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Artropolis Chicago Posted on May 9th

Artropolis seems like a fitter name for a collaborative drawing of a dinosaur in a elementary school classroom rather than the name of Chicago’s biggest art show. Likewise, much of what Artroplois had to offer reminded me of childhood–not its innocent wonder or spontaneity, but its best forgotten temptations and strictures.The main show, held on the 7th floor of the Merchandise Mart, was so huge that it would be unfair to say that there was a prevailing theme. But there certainly was. Nearly half the works in the show contained one of the following elements:

1. A material or texture that made you want to touch it.

2. An optical illusion.

3. Flat, bright colors that looked suited to car paint or plastic toys.

4.Images, colors, and fonts borrowed from 1960’s and 1970’s children toys and advertisement. 5. Low concepts.In the first category, there was a shiny oil, monochromatic oil painting that’s only notable feature was that the paint was textured to look like perfectly brushed black hair. In the second category, there was a glass doorway with light bulbs strategically placed behind it, making it appear as if it opened to downward sloping chute to the abyss. Also in the second category was a painting/ wall sculpture of the interior of a museum, showing a view of several rooms complete with tiny recreations of Van Goghs and Monets, The trick here was that the perception of the rooms’ depth was paradoxically created by a physical projection of the work.

Too many works to mention fit category three, and category four–the “vintage look” was strangely dominant as well. Vintage toys themselves were worked into several pieces, and their presence was merely implied in others. Representative works are hard to recall, but MeeNa Park’s mixed media works on old coloring books would do as a reference.

The final observation–low concept–seemed the natural outgrowth of everything else. There was little pure abstraction, little straightforward representational work, and no high-concept work meant to challenge one’s ideas of artmaking. Instead, most pieces seemed to operate off a very simple, and seemingly throwaway concept. For instance, the basic purpose of the museum piece and the glass doorway with the lights behind it is simply try to trick the eye. A sculpture made of yellow stacked blocks painted with different sections of a stick figure seemed to only be pointing out the obvious disjunction between a crude two-dimension stick man and a three dimensional object. Hardly any of these pieces succeeded aesthetically in my eyes, although I did have some fondness for David Opdyke’s “Vista,” a work made of foam made to appear like a cutaway of the earth’s crust below a landscape. The stratification of the soil and rock was pleasing compositionally, and the small trees and grass at the top of the work gave it an ominous scale.

david-opdykevista.jpgDespite some successes, I was surprised by the combination of blandness and audacity in most of the works. The ideas behind them seemed so absurdly simple, yet the notion that an artist went through with painting a stick figure on yellow blocks, for example, is audacious in itself. What mechanism in artists’ minds allows them not only to think of such a dull idea, but to also want to see it in real life? Great art (and I thought this was obvious) is distilled or essential–the outcome of the artist’s careful culling of inferior ideas or derivative instincts. Part of the beauty of a work of art and literature is its sense of aftermath–what you see or read is the fallout of a long, circuitous struggle you can only infer.

Even lacking this, the piece were still perversely enthralling. So much of it begged to be touched that there was an uncomfortable desire to grab and stroke at every turn. The control I needed to exert over these improper impulses was somewhat exhilarating–like a child, I fantasized about how bad I wanted to be (oh, to open the light bulb door and pretend I was simply lost! To run my nails across the hair-painting! Oh to bite Opdyke’s vista, to test the chewiness of the foam!) Optical illusions are also obviously hypnotic, and I stood there weaving my head back and forth and shutting one eye with the rest of the crowd. Again, though, this brought me back to more childhood–I felt duped and irritated by the optical tricks, much like I once did in the hands of a smart aleck bully.The viewing experience was curious, but not much more.

My main impression was that these uniformly lacked any healthy shame, and I guess that was the point. Perhaps these works were exalting the inconsequential as way of mocking the heavy sense of purpose in some art, perhaps they were saying that the first impulse is the only one worth following, or perhaps this work emerged from a long struggle to dodge any natural quality checks. Ultimately, most of the art was making the now-tired point that to be a an artist today one must be hostile to Art–that is, to flagrantly display a disregard for quality, beauty, or discernment. But an artist being hostile to Art seems redundant and dangerous when everything else in society already is. Doesn’t Art need at least artists in its trenches?

There were a few works that seemed to resist the to-do-art-is-to-hate-art approach. Chicago artist Gordon Powell’s beautiful piece, “Drawing 1,” was a small rectangle of wood pieces inland in a field of white. The piece was small and unassumingly displayed, but its quiet success provided a healthy balance to the showy proud-to-fail quality of what I had mostly seen. I always like Darren Waterston’s work, so I was glad to see several of his pieces at different galleries. A piece of David’s Klamen’s (another Chicago artist) called “Commonwealth Plaza” was an installation of several small paintings of different styles. One of the paintings seemed to comment on a censoring aspects of either the viewer or the artist; it depicted a blacked out canvas accompanied by a whited-out placard.  This censure–total  to the point of obilvion–appeared merely prudent after seeing so much willfully  unchecked mediocrity.  Indeed, a blank would be better, being at least sincere in its lack.

david-klamen-haines-gallery.jpgDavid Klamen, “Commonwealth Plaza”

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Some Responses to “Artropolis Chicago” :

  1. Hello,
    Happened upon your blog & read some suprisingly intelligent prose considering it is free & my visit unplanned…Read from your older blog the post about redecorating the old professor’s home…truly hilarious & witty…so often do I find myself in that particular king of ridiculousness, well, I thought to introduce myself & encourage you to continue in your journey of philosophical endeavour…however inane it must feel at times…My name is Sari Grove & I am a painter from Canada & I will visit again when I have the time to think abstractly…I am at www.grovecanada.tv (still in progress), but feel free to visit & say hello…Sari

    Commented Sari on October 28th, 2007.
  2. Polis means city, though, doesn’t it? Maybe you’re thinking of Artasaurus?…

    Commented Anonymous on November 12th, 2007.
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