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May 1999, Volume 2, Number 1, page 2


FEATURES

Artists and Art Viewing
by Fred Camper
A disturbingly large number of artists don't seem to take art viewing very seriously. A would-be artist in Chicago who aspires to something other than total narcissism should see what's on view in galleries throughout the city, but should also travel to larger art centers: New York and others.

Much contemporary art has sprung from earlier twentieth-century work, so one should really go back to Duchamp, Kandinsky, and CÚzanne. But what did CÚzanne look at? Poussin and the le Nain brothers, among others. One should look in depth at the whole Western tradition. Some twentieth-century Western art has drawn inspiration from African, Asian, and Western Hemisphere pre-Columbian art. The best Chinese paintings, African sculptures, and Huari textiles are as great as almost anything I've seen. Viewing works from cultures very different from one's own can help expand one's view of what art is, as the Chicago Imagists learned visiting the Field Museum. But art students today are rarely found even in Chicago galleries, and I didn't see many people at all in the Art Institute's recent, and sublime, "Ancient West Mexico" exhibit.

Recently I asked four current and recently graduated SAIC undergraduates, "What percentage of your art-viewing time, excluding class assignments, is spent looking at art by friends, teachers, and fellow students?" The four answers I got were pretty similar: 60%, 65%, 70%, and 75%. I find this situation baffling. Aside from the incredible pleasures such students are missing, there are real limitations to being influenced mostly by colleagues. There's good art made by undergraduates, but student work tends to be derivative of existing styles. Why not go to the sources of those styles? Artists' tastes are famously eccentric, and one needn't accept my synoptic viewing program. But why not look seriously and passionately at a wide range of art, seeking to broaden one's sources of inspiration?

I recently returned from a trip to Europe. Deeply moved by works by van Eyck, Memling, Leonardo, Michelangelo, de la Tour, Vermeer, Poussin, le Nain, Rembrandt, and many others, in museums and churches from Paris to Bruges to St. Petersburg, I felt renewed. On returning, I began my Chicago art-viewing with Jason Zadak's witty cat-hair pieces at Better Weimaraner, framed "drawings" in which a cat hair is shaped into, perhaps, a profile. They were cute, but I thought back to the Old Master paintings I'd been seeing, built up slowly out of a seemingly infinite number of tiny brushstrokes interacting with each other with the rhythmic complexity, and ecstasy, of great music, and I wanted to say, "Well, Jason, you got your first line down-but where are the others?"

Anything can be art, of course, including a single cat hair. I'd just like to feel that the artist is aspiring to create the complexity of experience I find in works by Rembrandt or CÚzanne-or Duchamp, Smithson, Bourgeois, Tuttle, Richter. . .

Response to Fred Camper's "Artists and Art Viewing"
by Claire Wolf Krantz
I, too, have recently recontextualized my ideas about art. Returning from Indonesia and India, where I exhibited my own artwork, interacted with artists coming from vastly different viewpoints from my own, and looked at all kinds of things that we call art, I was struck by how narrow our local art world can be. While lecturing to Indonesian artists and scholars about Chicago art, I tried to explain why we think that art that focuses solely on the artists' use of materials, or their studios, or their lifestyles (rather than their lives) is important. These ideas were presented to people (often considered lesser artists) whose subject matters grapple with the stuff of life itself. They address issues that affect the material, spiritual, and political aspects of everyday living. They question the place of religion in their lives, the terrifying political upheavals, severe poverty and deprivations, and severe climatic conditions (volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tidal waves) that occur with regularity. Their questions of personal and national identity are not only expressed in their art, but are understood to have enormous social and political consequences. I didn't see artists undermining the political messages of their work by claiming aesthetic untouchability. In some cases, Indonesian and Indian attitudes toward art have skipped modernism, thus making postmodernism a joke (with no ideology of historical determinism, multiculturalism and pluralism are taken for granted). Their centuries-old development of techniques in what we would call craft, installation, performance, music, and dance, as well as pictorial traditions, make our acceptance of shoddy craftsmanship and shallow ideas simply incomprehensible.

After spending several months with works that aspire to complexity of meaning, visual beauty, and density, as well as technical virtuosity, I wonder why we continue to equate spontaneity and a logo-like shallowness with significance. Why we create an art world in which we only pay attention to a narrow band of people whom we consider our peers and to interests congruent with our own. Could differences in ages, points of view, and life experiences be considered sources of information to be shared instead of our presently isolated islands, separated by deep oceans, never to be traversed?

Perhaps it takes periodic bouts of time away from home and familiar ways of seeing and doing things to remind us that the world is bigger than Chicago. I returned home thinking that we all must live in our own local, private worlds, but I'm not sure we have to be provincial.

Finger-Pointing
by Kathryn Hixson
I visited Los Angeles last February to attend a convention, anxious to peruse the art scene there which had gotten so much hype over the past couple of years. I luckily ditched most of the convention, so I could roam freely around town in my rented toy car. The weather was perfect, and the palm trees only slightly diseased.

Having heard so much about the great schools, the aggressive gallery scene, the superior museum activity, I was ready to be wowed. Well, let me tell you, after going to museums, galleries, and schools, I was hard pressed to find anything there that was any better than our cantankerous art scene here in Chicago.

Here are some comparisons: Los Angeles County Museum of Art (which had a Van Gogh portrait show up)/Art Institute (latest blockbuster: Mary Cassatt). Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Los Angeles (Charles Ray, Kay Rosen)/Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago (Charles Ray, Sara Sze). I did see ticket scalpers in front of the Van Gogh show like we see here outside of Wrigley Field for a Cubs game, which was a nice touch yet to happen on Michigan Ave. Kay Rosen's show looked terrific (I confess her show was the main reason I went to LA in the first place), but Charley's big fire truck sitting in front of the sun-drenched MOCA looked rather normal! Sure, MOCA started the Ray show, but it looks pretty great at the MCA now.

Bergamot Station/River North. Bergamot is the series of warehouses turned into art galleries which was a good idea when it was done-since LA is so huge, it's best to have a bunch of galleries together-but architecturally, well . . . River North is similarly predictable, but that's what most people want! Like the move to Wicker Park or the rumors about the South Loop in Chicago, some galleries in LA moved to a totally different location, this time six of them went to a renovated series of white cubes across the street from LA County. There was a gallery like Ten in One with local talent, and one like Chicago Project Room, mixing young international with local talent. Los Angeles still has its Randolph Street Gallery, in the form of LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibition Space), but guess who's running that? Irene Tsatsos, yes, the very one who resuscitated NAME in Chicago in the early 1990s. So there you have it!

The schools seem to fight for attention in both places, it's just that LA gets Artforum to hype it up (I heard that the feature on LA grad students in Artforum was devastating for students-that it was very "divisive." Poor kids.) Chicago schools have fancy openings for their MFA/BFA shows, and there is always someone who gets a show several months after the graduate show. There is a sense of ownership in Los Angeles on the part of the dealers that I haven't really seen here, and a "I was there first when So-and-so was still in school" one-up-manship which can be somewhat amusing. I was chatting with a dealer about some artists I knew here in grad school. He quickly cut me off: "I knew them before that! I hired them to haul crates for me at the Chicago Art Fair before they were even in school!" (Someone mentioned in vitro signings.)

There are more celebrity sightings in LA. But when artists tell you that Hollywood culture does not have any impact on their work, just nod politely and look the other way. It's not that they are in denial, the celebrity culture is so pervasive in LA, it becomes transparent for those that are so completely immersed in it. And, overall, the art on display in the galleries-well, it was like art anywhere . . . just ask Michael Bulka to describe.

The one thing that LA does have that Chicago doesn't is Coagula-the cheesy newspaper tabloid that dishes the dirt in the most uncomfortable ways about the art world in LA and New York (like what Jerry Saltz eats for breakfast or how much Charles Ray's new sailboat cost). It is like an institutional gossip rag. As I was wandering around the galleries, fresh new piles of Coagula were being delivered-by what appeared to be a legitimate newspaper vendor. The dealers hurriedly cracked open their copies, and cackles of glee could be heard all around the town. Instead of the angry phone calls and threats of exposing illicit conspiracies so typical of Chicago, the LA scene seemed to enjoy its own struggles and compromises-like being on "Entertainment Tonight" or something. LA knows that hype matters-look at how enthusiastic I was to visit its art scene!-and it knows that it's the surface that counts. So if there is anything different about LA from which Chicago can learn (and I didn't say "better," I said "different") it's that PR push, that positive feeling of ownership, and that unabashed pride in our hometown greatness. More and more movies are being shot here, so maybe it's only a matter of time.

Chicago is so great that we can bravely withstand new onslaughts of gossip, and we will thrive on it, as proud as punch of our great achievements here. Finger-pointing will be elevated from its back-room status to the full-fledged dishing we so deserve. With the right mix of pizzazz sparkled all over our great artists here, we will trumpet our success to the heavens!

"Theory, the Movie"
by Corey Postiglione
In the past year we have seen a number of movies that explicitly deal with themes of "reality," or more accurately, virtual reality; themes that had been the domain of theorists of visual culture since the beginning of the '80s. This heretofore arcane area of knowledge, usually relegated to critical-theory grad seminars, is now the stuff of Hollywood movies: everything from comedic meditations on '50s sitcoms (Pleasantville) to special-effects blockbuster action flicks (The Matrix) with some neo-Orwellian TV fantasies thrown in (The Truman Show).

What I find fascinating about this recent phenomenon is the extent to which the early writings of Jean Baudrillard, especially his over-heated popular-theory text Simulations (1983), now appear to be the models for a lot of the new screenplays. (And who said all those theory classes that we took in grad school wouldn't pay off!) When I look at a film like The Truman Show, with its elaborate conceit of a totally simulated life and environment, all conceived for a TV audience, I can't help but think of Baudrillard's notions of the Hyperreal when the simulation totally absorbs the real.

The Matrix, an over-the-top action film, is a sci-fi version of William Gibson meets Baudrillard. Several of these movies play with the concept of virtual reality as endless orgasm, shades of Lacanian notions of the "Imaginary," the state of total infantile control. In The Matrix, what appears to most people to be reality is actually a totalizing virtual world played as a video game, with the bad guys possessing the better program-or just more megahertz. David Cronenberg, master of the scatological thriller, introduces yet another twist on the virtual genre with Existenz, in which the technology is now organically engineered along with, in typical Cronenberg style, all the requisite slime and grotesquery.

So what is the fascination of this theme for both the filmmakers and the audience? As dark as a lot of these movies are, there is a subtext of utopianism. I think the ultimate attraction of virtual realty is its illusion of freedom, its escape from the "real" world. In virtual space there is no hunger, no war, no disease, no homelessness and poverty. It offers up the new best vision of utopia. The trick, of course, is to maintain the virtual life-to exist there forever. I suppose this is what movies have always provided anyway. --Corey Postiglione