CHICAGO — The Fine Arts Building sits on a prime location on Michigan Avenue, just a few blocks south of the Art Institute. Its ornate interior contains dozens of studios which have housed a variety of artists and musicians for more than a century, since its construction in 1886. For a while, part of the building was used as an annex for the school of the Art Institute. The sculptor Lorado Taft, whose work is in public spaces all across Illinois, had a studio here, as for a time did architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Harriet Monroe (founder of Poetry Magazine), and William Denslow, the first illustrator of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. As recently as five years ago, there were seven small galleries there, too. That dwindled to one — Finestra Art Space on the fifth floor — and now that gallery is closing.
For their final exhibition, artist-owners Deborah Adams Doering and Glenn Doering held a public participation event called Backbone. Visitors to the gallery were invited to have their photo taken after first being draped in an ornate mantle made from carved cow bones and fish vertebrae, and wrapped in a blanket imprinted with the artists’ signature software code symbols (derived from the ones and zeroes of computer language). At first I was doubtful about the appropriation of African tribal culture that this process seemed to imply, but the resulting photos of people (of different ages, gender, and ethnic origin) had a surprising dignity and gravitas.
The Doerings’ work under the project name DOE Projekts, which refers to the first three letters of their surname and also to the American word for Everyman (as when officials write John Doe in the ‘Name’ part of a form when the person is still unidentified). “Dressing our subjects in this clothing is our way of turning them into Everyperson, and inviting them into our ‘tribe’,” said Glenn Doering. And why was the event called Backbone? Deborah Doering replied that “the backbone is something that grounds you, gives you courage, and I guess people who sit for the camera are also like us and taking a leap into collaboration.”
So why are they closing the gallery?
We opened it in 2004 as a place to show our own work, and pretty quickly we were running ten shows a year. There was a lot of positive response in the local media, but a couple of years ago the work load became too exhausting.
Some of the other gallery spaces closed here because of the economic crisis, and that’s partly why we are closing, too. But mainly we’ve changed our art practice to be less studio-bound, and the gallery space was just one more encumbrance.
The closing of Finestra Art Space deserves to be noted with a little sadness. It’s not just that the Doerings consistently showed innovative, high quality art in their small but beautiful space, which will be missed — it also feels like there’s a gap in this landmark building now. Here’s hoping that one of those empty gallery spaces will be occupied again before too long.
Backbone took place on February 14 at Finestra Art Space (410 S. Michigan #516. Chicago) and will continue as an online exhibition at DOEProjekts.com.