The view from Michigan Avenue just south of the Art Institute.
Author’s Note: I was directed by Donald Young Gallery to obtain permission to reproduce images from the Nauman show via the Artist’s Rights Society. Since I’m publishing my review on the internet, it’s the policy of the Society to only allow use of images for a finite period of time. As the author, I’d rather not have to take the images down 6 months from now, and thus alter its originally intended publication. Instead, I’ve opted to run the review without the relevant images and simply provide a link to the gallery’s artist page for readers who wish to view them.
In the back of a taxi, from my north side neighborhood of Lincoln Square, out on LSD, the lakefront is sheer and violent. Squalls and fifteen-foot breakers paint the view with heaving sprays of high, white foam. Going to see anything downtown is a little like going to see anything on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, except spiked with a Miracle Mile of the world’s largest strip mall, bulging with wide phalanxes of waddling tourists. No sweat. I’m not stopping until the easternmost bulge of the Loop, so unlike Manhattan after hours, when the workers flee the city night behind the green-glowing window slats of rapid transit. I’ve not been downtown in awhile, and it looks as if the lake foam has showered the sky, smoke rising out the tops of skyscrapers. They seem connected. It makes me pause to imagine an architect looking on the oil refineries with their tall, fiery black stacks poking up across the city’s South Side, burnt industrial waste pluming into the chill reaches of lower troposphere. Thus the skyscraper was born?
Inside the Santa Fe building, an old railway exchange built by Burnham and Co., I stroll in under, then up the steps to Donald Young’s gallery on the balcony one floor above. I’m here for “Combinations Described (Chicago),” a show of Bruce Nauman’s latest work. Usually I wouldn’t be attracted to a blue-chip exhibition, but as readers of my introductory column will recall, I have a soft spot for Nauman. And it’s a beautiful building. Young moved here some years back, abandoning the gallery’s former airy location in the West Loop, now a tiny front space and offices.
On a screen suspended in the middle of the front room, the artist’s hands are put through a series of commands audible from a speaker in each corner in the room, and in six different voices, audible four at a time: “Left hand, thumb. Right hand, index finger. Both hands…” and so on. Watching, it evokes for me a test of the communication between mind and body, similar those given to test the functioning of psychomotor skills. Likewise, here the hand movements read as a test for disjunction in a subject’s grasp of symbolic meaning, for this progression of hand combinations to create a dissociative effect from the specific gestural baggage that an extended index finger or raised pointer finger and pinky would usually carry. This procedural effect is preserved through the audio as well, with the voices uttering the finger-position instructions combining into the instantaneous utterances of separate commands (best I could tell). Making them impossible to follow has the effect of a glossolalia of sensory echoes caused in the association-making process that occurs between listening and hearing, cognition and memory.
In a back office hang a series of three mid-scale drawings (one was out for show at Frieze at the time of my visit). They seem drawn by tracing a hand on the paper, then filling in details. Rather than focusing on the skill of the drawings, or their bodily aspect, the efficacy of their effect is instead simply in the rendering of each instance of the combinations from the video. This led me, distinct from what I’d gathered from the video, to view each combination more like allusions to the set of teeth on a key. Drawn categorically, they represent the finger positions in all of the available permutations, left and right hand, then both hands, zero through five for a total of 31 different positions. Again without any indication of having taken on any specific meaning that may occur within them, as a whole they enumerate the finitude of a distinctly hyper-aware corporeality. Understated and suspenseful, I leave wanting more of the same.
Four short blocks up Michigan Avenue at the Chicago Cultural Center, on my way upstairs for “Write Now: Artists and Letterforms,” I bump into Michael Thomas, an art lifer and Director of the now-defunct legendary Dogmatic Gallery, an exceptional artist’s space where a list of notables such as Paul Chan got their start. After a few minutes of catching up, we’re joined by his wife Meg Duguid, who works in the building at the city’s Office of Culture and Tourism (formerly the Department of Cultural Affairs, which was somewhat controversially folded in together with Tourism just prior to Rahm Emmanuel taking office). An artist known for sharply clever and witty performances, she’s perhaps most well-known for her stunningly popular “Dance With Me…,” a silent, wireless headphone dance party held some years back at the city’s MCA that seemed to draw imitators out of the woodwork. This afternoon Duguid also happens to be toting her current project, a wood box occasionally filled with a rotating roster of diminutive-scale artworks she refers to as Clutch Gallery. While we’re waiting for the show to open upstairs, she indulges me a view of the latest installment in the series, a small geometric structure called “This Island” by Chicago artist Nicole Northway. Inside sits a small, vaguely trapezoidal articulation of an imagined island constructed of brown, brackish struts tied with red and green thread, and encrusted with a coating of hand-grown crystal. It clearly also resembles the structure of a live-firing neuron connection in the brain, lit from within, as if aglow with the soft electric light of active tissue. It’s a piece easy to imagine at several hundred times its present scale, filling a giant vaulted museum hall.
Chicago artist Meg Duguid with her Clutch Gallery project.
Upstairs, there’s a line outside the exhibit entrance. It’s no wonder why, curated by the Office’s intellectually stalwart and smart Nathan Mason, and promising a show of works by more than 100 artists. Waiting patiently, all of the earlier encounter with the conscious process of perception and meaning-making has me primed for an encounter with an exhibition on the subject of the human-functioning capacities of language. Right up front, before getting to the good stuff, it’s worth footnoting three things that made this exhibition less gripping for me than it could have been: first, it’s simply got too many artists, packed in too small a space. Secondly, while it’s understood that the mandate for the Office of Tourism and Culture is to in some degree support the community as a whole, there is also just too much a mix of good with rote work and, thirdly, though there is indeed much to recommend it, it does feel as though the topic was so compelling that it got top-loaded with much of the city’s Rolodex of go-to talent, and not always in a way that strengthens the overall encounter with individual works.
Joel Ross, "Torture Sounds Incredible," 2011. Courtesy the Chicago Cultural Center.
All that said, it’s hard for a writer not to find easy delights in a show about words, and I do. Initial stand-outs include Joel Ross, whose “Torture Sounds Incredible,” an LED lighted-form wall-hanging, wins the bold statement award for its needling of the public conscious about torture. In this over-the-top proposition, standing a roughly good eight feet in height, the glowing red letters tower over the viewer, commanding attention and reducing human proportionality against the height of the proposition. Its declarative ambiguity hinges on the word “incredible,” obviously. Is that to say, delightful? Not likely. Pleasurable? Masochists may agree. More likely: beyond belief, difficult to process the existence of, absurd. Binding together in this predicated language the acceptance and simultaneous rejection of the act of torture (since it’s always an act, of course, prosecuted upon an other), linguistically recreates the confusion and mindlessness of torture, of resistance and denial, pain and its resultant evacuation of the minds of both torturer and victim.
Speaking of torture, Aron Gent’s “Interstate (Toll Receipts),” which collects together several hundred Chicago toll booth receipts, pretty much gets the feeling right too. It’s a perverse pleasure of a sort to see one city agency using their platform to support a work that lands another city agency stone-cold in its crosshairs, especially one which has been the subject of an outpouring of such derision in recent years as the Department of Transportation. A subject of massive privatization, the CDOT has been sold off wholesale by the former Mayor Daley just prior to his leaving office, in a budget fire-sale nonpareil. Since their outsourcing to a private agency, Chicago motorists need maintain a travel budget equal that of a Scrooge McDuck-sized swimming pool of gold coins for the privilege of parking at city meters, and the similarly privatized Chicago Skyway tolls have been no less merciless. Of course, that’s not to mention fuel prices often among, and in a few instances actually ranking as, the very highest in the nation. The wall installation, which arranges the toll receipts in a grid that rises from the floor to the considerable heights of the exhibition hall ceiling, points up the monumental impact of this niggling daily shakedown that is a quotidian bane for the average Chicagoan. Punny and deadpan, it’s a real groaner.
Tom Torluemke’s “Atone. Dedicated To Amber: A moment in time that changed the rhyme,” 2011. Installation view.
Hung high in a back corner of ceiling and presiding over the entire exhibition is Tom Torluemke’s “Atone. Dedicated To Amber: A moment in time that changed the rhyme,” a wall-painted and suspended, cut-paper installation. Whimsical and childlike in its aesthetic, the installation depicts an imagined piece of sky-writing as drawn by the contrails of a paper airplane against an inverted, heart-shaped swatch of blue background. Its high placement, of course, signifies a divine commandment, an incitement to seek out reconciliation and correct the inevitable error of our all-too-human vicissitudes. Viewers are left to reflect on what, if anything, they are being asked to atone for exactly, except for the context of the curatorial focus on language itself, perhaps indicting the ambition that resulted in the Scriptural division of language. Elevating the word to superhuman proportions, though clearly locating issuance of the commandment from the hand of the artist that has set the paper airplane aloft, may also indicate an edict to humble artistic ambitions in a self-aware and droll reflection on the mysteries of language and art, equally alive and capable of lapsing into the sin of seriousness. Maybe. But it could also just be a good fun elaboration of heartbreak blues.
The Occupy Chicago crowd in front of the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank.
We leave satisfied, and fried from visual overdose. Afterward, joined by a few friends, we decide to catch the train down to the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago for the solidarity protest withOccupy Wall Street (#occupywallstreet). We decamp at the Quincy stop and walk the remaining few blocks between us and the financial zone lorded over by the Chicago Board of Trade at one end, and the Reserve Bank adjacent. It’s an almost perfect segue way from the Cultural Center’s textual agglomeration to the frenetic scatter and desperate calls to action on the streets at Occupy Chicago (#occupychicago). And, where else to find language put to good use than on the protest signs of those seething crowds of humanity calling for a better world? Immediately after the turn off onto Jackson it’s a madhouse, hundreds of cyclists on a Critical Mass rally pouring through the streets, bells ringing, lights, voices and sirens filling the air, white-collar workers scrambling across the intersections to escape the heaving crowds of Occupy Chicago demonstrators. It’s an impressive sight, a few minutes of which are captured in the following video:
Once the cyclists move on, a crowd of roughly one hundred protestors linger on, hemmed into the width of the narrow sidewalk, chanting slogans calling for common-sense financial reforms, quotes from Goethe and Jefferson clearly enjoying a vogue among the activists. Protest signs are drawn in colored marker and Sharpie, hand-scrawled slogans of anger and disbelief at current social inequities, almost all of them drawn onto found pieces of cardboard. There’s a palpable sense of delight and a ludic spirit that permeates the air, and it gets me thinking about the radical imagination and the histories of protest and activist art.
Occupy Chicago protesters making signs. Image courtesy Rachel Helene Swift.
Chicago, of course, has been the scene of some of the most radical and markedly violent movements in the history of social unrest, from theHaymarket riots to the Weathermen bombings and Days of Rage. But something is different about the nature of this moment. While I don’t think it’s useful exactly to track the well-documented origins and history of protest art—there are diverse available examples ranging from Guernica to Hans Haacke to Fairey’s Obama posters—the participatory nature of these virally-spread, now-global protest events clearly denotes a degree of social performance, one where the crowd identity is galvanized into a rough approximation of community action as a sort of Beuysian social sculpture. It’s a new kind of world population, a distinctly American-influenced one, trying to find and claim its soul.
A protester holding his hand-made sign at Occupy Chicago.
Heading out for cocktails with editors from the local alt-weekly at Printer’s Row, we pass a window display at the Paul Stuart clothier a few steps down from the Federal Reserve building. In it, a headless suit and disembodied pair of hands are posed as if in mid-performance. Businessmen as musicians fiddling out the tunes the rest of the world are forced to dance to, shades of human beings reduced to corporate phantasms. Invisible hand become invisible man, Babbitt’s ghost. Looking at this window display, I’m prompted into a reverie on the art world’s relationship with society, how our ability as people to communicate has been reinvigorated by a resistant strain in our still-nascent global market culture, intervened on by a sense that the connection and communication our recent technological advancements have afforded us is insufficient, that we do in fact need something more than a reassurance of power to define ourselves and the world we live in. It will be interesting to see what reverberations occur in the art world, shot through and shaped by its difficult and unending reliance on patronage and the corruptions of its incipient private-interests. Not much is likely to change. But perhaps a critical reevaluation of its relationship to commerce on some level could open up fecund and interesting artistic dimensions beyond the myopia of the usual market-dominated productions of the last roughly ten years.
The window display at the Paul Stuart clothier next to the Federal Reserve.
We hail a taxi at the corner and hop in. As the street lights divide up the darkness, I realize I’ve been unconsciously tapping my fingers against my palms, moving them in a loose approximation of those earlier combinations. I’m frustrated and tired of feeling isolated in my thoughts. I sit down more. Maybe I’m casting after a glimpse of some elusive, new inner moment that corresponds with the shifting surfaces passing outside. If so, it hasn’t come yet. It’s okay. Maybe it never will.