Critic’s Guide: Chicago

Ahead of the openings of EXPO Chicago and the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial, a guide to the best exhibitions around town

BY Sara Cluggish in Critic's Guides | 13 SEP 17

Senga Nengudi, Ceremony for Freeway Fets (Franklin Parker), 1978. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, 1978. Collaborators: Maren Hassinger, David Hammons, Kenneth Severin, Roho, Joe Ray, and Franklin Parker. Photograph © Roderick ‘Ouaku’ Young 

Senga Nengudi, ‘Improvisational Gestures’
The De Paul Art Museum
7 September – 10 December 2017

‘Improvisational Gestures’ is Senga Nengudi’s first, and long-overdue, solo museum survey. Since the 1970s Nengudi has continually returned to readily available materials such as nylon pantyhose, sand, dirt, masking tape and nails, configuring these elements into simple but affecting installations and unscripted performances – all of which this show documents. She likens her engagement with materials to the way ‘a jazz musician utilizes notes and sounds to improvise a composition’. The exhibition hails from, among other venues, MCA Denver and University of Colorado, where Nengudi has lived and taught for decades, shown here at the DePaul Art Museum in her hometown of Chicago. The show highlights Nengudi’s early involvement in the Los Angeles collective Studio Z, and the overall collaborative nature of her work. This is felt most acutely in Side by Side (2006), a touching 10-minute video documenting Nengudi’s long-time friendship with performance partner Maria Hessinger. Ordered chronologically, the two women age before our eyes as we experience the variation of movement and limits of their changing bodies. Similarly pointing to the body in a state of transition, is Nengudi’s celebrated and ongoing ‘R.S.V.P.’ (1977-) series of sculptures in which stretched and sand-weighted pantyhose bring to mind sagging breasts or hips unlocked by childbirth.

Rachel Harrison, The First Saturday in July, 2017, cloth, cement, enamel, acrylic, metal, 23 x 18 x 17 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Greene Naftali Gallery, New York

‘Small Sculpture’
Corbett vs. Dempsey
8 September – 14 October 2017

The title of Corbett vs. Dempsey’s exhibition ‘Small Sculpture’ is deceptively straightforward. In a rare group exhibition for the gallery, the nearly 60 small sculptures on view combine to form an energetic exercise in medium specificity, rooted in scale and volume. The density of Rachel Harrison’s The First Saturday in July (2017), a face-sized, candy-coloured cement blob with a cherry pitter balanced on top, sits in sharp contrast to the slender, restrained verticality of Katsuhito Nishikawa’s painted bronze Untitled (1986/2013). No larger than 29 centimetres (11.5 inches) on any side, B. Ingrid Olson’s Model for an Endless Room (2017) is a compact yet infinite proposal. Comprised of five black, plastic DVD boxes bound by a finger-width black metal strap, Matias Faldbakken’s Untitled (DVD Squeeze #01-#05) (2010) absurdly and humorously communicates the blunted crunch of his ‘container series’ in which large, commonly metal objects such as fridges, lockers and metal newspaper stands, are cinched and squeezed by colourful lever straps.

Gerald Williams, Nation Time, 1969, acrylic on canvas, 1.2 x 1.4 m. Courtesy: Kavi Gupta, Chicago and Geoffrey Black/Johnson Publishing Company

Gerald Williams
Kavi Gupta
9 September – 2 December 2017

Hung in an orderly, cadenced line across Kavi Gupta’s N. Elizabeth St. gallery, 11 acrylic paintings on canvas showcase the colourful, polyrhythmic and politically salient work of AfriCOBRA (the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) founding member Gerald Williams. In recent years, Williams’s work has been included in major group exhibitions such as the current ‘Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power’ at Tate Modern, London, and ‘The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to now’, organized by MCA Chicago in 2015. This exhibition however, is Williams first solo presentation for 20 years. Williams met fellow AfriCOBRA co-founders Jeff Donaldson, Wadsworth Jarrell and Barbara Jones-Hogu in the late 1960s. They began meeting regularly in casual get-togethers within the context of the Black Arts Movement. Their main questions, as expressed by Williams were: ‘What is Black Art? And, is that something that needs to be spoken about, worked on definitively. Is there such a thing as black art?’ This exhibition offers the opportunity to revisit these still prescient questions, examining Williams’ new and old works alongside each other with paintings produced from 1969 to 2016.

Jennifer Packer, An Exercise in Tenderness, 2017. Courtesy: the artist and Corvi-Mora, London

Jennifer Packer, ‘Tenderheaded’
The Renaissance Society
9 September – 5 November 2017

A steady sense of dignified care runs throughout the 15 new and recent paintings of Jennifer Packer’s first solo museum presentation ‘Tenderheaded’ at the Renaissance Society. The exhibition combines depictions of funerary bouquets, which Packer approaches as psychological stand-ins for people, with individual portraits of those she knows well – mostly family members and close friends. Staring resolutely out of the picture plane Packer’s figures are rendered in consistent shades of pale yellow, ochre, sienna and burnt umber. This palette, combined with hauntingly dissolving forms, is reminiscent of a traditional underpainting technique in which a single de-saturated pigment is applied in the initial stages of roughly sketching out a composition. Actually, Packer moves through a multi-faceted sequence of painting, scraping, sanding and re-painting, producing each work at a measured pace. The cumulative effect lodges each work firmly within an emotion register that can be simultaneously likened to the sensuality of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s portraits or the intense legibility of Kerry James Marshall’s scenes – both of whom Packer has been in conversation with in recent years.

The Roundhouse at the DuSable Museum of African American History, Chicago

‘Singing Stones’
Palais de Tokyo with EXPO Chicago
13 September 2017 – 7 January 2018

Designed by visionary architect Daniel H. Burnham, the Roundhouse is a 17,000-square-foot structure built in 1881 which over the years has fallen into disrepair. Originally used as a horse stable and now incorporated into the campus of the DuSable Museum of African American History, this luminous, curvilinear room is the newly restored context for ‘Singing Stones’, a group exhibition presented collaboratively by Palais de Tokyo, Institut Français and EXPO Chicago. ‘Singing Stones’ explores the intersection between artistic process and architecture with contributions from 11 artists and designers across Chicago and France. Exhibition curator Katell Jaffrès of Palais de Tokyo and Chicago-based architect Andrew Schachman collaborated on the site design and a bespoke display system that guides visitors through the singular space. Responding to the effects of sunlight filtering into the domed structure, Chicago-based Cauleen Smith has produced a colourful installation which baths the room and surrounding artworks in translucent yellows, greens and blues that glide across the space like a timepiece from morning to night. A robust public programme also accompanies the show, including the opening and closing night performances of Thomas Teurlai’s intriguing Score for Bodies and Machines (2017) in which two photocopying machines create a choreographic sequence for, and in response to, the movements of local performers Benjamin Wardell and Anna-Martine Whitehead.

David Hartt, Carolina I, 2017, archival pigment print mounted to Dibond, 91 x 137 cm. Courtesy: Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago; commissioned by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts

David Hartt, ‘in the forest’
The Graham Foundation
14 September 2017 – 6 January 2018

David Hartt’s ‘in the forest’ revisits architect and theorist Moshe Safdie’s unfinished 1968 housing project, Habitat Puerto Rico. Safdie constructed an ambitious number of these elegant and experimental developments across Montreal, New York, Israel and Singapore, among other cities. In Puerto Rico the project disintegrated when a government housing subsidy that developers relied on to finance the endeavour fell through. Now home to a vibrant array of plant and animal life, Hartt returns to Habitat Puerto Rico nearly 50 years after the initial project with a series of sculptures, photographs and a captivating 20-minute film that is the centre point of the exhibition. More a study of what remains of Habitat Puerto Rico than a romanticized aggrandizement of this modernist ruin, Hardtt continues his investigations into the relationships between ideology, architecture and the environment that characterize his practice.

Michael Rakowitz, May the Arrogant Not Prevail, 2010, found Arabic packaging and newspapers, glue, cardboard, and wood, 6 x 4.9 x 1 m, installation view, MCA Chicago. Courtesy: the artist and Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago

Michael Rakowitz, ‘Backstroke of the West’
MCA Chicago
16 September 2017 – 4 March 2018

Rooted in architecture and sculpture, Michael Rakowitz’s research-based practice commonly employs references to archaeology, popular culture and science fiction to humorously tease open the complex social, political and cultural relationships between the East and West. Often focusing on key moments of conflict or war, this major exhibition includes installations with lengthy, parable-like titles such as The worst condition is to pass under a sword which is not one’s own (2009) connecting costume designs from Star Wars to uniforms designed by Saddam Hussein’s son Uday (an avid George Lucas fan) for Fedayeen Saddam, an elite militia whose members dressed eerily similar to Darth Vader. Entering the exhibition, one must pass under May The Arrogant Not Prevail (2010), a replica of the iconic Babylonian Ishtar Gate, re-created here from recycled Arabic food packaging. Amongst other works, the exhibition also includes a new commission The Ballad of Special Ops Cody (2017) as well as his well-known ‘The invisible enemy should not exist’ (2007–ongoing) a series of sculptures that represent an attempt to reconstruct archaeological artifacts from the National Museum of Iraq, following the 2003 US invasion.

Main image: David Hartt, in the forest, 2017, digital video still. Courtesy: Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago; commissioned by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, Chicago

Sara Cluggish is a curator and writer based in Minneapolis, USA. She is Curator of FD13 Residency for the Arts, Minneapolis–St. Paul and Associate Curator (USA) at Site Gallery, Sheffield UK.