Alive and Kicking in Chicago part 1

Rex Grossman fumbles again by Davis Langlois

by Pedro Vélez
part 1: The Studios

In late 2007 I was invited by a colleague to give a lecture at Columbia College in Chicago. I was to focus not only in the art I made in my long stay in the city but the experience of writing about the new art scene developing during the fall of the alternative galleries known as the Uncomfortable Spaces, the local magazine New Art Examiner and Art Chicago. Back then I was part of a group of artist, writers and curators looking for our place in what seemed like an art scene in flux. Although we found our niche, in the end most of us left city.

During my stay, which was brief, I managed to visit some artist studios, many of them old friends. I also visited new galleries like Roots and Culture, and even made the trip to INOVA and the Green Gallery in Milwaukee. This two-part article is a record of those visits.

The Studios

When I left Chicago in '03
David Robbins was king, with a permanent address at The Suburban, the space run by artist, writer and educator Michelle Grabner. Once a tiny closet in a garage, the Suburban is now a comfortable addition next to her home, tree swing and grill included, in the suburban neighborhood of Oak Park. When it comes to alternative spaces, The Suburban is still one of the most visible, cutting-edge and vibrant in a city where exhibition spaces, like sleeping grass, open and close continuously throughout the seasons.

It is said that Grabner outdoes many of the local museums by bringing world-class artists to Chicago for special projects and lectures open to anyone who shows up at her doorstep. During autumn students and artist would hang out in the kitchen, and on the lawn during summer. The assembled company included the founders of the collective BANK, and Dave Muller, drinking Old Style, eating peanuts and arguing with David Robbins about his love-hate relationship with the Midwest and the art world. The Suburban was and still is about community, a place for artists in an intimate setting.

The cure to what some might argue is Suburban’s infatuation with the art-world elite is
Temporary Services, a collective run by Brett Bloom, Salem Collo-Julin and Marc Fischer who produce events and publications as a way to facilitate artistic dialogue. For Temporary Services group work rather than arty farty individual celebrity is the focus, and that’s why they blur the distinction between art practice and other human endeavors, providing services and information free of charge around the globe.

A project that represents their approach at its best is
Dave’s Stories, a downloadable CD of stories by Dave Whitman, an educated but homeless man who the Temporary Services crew met when they were putting on exhibitions in an office space in downtown Chicago. They gave him a tape recorder and over the years he recorded over eight hours of what might be called his memoirs. He told about how difficult it was to find a place to sit where the police wouldn’t bother him, and he told about entertaining pan-handling scams. He also gave intimate details of his taste for women, acknowledging that in his circumstances sex was often less important than being able to take a bath.

Dave disappeared in 2003 but the stories remain. On the CD, his voice is educated and polite, and reminds me a little of the cozy familiarity of radio jazz host Marian McPartland. For me, his stories are like salt on open wounds, revealing my ugly judgmental self-I tend to dismiss homeless people by thinking they all are zombies, junkies and drunks.

Temporary Services and The Suburban are perfect examples of the way that avant-garde artists make spaces for themselves in a Blue Chip art system, giving substance and relevance to cultural cast-offs. It’s clear that no one can complain of a lack of opportunity in Chicago, because artists do get to make anything, show their work and begin to build a career -- often with a sense of down-to-earth honesty that results from a limited budget in a city that cares more about sports than the arts.

David Robbins in front of the Suburban '04. Picture from a review I never finished. I promise I will soon. It was an amazing show.

The Suburban

Dave's Stories CD by Temporary Services

Temporary Services booklet for Prisoner Inventions

Jno Cook

If David Robbins is the sleek intellectual who turns his back on the art world, then Jno Cook is the generous teacher who inspires character. In his web site, , which is comprehensive in an old-school internet way, Cook describes himself as someone who investigates aesthetics, makes machines that pass as sculptures, builds optical equipment and conjures predictions of the universe.

Born in the Netherlands in 1940, Cook worked for the government in transit planning before turning to art relatively late, getting his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in ‘83. He has exhibited at MIT LIST Visual Arts Center, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and Randolph Street Gallery. One of his greatest contributions to the city is, a virtual listing of openings and events in the Chicago art world, an operation he runs free of charge since 1997.

Walking through Cook’s home studio felt like a treasure hunt. Seeing his machines in disuse, all covered with dust, is heartbreaking as well as thrilling. Guarded by one of his cats in the living room was his assemblage Ptolemy’s Universe, titled after the ancient astronomer who first placed earth as the center of the cosmos. A Duchampian hypnotic machine, the sculpture customizes two bicycle wheels with mini lamps and a toy earth to represent the equatorial and the ecliptic. When the machine is on the wheels revolve and the lamps blink just as they do in the night sky.

On one wall was a series of family portraits, his wife and son together, the scenes captured in what seems like a fish eye view. They look historically poetic and bring to mind the work of Emmet Gowin, the Pennsylvania photographer known for making images of his wife and family. Cook often uses pinhole-style cameras he has designed and constructed from common household objects such as cookie tins. His works transgress the boundaries of low and high art with such ease, he is a highly conceptual artist with a layman’s attitude.

When I was Two is a baby book of his son Cornelius Cook, featuring not only of photographs but a study of childhood speech. It’s scientific, optimistic and funny. Cook records the toddler’s linguistic experiments and shortcuts, such as coining the word “zats” for “pacifier,” a shortening of the phrase, “where is it at?” Unlike many of us who turn sappy when it comes to children, Cook’s images are full of emotion and temperament. You can see the full documentation on his website, which just like the rest of his production is an extension of his work.

There was a lot of stuff to see but Jno didn't let me. He insisted on talking about the state of the Chicago scene over coffee. On our way out I saw a large model of a Black Widow spider perched up on the wall, dozens of altered cameras and toasters with wings, plus Cook’s What the Fuck clock, in which all the numbers seem to have collapsed at the bottom of the dial, a sarcastic take on Perfect Lovers, Felix González-Torres’ pair of identical, synchronized wall clocks. It was hard to tell what’s meant as art from what’s art by default. This is the kind of studio curators dream of when preparing a retrospective. I wonder who is going to be smart and brave enough in Chicago to jump to the challenge.

Jno Cook's sketch book

WTF Clock

Jno Cook in front of one of his Sign Paintings

Vintage poster for Jno Cook exhibition at Beret International

photograph of Cornelius Cook by Jno Cook, from the When I was Two series

the legendary Ptolemy's Universe in a corner

a view from Jno's studio. Top left; altered cameras. Top Right; mechanical spider

Kristen Van Deventer

Kristen Van Deventer is the love child of Rita Rudner and Stephen Wright, at least that's what I thought the first time I met her because she is an expert in comedic timing and off beat humor. She is also a painter, works at a gallery since ‘98 and curates video programs. Her studio is small and white, which contrasts with the powerful ooze from the high value pastel like colors of her paintings. During my visit the Van Deventer was struggling with a weird painting of a woman with a lamp for head and an empty book on her lap. Another odd work is a delicate drawing of Bigfoot masturbating on top of a wave breaker; the studio experience feels like walking from one punch line to the next. An untitled piece looks like a shampoo commercial in which a woman with big 70’s yellow hair is surrounded by green candles. My favorite area is the great pink swashes that highlight her features. Van Deventer is good with layers; she usually starts with washed thin grays over imposed with heavy colorful brushwork.

Contrary to the ideas of infancy in her work some years ago, (dead kid actor Heather O’ Rourke from Poltergeist was the subject), these new portraits of women are unknown characters. Woman with a Broken Nose is a great painting that shows a bandaged girl, who is either staring or posing for a photograph, painted in vivid spots of colors all over her face, which is framed by thin stripes of textured hair. Unlike Japanese Kegadoru porn Van Deventer’s broken nose girl is not sexy or provoking any sense of protective feelings on the viewer, instead the girl seems surprised to be injured.

When asked about how she manages to create art when she is surrounded by it all day at work Van Deventer comments: “when I was younger it was struggle to contextualize other peoples work and fit it in a box then go home and work on my ideas…this year my approach is not to not over think, to be pushed more by feelings than the conceptual illustration of an idea.”

Kristen Van Deventer at her studio

untitled painting by Van Deventer

Woman with a Broken Nose

detail of a drawing

painting by Van Deventer

a sketch on the studio floor

Deb Sokolow

To hear Sokolow explain her work is almost as good as seeing it, one feels intrigued and drawn to her theories and assumptions. In 2005 Sokolow gained recognition in the media with a large work that exploited Mayor Richard Daley sense of impunity and power, titled Someone Tell Mayor Daley, the Pirates Are Coming, the drawing was exhibited as part of the 12 x 12 series at the MCA, (now is part of the collection). Intrigued by a real scandal she decided to map out her own suspicions in a fantastical narrative that had pirates invading the city in search of a treasure, but whose treasure? In ’03 Mayor Richard Daley ordered crews to destroy the runway of Megs Field, a private single strip airport on the lakefront, by bulldozing large X-shaped gouges into the runway surface in the dead of night. Required notice was never given to the Federal Aviation Administration or the owners of a dozen airplanes down at the field. The Mayor defended his actions by claiming safety concerns due to the post- 911 risks of terrorist-controlled aircraft attacking the downtown waterfront. Obsessed by the X marks on the runway and Daley seemingly erratic behavior Sokolow drew connections between pirates, terrorist groups and the CIA infiltrating the mayor’s office, giving the story an accusatory feel.

To move the viewer thru her intricate narratives the artist uses simple looking images, charts, diagrams and arrows that resemble the works of the late Mark Lombardi. Social anxiety, politics, popular culture and conspiracy theories are also in the mix in which the viewer becomes, or is made feel like a paranoid narrator. Some of the stories begin with leads from gossip heard around the neighborhood, one of them points to a storefront across her building that is allegedly used a limb-chopping factory for mafia victims. Others, like in Don’t Worry Everything Will be Fine, recurrent idle characters show up, like Ted Koppel as the investigative reporter or Nancy Drew as the amateur detective. They are also in charge of the cautionary tales before we follow a maze of underground tunnels located below a residential building that somehow lead to the Vietcong’s Cu Chi Tunnel complex. What I find interesting is the fact that we don’t feel empathy for the narrator but end up believing his/hers maquiavelian fantasies like in the limited edition book The Drug Lord Mansion Estates Volume 1: Armando Carrillo Fuentes in which the artist assures us that the powerful drug lord didn’t die form complications in plastic surgery but that he is still alive and somehow related to actor Gary Busey.

It’s easy to think of storyboards and movie scripts with Sokolows work and the artist isn’t afraid to list Sly Stallone’s Rocky a source of inspiration. She comments that after an extended mind block in grad school she decided to watch movies all day instead of making art, becoming so engrossed with the characters that she developed alternate versions of scenes in the movie. She also mentions the city as inspiration because of its mythical figures and dense history, her grandfather, who was a bookie, and her dad who is a Political Scientist.

To me Sokolows astute diagrams reflect the ideals of urban social groups, she understands the value in history as well as myths and is interested in discovering the identity of a city by delineating specific characters that the viewer is supposed to identify with, and care for after finishing the puzzle. Even though Sokolows work is intricate and time consuming her studio is packed with large works and book editions, a sign of a mature artist at work.

* Deb Sokolow web site

Deb Sokolow

the studio


large work in progress
Terence Hannum

I’ve always been a fan of Terence Hannum, another veteran of the MCA’s 12 x 12 program, an accomplished musician, (plays with Unlucky Atlas and Locrian), writer and collaborator on Hardcore Histories, a series of events dedicated to delivering the history of Hardcore Punk to the masses. His studio, located in the bowels of what was known as The Butcher Shop, one of the most famous exhibition spaces in the city, is covered with tons of paintings, Xerox book editions, tapes, sound equipment and a drum boom used as projection surface for his installations. No posters or magazine pages are visible because he uses videos of live shows, played in slow motion, as source material. One his videos, Flash/Flash, along with his painted record sleeves and zines were exhibited recently in Candela Gallery in Puerto Rico with great success, I was lucky to be at the opening and see the reaction of the crowd. Flash/Flash is an quick and erratic video of a live rock show seen thru the flash of cameras, the sort of thing one sees when pressing fast forward on a DVD player.

Hannum focuses on the flash of the camera to deal with music and the youth sub cultures that follow it; not so much from a sociological than from a archeological stance because he is interested in the object. His perspective comes from someone who a practitioner and not a witness. From a musicians standpoint he understands the stage, instruments, sound and the physical reaction of the crowd to the music, which is close to spiritual. As a plastic artist he attacks the object with respect, as if it were a relic from a ritual. Hannum explains that our collective experience with music starts with the pleasure of the object, the record, the packaging, the artwork, all by products of the main work.

One finds few colors or facial features in his paintings where big areas are covered in white or the flash of the camera onstage. It is impossible to distinguish who the musician is, some even look like abstract beings or the aura, a quality that sets them works apart from simple cool illustrations of rock stars. There’s not much paint applied either giving way to analysis of formal issues about space and economy. Just like his sculptures and altered records sleeves, that consist of grids and busy patterns with constant rhythm that look like washed out engravings.

My favorite piece in the studio was Into a Mirror, mostly in blue where the main character is a disproportionate headed boy with sad face playing guitar. There’s something adult about this work that I can’t pin.

*click the link for images of his recent show at Light and Sie Gallery in Dallas

Hannum's Studio

Terence Hannum

Into a Mirror

Installation circa '01

Vince Dermody

A good friend and collaborator in the past Vince Dermody was one of the minds behind famous collective Law Office. Well spoken, intense and loudly honest Dermody doesn’t apologize because he always has answer for everything, the kind of behavior so necessary in the art world today. That’s why it was a great surprise to visit him in grad school, at UIC, one of the snobbiest conceptualist program ever.

Has he been tamed?

After Law Office dissolved Vince got a real job with real money, he also developed an addiction for traveling and getting lost on purpose as part of the process to take photographs, many of which have been published in Vice magazine and at Tinyvices. Over Indian beer he compared the experience of staying in Chicago this long as to “fighting for breadcrumbs tooth and nail.” I sense Vince thinks he has something to prove as he did in 2003 when he declared his own death and changed his last name. To celebrate the wake he parked a ’78 Ford LTD inside Suitable Gallery, besides it was a tombstone, professionally carved, that read: R.I.P. / VINCE DARMODY / 1973-2000 / AGED 27 YEARS / D.D.D. Vince was trying to confront himself with his Irish roots and a family history of alcoholism. The tombstone still hangs with him to this day and is going thru transformations in his studio. I just can’t believe this major piece was never sold but am not surprised, this is the same guy that with Law Office served as stepping-stone for many people that are now art stars-sometimes the art world loves to beat down their cult figures.

In his studio I saw hundreds of photographs he takes with an array of cameras, all have a Dermody sheen, sort of dirty punk aesthetic applied to personal experience. Nothing has been staged and the images vary from whorehouses in Thailand to a street fight with Santa Claus.
Performance is always at the core of his practice. In Dinner for a Hundred, he turned a critique session at school into a prank and celebration of him learning one dish. Dermody comments that by serving students and faculty food he tried to avoid criticism by raising questions about generosity. The performance was a great example of how any material or approach serves him to accomplish his mission, is not all art but a reflection of who he is, a brand name.

It could be that graduate school is just another piece and Vince is giving the city what it needs-a safety net.

Vince was kind enough to take me around graduate studios where I got a chance to meet two talented artists Philip Matesic and Maria Gaspar. Matesic designs clothing, tents and other variations as survival gear as political art and Gaspar is collaborating with Ernesto Pujols in Memorial of Gestures, a 12-hour performance for the Cultural Center. She makes drawings of fighting young women, sometimes naked, as a metaphor for personal relationships and humiliation.

Vince Dermody and his sculpture

Dinner for a Hundred (painted dinner plate from a performance by Vince Dermody)

Fuck Off painting

Altered Chicago flag and Gravestonein his studio at UIC

Poster for Law Office event

Maria Gaspar

East-West Walk jacket by Philip Matesic

Matesic with a map of the tip of Denmark and documentation of
Adventures of the Seas

Amy M. Denes

I first saw Amy Denes work on the blogsphere, she’s an independent artist who works outside the loop and whose comments drive some bloggers crazy. When I asked around for references of the artist, not the “blogger,” I received plenty of un-called for recommendations that I should visit big art star Tony Tasset instead. Because I usually bet on the underdog the doubt of my peers was the excuse I needed to venture into Denes studio. Besides, who needs more information on Tasset?

Just like her work Amy Denes had many things to say, both interesting and confusing at the same time. She has lived in Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines, and her studio apartment reflects that Eastern styling, in the sense that every corner has a min-altar layered with colorful fabrics. Items of pop culture references are nowhere to be found.

In her studio, Denes had big dark paintings of transparent beings exuding some sort of aural force. The thick and gritty way in which she represents the body reminded me of Leon Golub and her painting style has a strong naïve quality to it. Denes told me her work deals with rationalist logic and neurology. She is also working on a book of poems titled Telegrams from Space, it’s pages, hundreds of them, I see spread over a couch.

On top of the couch was a small gem titled The Dangers of Being Acolyte, a painting that shows a blue-eyed boy with black hair and a desperate expression. There’s something forceful about the dude in a preppy sweater that reminded me of a date raper. Another good painting is Hamas, a quick depiction of three militants wearing hoods and green headbands, their anonymous eyes peering out at the viewer. Denes says that the painting is meant to call attention to conflict in general. I think the work gives humanity to the collective behind the mask.

Amy M. Denes

Dangers of Being Acolyte by Amy Denes

Hamas by Amy Denes

Melina Ausikaitis

Sometimes people get to live of their art, others like Melina Ausikaitis, get to do it for a year. The artist was lucky enough to have had a supporter pay her years income, (Melina is a bartender), so that she could stay at the studio and complete a huge 1,000 sq feet drawing. And she did work laboriously taping each moment for a DVD that accompanies the exhibition and the outcome is pretty cool. A pattern in plain graphite and large sheets of paper that looks easily repetitive from a distance. Once close to the massive drawing the viewer notices broken patterns, lines, small circles that have a geometrical structure but as a whole the drawing is organic and unified like a knitted beehive.

It was a fun opening, packed with friends and familiar faces in a non-descript space in Wicker Park, the once affordable art district that now boasts trendy restaurants and boutiques. Walking distance from the now gone Chicago Project Room, Beret International, Ten In One, 1/ Quarterly, Bona Fide, Joymore, and Standard Gallery, Melina’s exhibition seemed like a subversive action of resistance in the middle of growing gentrification. And a great representative of the underground nature of Chicago based artist who struggle in adversity.

Melina Ausikaitis and painter Mike Langlois

the opening


Melina at work

At the opening: Chris Hamsher lead singer of Palliard

Best and Not So Good: Circa Art Fair '08

Lo Mejor: W&N

Lo Mejor: En la foto el pedazo posterior de un Toyota, alterado por W&N en Circa Labs. En ambos lados de la carroceria una pegatina lleva los nombres de Nani y Tito, respectivamente y en cursivo, como una señal juvenil de amor eterno. Adentro del caparazón, en el asiento trasero, hay una selección variada de peluches  donados por sus amistades. El carro de W&;N es una escultura en la tradición de kitsh de Pepón Osorio.

(*full disclosure:)

Participé en Circa junto a Gean Moreno y Jorge Castro como co-curador del proyecto de arte sonoro What Future? Noise from Miami and Puerto Rico en la sección auspiciada por Coca Cola conocida como Circa Labs. Nada estuvo a la venta en nuestro espacio y no hubo intercambio alguno de dinero entre mi persona y los organizadores de Circa, factor que me permite hacer una reseña general sobre la feria sin tener conflictos. Le agradecemos a Celina, Roberto y Paco por su confianza.

Lo Mejor y Peor de Circa '08 
y otros shows circundantes

La mejor forma de cubrir ferias de arte no es ser crítico sino casual. Es casi irrelevante analizar una feria como crítico de arte debido a la cantidad industrial de trabajos y propuestas que se encuentran en un contexto puramente comercial. Es por eso que el formato ESPN y amarillista es el más apropiado y el que sigue a continuación:

Lo Mejor:

Circa definitivamente creció como feria. Se comenta que el Armory se muda a L.A., y si el pronóstico madura como pinta, también Basel Miami en unos años. De ser así Circa se quedaria con espacio suficiente para crecer más y mantener su vigencia en el Caribe y Latino América. Entre los upgrades positivos hechos estan las construcción de paredes completas y no modulares como el año anterior, la inclusión de mejores galerias de Europa y un mejor diseño del piso. Circa ya tiene una personalidad fundamentada en nuestros atributos regionales, donde la fiesta, el sexo y el sol predominan en cualquier actividad, y esta vez Circa pudo explotarlos sin reservas.

Lo Peor:

El problema es que este año se descubrió que nuestros super collectors aparentemente no son tan "super" como creiamos ya que no pudieron atraer a otros "super" collectors de fuera de la isla para gastar aquí- lo que es indicativo que su poder convocatoria es puramente regional; y su poder adquisitivo es limitado. Si la tendencia continua será un problema para Circa si se siguen enfocando en complacer a los "super" collectors aquí. Me parece que es hora de que nuestros "collectors" (los "super" y los jóvenes) se unan y se re-enfoquen para que empiezen a soltar chavos de verdad.

Lo Mejor:

Aunque las ventas fueron raquíticas ( muchos dealers se quejaron en privado de las jibarerias de los "super" collectors locales) los galeristas se mostraron entusiasmados en regresar. Lo que indica que Celina, Paco y Roberto hicieron bien su trabajo, los felicitamos.

Lo Peor:Adrián Villeta

La instalación de Adrián Villeta es difícil de justificar como arte; es más florida que una instalación tacky de esas de Martorell y eso es bueno pero el video de las modelos en el jardín Rococo que construyó en su patio me recuerda a anuncios de cremas humectantes de Dove.

Lo Mejor: Space Other

Estructura de pared en Space Other, no recuerdo el nombre del artista. Pero un colaborador me envio esta descripción:  
"los artistas de Space Other son un colectivo, trabajan con materiales desechados y organicos, a mi me tripeo eso tambien...y el mostrito con las larvas, hecho de papas y cera, lo recuerdas? se parecía al muñeco de nieve de Zeno, pero bueno."

Lo Mejor: Osvaldo Budet

Osvaldo Budet se auto-retrata en sus pinturas como un reportero presencial en situaciones históricas. Es como si Budet viajara en el tiempo. Aquí lo vemos durante el ataque de los  Macheteros a la base Muñiz en el '81.

intervención de Osvaldo Budet en Santurce

Antes de que el Barrio en Santurce, localizado exctamente al lado del MAPR, fuera demolido para darle paso al supuesto yuppielandia de los Madero y Levis (eso es lo que dice Bandera Roja y Claridad), Budet hizo una intervención eficaz, con chorreados rosa, que sirvió de protesta.

Lo Peor: Jorge Zeno 
Yo soy un fan de la obra de Zeno pero no puedo entender como demonios se le ocurrio presentar estos tereques. Lo triste es la forma en que el artista trata de llamar la atención del super collector Cesar Reyes con una pintura tan pequeña. Presenta la grande Jorge, sin miedo!

Best of show: Steve Schepens

Instalación de Steve Schepens en Hipódromo 610. Steve Schepens y su galería brot.undispiele de Alemania se quedaron con el show este año. El artista hace pinturas de paisajes idealizados en los cuales algún tipo de texto, sobreimpuesto en la imágen, nos recuerda la fragilidad de la intimidad y de lo sublime. El artista también trabaja con esculturas en cartón que sirven como elementos para performances. En Hipódromo el artista trabajo líneas en lápiz labial sobre espejos localizados en diferentes areas de la casona, trazando el dibujo, esqueleto o reflejo del espacio. Los espejos funcionan como la conciencia fisica del barrio Santurcino y como un documento de la historia inmediata del hogar.

Steve Schepens y Ekaterina Rietz-Rakul