An Unsolicited Publication of Art Commentary
September 11, 1999
But may still smell like it. Most of the members of the Chicago Art Critics Association seem to have something better to do this week than look at art, and the organization is blameless in this production. These are, except where noted, the thoughts of Michael Bulka and/or Maria Jose Barandiaran (Maria's is the nice stuff, at least according to Michael).
In the spirit of CACA, these are print versions of casual conversations between critics. We assume you've seen the shows, or can, so less description and more commentary. Conclusions? Make your own: we only make arguments. Don't know who or where or what we are talking about? Pick up a Reader, or the phone book, or better, ask someone: risk a conversation.
You can see what a real CACA Newsletter looked like at
or complain to us at..
The Coyote people have been good about keeping out the hoards of jewelry/clothing/knickknack table-top boutiques that infest most art fairs, but they are trickling in. Just giving the public what it wants, I guess.
On the other hand, the shabby man with a pile of homemade snow globes, and the woman with a shopping-cart of yarn-decorated cartoon cut-outs are welcome addition. This is still a neighborhood and not yet a mall.
But where is the NOT ART guy this year?
Sexist outer-space fantasy in an idiosyncratic medium. Cool. Dargeresqe. And they're really shiny with lots of colors.
Nabbing every cab in the city on an ongoing photo-safari is an admirably obsessive, eccentric project, but at two-weeks of age it is too young to leave the incubator. The socio-economic BS about private and public spaces points in interesting directions, b ut until it is manifest in the work, it is nothing that we need to know. Is it going too far to suggest that Mr. Phelps is another victim of The School's nominal crit system?
The space, though, has promise assuming it is not just Coyote-temporary. Bodybuilder does a great job with nothing more than a display window.
Speaking of display windows, I can't remember ever seeing a futon here. Somebody realizes that frontage can be more than a marketing opportunity. (The changing front of Exit is pretty good, too.) This week's is the least futon-like.
Of course, no-one can pay attention to the play. The spectacle, the event is so much stronger (and the noise of the traffic and the pressure to get to twenty other Around-, or Avoid-the-Coyote spaces). Great window, not so great theater.
Sometimes the most trivial things make the strongest impression. The list of artists in this show reads like a poem on diversity. And then there is this big steel sculpture in the middle of the room with pointy bits just at eye-level. The points are padded with what look to be foam-rubber ear plugs. On a more serious note, there are some painters there that need to be seen more: Hiroko Sato, Dave Renninger, Joe Crosetto, Drago Djekich. Because artists wither if they don't get seen.
Had enough of the cows? Watch out for the parades of pigs and [squirrels]. You will have to watch for them, though, not just because they are smaller, but there is no city tourism budget behind them. There are also no committees or corporate-sponsorship, so they are likely to be more weird and good.
And speaking of cows, here are some bits from e-mail that I am quoting without permission:
From one: "To all the rant fans who dislike the cows: Don't player hate baby, hate the ho's."
And from another: "The cow thing is the last straw. We, the artists, have been preempted and bypassed in a media corporate takeover. I feel no pity for the misguided involved, politicos, artists and their corporate partners, and us the saps that pay for it all."
A Wall Street Journal reporter called me a couple of weeks ago to ask about the cows. After several minutes of conversation, I realized he was putting the cows in the same category as the flag-on-the-floor and the Harold Washington painting: Mike Lash had confiscated a cow that was unauthorized. Oh wow, censorship in Chicago, again.
This is a really a bad situation. While some want to hype our community as the next big thing, others see us as stupid hooligans who care about painting on fiberglass cows. (I saw such a cow in Zurich over the summer, and almost jumped out of my skin! Are these death-like cows everywhere? Then I remembered that Switzerland is where these damn cows came from in the first place.)
But if the Wall Street Journal guy ends up not using my cow quotes, here goes: He said, "You really hate the cows, don't you." I said, "No! I hate having to talk about the cows in context of art." -- Kathryn Hixson
I usually just skim for opening bullets, but all that small print is worth reading. Joel is usually very funny and mostly right.
The variations on a theme made this a lot like looking at the cows: some are very much like what I imagine the retablo tradition to be, others just happen to be small paintings on metal. There are clever solutions to the exercise, some that would be beautiful objects in any context, a few mindless tokens by relatively famous artists and the inevitable sprinkling of egregious crap. We don't see much traditional figure painting; there are some lovely ones here, even if the figures are all fucking, and lots of much less literal interpretations.
Pornography? "Sexually charged Art"? I'm a little surprised at how difficult it is to be offended. Drawings and paintings that in general are not as well made, graphic, clever or erotic as many of the sextablos. Maybe I am a little offended: at content covering for craft. The photographs here tend to be very nice, very straight, sensual images of women who just happen to be in bondage. Not quite as sexy as Weston's peppers. But at least some people still dress up to go out to openings.
It pays to check out the listings at spaces.org. Ned put up this four-day group show of things pulled out from the back room with no other announcement, so hardly anyone showed up on Thursday. In other years at Coyote-time Beret has mounted smart and entertaining shows with the added advantage of being designed to piss off the tourists (like "The Worst Show", and Jno Cook's noisy installation of broken computers and internet porn). This time the happy art shoppers might be confused or amused, but not scared or offended.
Jno's Bitching Toaster and Van Valgardsons's mini version of his bonsai machine are very funny; Andrew Moore's baroque globs are Stuff-like, but hideous and happy; Phil Kotulski's blinking gimmick works better in a mixed crowd than at his one-man summer show (and the paint on these is better than on the plaid ones, too). And there is other more serious work that you should recognize.
The large ink-jet prints remind us of the last show at Feitico (I seem to have a theme going here), but it must just be the similar level of different techniques of computer manipulation. The earlier show was nekkid wimmin in body paint, with some Photoshop tricks. These appear to be video stills with additional tweaking, of one of the artists, obscenely pregnant, in bathing suit, cap and goggles, vogueing around the city. Very Schprokets.
The pictures are just lobby decoration on the way to the real show, in the small room. Projection video intercutting and overlaying the vogue stuff, with footage shot through the window of a car going through various tunnels, all accompanied by a constant loud high-pitched scream. Nothing could be more annoying. Except that this is so well done that it doesn't matter. I suspect that the rapid cuts and streaks of light induce some kind of epileptic hypnosis. Or maybe it is that the screaming makes it impossible to think too much about it.
White Trash Girl yet again. Love the concept, babe, but it's all in the difference between art-school editing and good editing. Go to the screaming room at Bona Fide, or maybe just pay attention while you're watching TV.
What is enthralling about Maher's TV pictures is the childishness and timelessness of the fantasy: women with snakes protecting their eggs. Adoring the Mother Goddess, whose obsession is it anyway? Is this any different than the screaming mother-to-be of...
Formal qualities aside, I think not.
Less baroque than the stuff at Yello, surreal nonetheless. Teresa Mucha's drawings are nearing perfection, a painfully silent world of women willfully transforming their bodies into flowers. Grotesque, but two sides of the same coin: the other side is on view at Bodybuilder, courtesy of MRI. But lest we think that artists can only conceive that desire resides exclusively in the female body, Steve DeFrank's Funtime Ken and Friends are a colorful explosion of sexiness.
So video is not dead at all, and the handful of videos on view right now center on Creation Myths: (e.) Twin Gabriel at BonaFide; Jennifer Reeder at CPR; Kirsten Stoltman at the Ukranian earlier this summer; and Graham's How I Became a Ramblin' Man. I had the perverse desire that Rodney would turn and give us a Reeder-gory "Do you wanna suck my dick," but he doesn't have to, of course not. Maybe youth is wasted on the young and that is why my all-time favorite is Stoltman's "Making Time", a meta-fantasy of the perfect art-chick day. WOW!
I heard on NPR that the US movie censors are finally going to let us see some brilliant frenchwoman's movie of female sexual desire, and the obtuse arguments about whether it is feminist or sexist have begun. What is tiresome about this kind of analysis (which is really about moral virtue) is that we are still talking about sexual desire residing in the female body: a space that men go to, a place that women never leave -- literally and metaphorically. The two most recent shows at B and S illustrate truncated sides of this debate: "All Girls, All Live" in August and the current "28 Girls."
The girl side: No matter how audacious Jennifer Reeder's curatorial opening extravaganza with dancers and a kissing booth was, it was about women getting off on turning men on. Aimee Mower's Torch and Pamela Jo Buchwald's Behind the Green Door (Tim and Holly's house) departed from this model by displaying the phallic/male energy in the sexual equation, because as women they are looking at men (instead of at horses, the symbolic male).
On the boy side: I know that Bulka expects me to say that Rob Davis and Mike Langlois MRI paintings are sexist, but I don't believe that: I think they are lovely.
And Bulka sez: Who can figure how a girl is going to see anything. They buy magazines full of pictures of better-looking women, then attack the advertisers for being abusive manipulators.
Two guys, known for their aggressive Law Office shows paint lovely, passive waifs from the magazines they have no business reading. There are gender issues in here somewhere, but I'll leave it to someone more familiar with the terrain.
I tend to see this as Mari Eastman's legacy -- a celebratioin of harmless adolescent obsessions that most of us repress.
Marian McPartland has a Sunday morning show on NPR. By virtue of being an old widow of a musician she is able to take the recent history of the world of jazz -- back before it was just another genre choice, when it was a vibrant, offensive, living thing -- and reduce it to two sad old people reminiscing over a piano. A very depressing hour of radio.
I couldn't help thinking of her show during "Millennium Reflections: 1945-1968 and Beyond", the CADA and vodka sponsored panel of old farts at the Arts Club. One of our sharper members suggested tossing matches at the stage to ignite all the gas. Even a case of adulterated vodka and rumors of snacks weren't enough to make an hour of self-congratulatory schmoozery preferable to a rainy trip home.
That said, Franz Shulze is a great moderator, and the panelists have some interesting stories. Predictably, the token artists had the most to say, though Ellen Lanyon was pretty much on the party line. I especially appreciated Vera Klement's archived anger and her reminder of the day when the Examiner was engaged enough to be worth reading. To his credit, Richard Gray almost dared to criticize the MCA. Oh, and oh the days.
There was so much that wasn't said tonight, mostly because of time. Channels 11 and 20 do some lame token promotional arts coverage, but viewers will know more about manatees in Kosovo than about art in Chicago. How much interest would there be in replacing one re-play of Chicago Tonight with Chicago Art This Week?
How easy is the Chicago art scene? I was argued against, but it seems to me that the only fence to hurdle is from the apartment show/ARC zone where everything is OK to Judith-approved international standing or a few other galleries where also, everything is OK, once you are in.
Being a player in the art scene has very little to do with talent or smarts or making swell art. Is this a problem?
"Oh. my husband is a doctor and he has such interesting stuff in his office. I don't really understand it, but it would make pretty pictures."
Su-en Wong: An SAIC grad? No kidding. She may have been born somewhere else and escaped to NYC on graduation, but this work should be inventoried as evidence of injury inflicted by The School, with a possible co-indictment of the Cultural Center for validating it: almost-competently rendered caricature self-portraits in the ultra-soft porn positions suitable for academic extrapolation, against inept flat backgrounds with intentions of cliched cultural relevance that even Ralph Lauren wouldn't commit. The girl should sue for tuition and damages.
Oh, jeez. As if the real Cow Parade weren't naive enough. Doesn't anyone in this building ever leave it enough to think that a viewer might have something in mind other than a decoration for the breakfast nook? This makes Around the Coyote look like the Biennial. Although, if I owned a tavern, there is one large impastoed Holstein in a daisy field that I would have to hang over the bar.
It is generally better (more productive, enlightening, useful) to regard student work as a step in a progress, as an analysis of an understanding of a history and system of thought. Our immediate culture, though, values any hint of novelty and marketability. The "whippersnappers" all want to go to Disneyland, even if they are not tall enough for the rides.
I especially like the story of Mike Lash confiscating the spray-painted cow from the Flo as "city property," to be repainted by someone else, while Maya Polsky gets to harbor Ed Paschke's gang-symboled bovine.
Fame does have its advantages.
Christian Konzett, this semester's visiting Austrian gave his self-accounting for his six months in Chicago -- a proposal for a guerilla fire-hose fountain from the Sears Tower observation deck, and an actualized project in a small apartment on the 52nd floor of a River North building.
The concept of The Blinker is very simple, but the experience unexpectedly rich. The lights and outlets of the spare, sterile apartment are wired trough a Christmas-tree-light circuit that blinks them erratically -- a few seconds on, a few off, in unison. Standard ceiling fixtures, a cheap floor lamp, a small B&W TV.
Flashing lights are nothing, but the surrounding events can be pretty good. A half-dozen people in an odd environment. The conversation...
While I've supposedly been writing about "craft," what I've really been writing about is the conflation of art media (i.e. the fact that you can make art out of anything now), and how that has played itself out in the brittle hierarchies and art fads endemic in the art world. I've thought that the best way to go about undermining the hierarchies was to work from within the system -- and that meant talking about it and analyzing it from an intellectual and historical point of view.
Aside from the fact that I spent close to ten years making pots, the thing that's always attracted me to craft (which used to be defined as objects made out of fiber, wood, metal, clay and glass, and still does to a certain extent) was that it was plainly out of the art loop. People involved in making craft objects had a certain freshness, and a certain resolve to make their own way in the act of "making" -- despite whatever was going on in the art world at large.
The term "art b-s" (and this is especially true of potters, metalsmiths and woodworkers) is common in the craft world, and it indicates a pride in separation from the latest trend or theories in art. This is a strength -- but also, I feel sometimes -- a weakness in contemporary craft because of its insularity. There were no more surprised people than crafts people when "fine" artists began making inroads into craft media -- in installation work and sculpture especially. There's some uneasiness about it.
I've not really wanted to become a craft "spokesperson" as I've developed as a writer about craft -- who can, after all, deign to speak for such a hardly independent group of nonconformists? But what I have been writing about is contemporary art from the pers pective of someone who has what might be called "craft values," that is, art that is community-oriented, feminist-based and hand-processed -- with a strong emphasis on the linkage between human beings, from maker to user, and user to user. There's a very strong anti-intellectual bias within the craft community, and I don't necessarily agree with it, but that stance has certainly allowed craftspeople a kind of freedom from the relentless drive of the art market always to produce something new. I think of it as the tyranny of the avant garde.
Of course, nowadays (if ever) it's not fashionable to call anything "craft" -- nowadays it's starting to be called "contemporary decorative art," a term that reeks of designer showrooms, and seems to deny the really subversive aspects of craft that have to do with function and women's work. I've reviewed plain old contemporary art, and hope to do more of it, but also I don't want to appear to quote/unquote "move on" from craft, as if it were something to get my big toe wet on before I went on to some other more important -- and "serious" kind of criticism.
So I guess I'll do both, and whether or not I get labeled as a "craft critic" will have to play itself out. It can be a problem for artists that I review, though, who aren't really craft artists, but who get labeled that way when I write about them.
These things aren't immediately resolvable -- if ever...
-- Polly Ullrich
Date: Sat, 4 Sep 1999 16:39:34 EDT
Subject: NY Times on Dave Hickey
The Saturday September 24, 1999 issue of The New York Times ("Arts & Ideas" section) contains a profile of UNLV art critic and teacher Dave Hickey by Todd S. Purdum. Though the piece could certainly be more thorough (more examples of his judgments, or excerpts from his writings, would help) it certainly raises a number of issues regarding criticism that are pertinent to this group and perhaps worthy of an in-person or on-line discussion/debate.
-- Andrew P.
The Times piece is just that paper's version of a celebrity profile -- trying to make a fat old man look sexy: lots of words about his lifestyle and bio, a brief mention of an academic controversy, but nothing of substance about the meat of the argument. No exposition of his ideas of beauty except that he is apparently willing to find it in music, movies and graffiti as well as in the museum. And I guess we are expected to take some reporters word for that "eminence terrible" business. One could hope that this country's premiere newspaper might take art a little more seriously.
As Hickey says in the last paragraph, once the mainstream press does this kind of fluff it is a sign that whatever usefulness he may have had is about over.
Aside from the article, my problem around Hickey isn't that he was able to spin an off-the-cuff comment into a thin book of essays, nor that the book led to his being the keynote speaker at every academic art conference of the past five years. The problem is with the academics who lap up his gentle, witty abuse and then go back to their routine, self-satisfied that they have visited a cutting-edge thought, when they have merely had comfortable old ideas re-presented. Hickey fills Oprah's kitsch niche in the art school ecology.
But, thank you, Andrew, for bringing it up.
Subject: Re: NY Times on Dave Hickey
Date: Tue, 7 Sep 1999 12:26:38 -0600
Right on bulka, I have always thought Hickey pretentious, lite-weight in his crit, and pretty much conservative-notions of beauty and quality formed somewhere around the Renaissance, I would say. I saw him be the most recent art-critic-fool to collectors at some rich person's loft many years ago, right before he got famous (due by the way to Ann Wiens's interview with him in the Examiner).
He got acclaim when people got tired of having to think so much. His sculpture international speech played straight to his audience: he called anything that wasn't object based and made by hand, not art. Ouch!