BY Michelle Grabner in Reviews | 07 JUN 00
Featured in
Issue 53

Cold Conceptualism

BY Michelle Grabner in Reviews | 07 JUN 00

"But we have great architecture," is the most common retort to the fact Chicago is without the competitive commercial art apparatus that give other cultural centers authority on the global playing field. Its larger arts institutions are off set by a meager collector base and the flight to the coasts after obtaining an MFA from one of its perennially strong art programs leaves the city in a constant flux of young artists. Even some of its home team, Dan Peterman, David Robbins and Gaylen Gerber have bigger reputations in Hamburg, Paris and Vienna than in American’s own Heartland.

Yet this unspectacular commercial condition turns out to be a healthy foundation for artists to ‘home grow’ localized models and new relationships to conventional systems of distribution and production. The prevalent attitude of indifference to the predictable curatorial chess moves within the city’s institutionalized landscape and the geological distance from any real center of distribution has seemed to spur a new cultural medium, one that not only includes the work of young artists but is conditioned on their terms. This new landscape comes with great heaps of nepotism, inconsistency, dangerous neighborhoods and at times even bad art but its energy, determination and pragmatical intentions are modern and meritorious.

Garages, studios, storefronts, apartments, phone recordings and a Chevy S10 pick up truck have carried Chicago’s arts reputation far beyond its marginalized perception and Suitable, an unheated two car garage is one of these examples. It only has exhibitions when the three artists who run it have a good idea. Cold Conceptualism, curated by their friend and fellow graduate student John Neff, obviously had a good idea in his reframing of conceptual art’s rigidly analytical and anti-sensual stereotypes with conceptual based work from the Midwest. Opening the show in February provided Neff with an appropriate climatic backdrop to five projects with warm generous centers.

Madison Wisconsin artist Joe Connelly bummed cigarettes for three months on the University of Wisconsin campus and provided them to Cold Conceptualism visitors with a companion Blue Strike match. Hundreds and hundreds of various brands slowly disappeared into the mouths and pockets of the appreciative exhibition attendees. The obvious irony in this gesture is its weakest element. But as an act of pure generosity it was actually touching. Equally sweet is Felipe Santos’s Hansel and Gretel Put to Action (1999) a very short video of the artist dragging a stick along a gravel path. It ends with the text, "I’m leaving this mark on the ground in hope that she sees it, and recognizes that its mine, follows it and finds me."

Dutes Miller and Stan Shellabarger recreate a Midwestern version of Breath In/Breath Out (1977), a performance by Maria Abramovic and her partner Ulay where they locked mouths and synchronized their breathing until no more oxygen was left to sustain them. Miller and Shellabarger’s In/Out (1996-97) is a videotape documenting their face-to-face breathing in a cold non-discript room. Their bearded faces, flannel shirts and the clouds of condensation filling the intimate space between their gentle stare was both funny and tender. Miller and Shellabarge democratize art as idea, reminding us that some conceptual artists ice fish on weekends.

Swirl B2 (1997) and Swirl B1 (1997) are C-prints by Aaron Van Dyke, a Minneapolis-based photographer. Each piece is comprised of a grid of small photos documenting the swirling motion of Styrofoam packing peanuts on a dark ground. Muybridge-like in methodology, these documents of abstract movement are as magical and mesmerizing as snow in headlights. The same localized abstraction is lyrically recovered in Paul Dickinson’s 3 Motion Picture Soundtracks, Dialogue Removed (1999). Projecting a dialogue-free sound track from Family Viewing, Ordinary People and The Ice Storm, Dickinson reduces Hollywood genres down to the ambient sound of the everyday.

If you’re an artist in Chicago waiting for your number to come up at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Art Institute or the Renaissance Society or working for the attention of one of maybe five truly interesting commercial galleries in the city you’ve got it all wrong. Good ideas by young artists make Chicago’s visual cultural unordinary. After all, why shouldn’t issues of contemporary conceptual practice be produced, displayed and discussed in the backyard or in the garages throughout Chicagoland?

Michelle Grabner is an artist, curator and professor in the Department of Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is Director of the exhibition spaces The Suburban in Milwaukee, USA and the Poor Farm in Wisconsin, USA.