Bert Stabler is a Chicago art critic, and my sometime collaborator. He kindly offered to let me post this essay he wrote on the Chicago gallery scene.
A Thousand Tempestuous Teacups
by Bert Stabler
Clare Britt and Dov Scher’s Fraction Workspace is gone as of the close of 2007, as is Britton Bertrand’s 40000 and Kat Parker and Katie Rashid’s Duchess, and, for this and sundry other reasons, the surviving members of the Network- 65Grand, Western Exhibitions, Lisa Boyle Gallery, Corbett vs. Dempsey, and, at the end, Green Lantern and Roots & Culture—have decided to end the affiliation. At the same time, recently-opened spaces that are doing impressive work include Brown Triangle, Roots & Culture, The Co-Prosperity Sphere, Rowley Kennerk Fine Art, Green Lantern, mini-dutch, giftshop, Finch Gallery, and the revived Deadtech. Milwaukee Avenue is erupting again with scruffy loft art spaces: Wor, Happy Dog, and Fuck Mountain. The latest round of deaths and births among small art venues in Chicago, as well as a recent trend toward greater elocution and dialogue on the part of artists, curators, and spaces, might coax the lay bystander to expect that a sense of self-awareness is burgeoning on the part of local artists’ spaces, and is perhaps inching toward the realm of the articulable. Such is not the case, and, at least for sport, I would like to attribute it to the long-cherished idea that art, music, and poetry disclose truths beyond that of mere philosophy or religion. This ineffability is theorized in the notion of the “sublime,” the ecstatic vastness of death that romantics once found in nature and named the Absolute. What has created uncomfortable blank spots in the pedantic meta-aesthetics of Kant and Adorno, and absurd bluster in the visionary tracts of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, has equally sabotaged my attempt to get any handle on what Chicago has lost with the most recent meltdown of prominent micro-art-spaces, and the resulting disintegration of the West Town Gallery Network.
My apologies to anyone who works in an office where late-night TV is frequently discussed. I don’t, but I was at a place in Puerto Rico with cable, over Thanksgiving, and saw the Adult Swim cartoon Metalocaplypse. It’s about a fictional Scandinavian black metal band called Dethklok, and it’s fabulous. On the episode I saw, the band was talked into making a movie, to be titled “Blood Ocean.” Appropriate to the catatonic barely-animated aesthetic, “Blood Ocean” ended up as a disaster (in a bad way). The shots alternated between paralyzed stammering monologues, including the singer sitting in a life raft on a large expanse of red, muttering about how incomprehensibly big the blood ocean was, and the guitar player as a Space Viking in a big scary spaceship, explaining that his planet needs to find an ocean of blood. The tuxedo-clad zombie-rockers walked out of the premiere in mute embarrassment. The profundity in their hearts was betrayed by finite expression. This seems to be the affliction that comes upon many in the art-for-art’s-sake world when they profess to explain their reason for being.
In his article “Black Metal as Cryptic Logo Jihad,” Daniel van der Velden disparagingly explains the appeal of black metal to artsy people by quoting curator Dieter Roelstraete to this desultory effect. “The world looks with great envy and longing at the bizarre excesses of a handful of spoiled Norwegian teenagers, because it thinks it represents a residue of realness that can no longer be experienced in its own habitat, which has long been paralyzed by the cult of irony.” As pointed as this (ironic) critique may seem, it really applies to every surface on which we, the sad pseudo-leisure-class heirs of humanism, project our frustrated urges for the sublime. Without stating it as such,Van der Velden’s analysis of unreadable band logos and the stammering parody of Blood Ocean make the same point– the sublime denies all ability to speak on its behalf. In fact it exists in Lacan’s “imaginary” outside of symbolization, as an attempt to deal with. as Roelstraete smugly indicates, the “Real “. The Freudian “death drive” is the reason we find the same obsessive glory in both monumentality and emptiness. It is the impulse to experience annihilation.
So what do the closings of dinky storefront and apartment art spaces have to do with the “sublime”—that is, Edmund Burke having a petit mort experience while witnessing a hurricane? Well, both categories are ephemeral and carry meaning precisely through their organic pointlessness. In the case of small spaces, the physical area often isn’t “prepared,” it’s domestic, and the work and the living area bump into each other—for example, jon.satron’s show SUBTXT at 65Grand reproduced Bill Gross’ kitchen space in wallpaper formed by printed characters, and Huong Ngo’s show “Savage Parallelograms” at Duchess combined costume elements, sculpture, video, and (again) wallpaper. The work in a small art space can certainly be framed pieces on a white wall, but still, the subtle effect is often one of formlessness—a key element of the sublime. “Abjection” is defined by Julia Kristeva as a condition of uncertain boundaries, neither subject nor object, the fear and fascination of re-entering the womb. But is that what one experiences upon deliberately going to see a metal obelisk in some stranger’s bathroom?
There may be, if you’ll bear with me, more to it than that. To the extent these places have any magic powers, it’s because nobody—artists who are visitors, artists who are showing, artists who run the space– when they are asked, can really explain what they’re doing there. The experience is much like watching the members of Dethklok attempt to explicate the horrific grandeur of the Blood Ocean. Justin Berry, who helps run Alogon Gallery, convened a discussion on small spaces last year at the Betty Rymer Gallery at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. From most art people I spoke with, the results were generally deemed unsatisfying. Titled, “Alternative to Alternative,” the panel convened Michelle Grabner, who co-runs the renowned house space The Suburban in Oak Park, Philip Von Zweck, who runs the Chicago apartment space VONZWECK, Patricia Courson, who co-runs the Chicago apartment space Lloyd Dobler, Scott Reeder, who co-runs the Milwaukee storefront space General Store, Shannon Stratton, who manages the quite successful Chicago nonprofit ThreeWalls (who now administer a residency, three spaces, and publications including Paper & Carriage), and, to mix it up, Chicago MCA curator Dominic Molon. Unsurprisingly, nobody (other than Molon) was terribly enthusiastic about the term “alternative” as a description of the space they represented—a label applied to all mainstream white rock after Pearl Jam is hardly an unsullied adjective.
But in fact, nobody was too enthusiastic about any clear purpose for art or the spaces that show it. To the extent there was a point, it was all about creating possibilities for artists to “experiment” and realize ideas—but not to represent a certain vision, or to evoke or provoke any particular responses in the audience. The panel was full of erudite people relating engaging anecdotes, and Berry did a heroic if slightly hamfisted effort of trying to clarify the thoughts of gallery people on their place in the murky quasi-political realm of what is now called, after Nicholas Bourriard, “relational aesthetics.” But two glaring omissions crippled the dialogue—there were no representatives of commercial spaces, indie or otherwise, and, most significantly, there were no representatives of artist groups with any stated interest in specific communities, or in “oppositional” practices.
Unsurprisingly the only consensus seemed perhaps to be that politics, with its regime of ethics, and economics, with its regime of money, should, in the main, be distinct from art, with its regime of taste. The forthright Grabner, in particular, righteously deplored the impact of “counterculture lifestyles” on “progressive social movements,” though later noting her lack of interest in the “mediocracy” of her increasingly large audiences. Philip von Zweck is repeatedly on the record saying that he won’t show anyone he doesn’t trust with keys, and that his most important audience is himself. Indeed, the sublime is not for everyone, and fine art is pretty irrelevant for most people. But, as shown in civil rights campaigns for blacks, women, and gays, propaganda is sometimes effective when it’s positive. And, more to the point, culture can be both sublime and entertaining—just look at Metalocaplypse.
What appears as arrogance just reflects the egalitarian trauma of attempting to share the most internal experiences with one another—especially in an arena as full of competitive insecure egos as the third-city (being generous) fine art world. In a recent dream, I was an external observer to a sinister narrative in shadowy corridors, and then somehow I became involved when I received a message in the form of a poem. In a grand abandoned landscape of Corinthian facades, a wondrous woman explained it to me—all I can remember is that “lunette” and “Yvette:” were secret metrics for the proportions of the eye. There was whispering and fear, but a heart-rending torch melody floated in the air—some part Carpenters, some part Ashanti, some part Beethoven. At some point in the dream I left this story and recalled it as a dream that I had somehow recorded. Still in the dream, I tried to get the woman from my dream and her boyfriend, who were (in the dream) staying at my house, to watch the recorded dream on my TV. They humored me for a couple minutes, and then decided to go get breakfast. If there is any pathos in the vogue for artistic failure, there it is. It’s daunting enough to keep something shapeless and tender alive in a fairly solid vessel like paint or pixels. How can it possibly survive in the collapsing, fragmented edifice of mundane chatter? The answer I think nobody was willing to venture was “faith.”
In my conversations with the creators of the disparate commercially and non-commercially focused spaces in the West Town Gallery Network, everyone was articulate and responsive, and cared about someone known as “the artist,” and something called “art.” Britton Bertran believed there was some nonspecific continuity between all of the West Town Gallery Network spaces– ”There is/was a kind of unconscious collectivity there that very, very few people caught on to. (and this is not just the trendy stuff – but real ideas.)” Ultimately, though, the Network members didn’t seem to have a straightforward idea what the Network may have meant, accidentally or otherwise, outside of a promotional gambit. Berry and his panelists noted the history of small spaces coming and going, from the nonprofits NAME Gallery and Randolph Street Gallery and the artist-run Uncomfortable Spaces in the ‘90s, through Seven Three Split and Joymore around the turn of the millennium, through, along with the aforementioned Network closings, the recent departure of Dogmatic, Polvo, and Booster and Seven. But if I can make a stab at what has stayed consistent, and what kept the Network coherent, is that the unique local small-space intimacy is more than physical. It’s social– it has everything to do with the audience. As Western Exhibitions’ Scott Speh commented, “We see the same people at the non-profits, the indies, the commercials, the museums — there is no opposition — all these spaces are just places people go to see art.” Venue is far less important than validation.
What is always flourishing is a sharing of legitimacy, the cultural capital generated by the art schools in town. My “Wankonomy” (I’m the wanker—it’s a pretty pedantic list) describes three general phenomena that support the fine art realm, by propping up each other’s legitimacy. We have the nonprofit sector (including art schools, museums, foundations, afterschool programs, etc.), the for-profit sector (which now has attained the formless sublime of the international art fair behemoths), and the granular “indie” sector (which has attained the formless sublime of a million leisure-time micro-enterprises). The expectation is that the non-profits are democratic but stuffy, for-profits are vibrant but crass, and indies are authentic but obscure. In a cynical Adorno-inspired article in Afterall on the recent morally scrupled resignation of curator Chris Gilbert from the Berkeley Art Museum, Peter Osbourne opined that “The dominant not only appropriates the emergent, it facilitates its production as emergent, as the condition of its appropriation.” Perhaps echoing Michelle Grabner’s jaded outlook, he laments, “ The absence of effective oppositional politics today is largely the condition of its institutional representation.” Seeing yuppies scuttling in and out of chic monosyllabic boutiques and bistros in Wicker Park, this may seem applicable to our local scene.
But Chicago’s young wealthy urbanites are not buying art approved by foreign art fairs, or refracting the curtting-edge day-glo nostalgia underground. Art consumers flock instead to schmaltzy art fairs and River North galleries that churn out homogenous overdesigned domestic ornaments and a recognizable brand of outsider art. Meanwhile, global attention is drawn to the conceptually heavy work of artists like Walead Beshty, Inigo Manglano-Ovalle, and Dan Wang. Artists simply don’t succeed financially or culturally through showing in Chicago’s small legitimate galleries; rather, these worthy spaces often succeed through the institutional authority of the grad students waiting to follow their influences to distant market power sources in L.A., Europe, and, of course, New York. But the scrappy spaces in Chicago do have a certain autonomy that is enviable, and perhaps ineffable. Perhaps not much can really be said about these spaces other than whether they succeed at showing energetic, trippy artwork. But they do seem to have a struggle of a straddle, trying to keep a foot in local and regional culture on the one hand, and in the international art market on the other.
Artist Eric May, who runs Roots & Culture Gallery, may have something in his suggestion that a good concept with which to replace “alternative space” might be “neighborhood space.” Local artists’ collectives like Material Exchange, InCUBATE,, Feel Tank, and Temporary Services, are sometimes perceived as being part of the “institutional critique” associated with Hans Haacke and the Guerrilla Girls in the ‘80s, but to me their concerns seem more centered on the places they live and connection with people outside the art world. These groups often do anarchist-themed projects around scavenging surplus space and material, low-tech sustainability, prison and homelessness culture, free publications, small-scale fundraising, non-monetary exchange, and lots of do-it-yourself teaching, cataloguing, and inventing. There’s also some crossover with less explicitly didactic public performance groups, like Industry of the Ordinary and the now-defunct Lucky Pierre. These groups relate to national and international groups like Center for Land Use Interpretation, Basekamp, rum46, and The Center for Tactical Magic, who employ a scrappy, analytic approach to public performance and process-based work that generally values a utilitarian visual style in the service of projects with political and moral content.
ThreeWalls director Shannon Stratton, whose space has shown socially engaged work, and who admits having a “soft spot” for collectives doing ethical-tactical art, does make the comment that there is an avoidance of critique about or around these projects, “standing by ‘ethics’ over aesthetics in some cases, as a bar that has been achieved without any sense of the qualifiers (of efficacy).”
But maybe it’s all about context, since my impression is that if these groups are about anything, it’s dialogue. Last summer’s “Pedagogical Factory” event at the Hyde Park Art Center, organized by the Stockyard Institute, a teaching group led by Jim Duignan, and Daniel Tucker’s AREA Chicago magazine, held a dizzying schedule of workshops, presentations, and discussions. In 2008, Mess Hall and Experimental Station have both already hosted extended bouts of presentations and discussion around public work (with many of the same participants). “Silence=Death” was, after all, the immortal slogan of the ACT UP movement, and it certainly was reflected in AIDS-activist art collectives Gran Fury and General Idea, who were forerunners of today’s public-art collectives. The issue of “too much talk” or “not enough dialogue” is interesting, but it isn’t quite getting to the point. Neither is the issue that the factions have brought up vis-à-vis the “relevance” of indie spaces or the “efficacy” of collectives. The art world in Chicago just needs to honor more kinds of artists, who are representing more kinds of people.
This debate around what constitutes the properly theorized approach to “being an artist”—whether it means hosting public map projects or bartering events that don’t remind most people of art, or hanging quirky patrician artifacts in apartments, or founding a business model on showing Chicagoans unfamiliar art they will never buy– does seem to be distracting us from who the “artists” in question are, and what kind of attitude they’re carrying around. Right now the local post-grad scene is dominated by too many bitter straight white people (men especially) with a chip on their shoulder—and yes, I plead guilty. The gallery world in Chicago is alive, it has a storied history, and it is improving. But when the era of mute stoic contemplation versus academic verbal diarrhea comes to an end, maybe we can learn how to talk to each other. The blood ocean needs love too.
American mainstream-fine art sits on three weird deformed legs. These are known as….
For their assistance on researching this article I would particularly like to thank Justin Berry, Britton Bertrand, Erik Brown, Salem Collo-Julin, Kat Parker, Scott Speh, and Shannon Stratton.