet.

Jae Ko is a Korean born resident of Washington, DC.  Her show at Andrew Bae Gallery brings back my first memories of her work.  I was incredibly impressed when I first saw it five or six years ago at Art Chicago.  There is a magic to the way she builds her mysterious forms, and lays in deep color. Over time (and through reading the gallery’s website) I’ve come to know too much. I am reminded of a discussion a long time ago with New York dealer Mary Boone, who simply said “art must transcend its materials.”  It has stuck with me. Ko’s work used to transcend its materials better than any artist I’d known, until the how of the process became clear to me and now I’m more critical.  The moral of the story is to not ask questions you don’t want the answers to. Ko makes great pieces and I didn’t follow my own advice. They are elegant, formal, luscious gems made from paper and ink. Knowing more than that doesn’t help.

I appreciate
Joan Livingstone’s art at Roy Boyd Gallery because she works with issues I avoid, in a manner allowing me access. She makes works about human and animal figures without making figurative work. She deals with humanistic issues without directly referencing humans. She embraces issues of skin, containment; inside and out, without making icky stuff like the figures in the “skinned alive” show at the Museum of Science and Industry. Livingstone works in fabric - pieces that could reference taxidermy, but typically are more reminiscent of my old blankets from camp.  There’s a compassionate quality that makes her work endearing while challenging, warm while provocative, and accessible while knowledgeable.

(I’d like to offer an “aside” here.  All the time, when I had a gallery I battled with myself to make exhibits sparse – to limit the number of pieces on display.  And just about every time, I lost the battle, thinking I couldn’t eliminate a piece because who knows who might want to buy it, and they couldn’t buy it if they couldn’t see it.  And I would weaken the overall power of the exhibit by over-installing it.  Artists are probably victims of the same thinking. I see this problem at almost every gallery I go to.  I see it much less at museums, which leads me to conclude that it is a byproduct of commercialism. It is a disservice to the artist and a disservice to the gallery to crowd the exhibits.)

In the West Loop: 
Siebren Versteeg is powerhouse of a mind learning how to channel his vision. Though we’ve seen Siebren’s genius on lots of opportunities over the last several years, this is in fact his first, grown up, one person show. Some of pieces I saw at Rhona Hoffman Gallery are brilliant and I immediately respond. Others baffle me and make me wonder who is missing the point.  Repeated visits may well reveal that it is me. But still, as sure as I am that Siebren will be an artist we are challenged and intrigued by for eons to come, I find this show uncomfortably uneven.  Maybe I just want less.  It is hard enough to be an artist without having to deal with issues of career strategy or editing, but those issues are damned important and influence our read of the work, and by extension or appreciation and comprehension. That said, Siebren ponders our (humans’) relationship with technology and wryly comments on some of the absurdities. Some pieces are brilliant. Some are fun. And some make me groan.  There’s no doubt about Siebren Versteeg’s talent; it’s just that in this, his first show, we see too much.

Upstairs at
Peter Miller Gallery, we have another first show; focused, labor intensive quilted “paintings” by Ai Kijima, a very recent graduate of the School of the Art Institute.  Born in Japan, Kijima came to the School for undergraduate study, also got her graduate degree, and has stayed.  These are wonderful for their excessive focus and the mantra of labor apparent in each piece. Ai Kijima scours Chicago’s thrift stores collecting Disneyesque images on used sheets, towels, pillowcases and shower curtains which she combines into new fantastic compositions, which she they obsessively sews with miles of thread.  The act of sewing melds the divergent imagery into a powerful, fun, overall composition easily appreciated by adults with memories or kids with dreams.

I see two main threads here. One is the quality of the individual pieces an artist makes, and two, is my response to the overall presentation. And young artists are the subset we are looking at.  In all these examples I feel like I’m getting too much information and we’d all benefit from more editing.  On a good day, a good art school helps an artist make a good work of art, but they rarely venture into what constitutes a career or what strategies to consider when beginning one. We are privileged to have numerous examples for study, yet not necessarily fortunate. These factors are relevant to how we experience an exhibit and a single work of art.

Rashid Johnson at Monique Meloche has a longer track record than the two artists we’ve just visited, yet the issues are the same. I find his work enigmatic. Some pieces are great enough to be mightily impressive and some seemingly so shallow I wince.  Sometimes I see Rashid as the pithy, perceptive commentator (a la Chris Rock) on what it means to grow up black. Sometimes I see him as an opportunist calculating what he can get away with without having to put in real substance. (It is unfortunate that in our society any artist of color must make a decision about playing the race card. Race is an issue in America and even if an African-American artist avoids the issue - by so-doing, he or she is still addressing it.) So, where would Rashid’s work be without race?  Why do white people buy a jersey inscribed “White people like me?” If white people are going to fall all over themselves to show how tolerant and accepting they are, we have to expect black artists to play into that.  Rashid Johnson is talented.  He certainly is affable.  Unfortunately I see him playing in the shallow end of the pool of issues about race in America, jumping up and down, yelling “look at me – look at me. Throw money at me and you’ll feel better about yourself.”  Well, it’s working, and that’s too bad. It’s time we grow up.  I’m eager to see what Rashid will do when he tires of this successful game of white people liking him.

Chicago is the land of opportunity.  We have great artists exhibited here and we have artists on their way to greatness getting exposure. We have shows by young artists who have received major international acclaim and are back home building up a head of steam to take out into the world again.  We are fortunate. 

There are lots of openings tonight and the start of
Around the Coyote. The shows I discussed were the ones I was most eager to see.  This weekend I’m going to check out less familiar territory and seek artists and venues that are new(er) to me.  I hope you do the same. Let’s compare notes soon.

Thank you,
Paul Klein