CHICAGO — At the eastern end of Diversey Avenue in Chicago stands an impressive classical-style rotunda, overlooking a short stretch of parkland that gives way to Lake Shore Drive and Lake Michigan. Many Chicagoans see the building every day during their morning commute, or even walk past it, without knowing that this is the National Veterans Memorial, fronting the headquarters of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. The Elks are a US fraternal organization dedicated to charitable works, chief amongst which is the work they do for the veterans of the US armed forces. Hence this building, which was opened in 1926 to commemorate the many Elks members who died in World War I. The interior is decorated with stunning allegorical murals and sculptures that cover every wall and niche, and which are worth a tour in their own right. But for the next few months, visitors to the building will see an additional set of works: the 2014 Biennial Exhibition of sculpture by members of the Chicago Sculpture International.
The title of the show is Invoking the Absence, and it’s curated by Lucas Antony Cowan, who is the public art program director for the state of Maryland and curator of exhibits for Chicago’s Millenium Park. “The theme for the show came about after I entered the memorial building for the first time,” says Cowan. “It’s this vast space, which commemorates the fallen and invokes all these great themes, like the absence of time and space, death and life.” The work on display, like the title of the exhibition, occasionally makes reference to the building’s memorial function, but mostly plays with the broader sculptural attributes of presence and absence, of placement in space and displacement of space. At the interior entrance to the building is “How Soon We Forget” by Terence Karpowicz. Consisting of cedar posts that rise twelve feet into the air to form a sort of outline of a globe, its size and its somewhat pious title make it the most obviously “monumental” piece on display. “Explorer,” by Corinne D. Peterson, is a vertical piece of stoneware clay that attracts the eye by the textures and patterns on its surface, and which seems in sympathy with the stone and marble interior of the building. There are whimsical pieces, like Dominic Sansone’s totem pole of bronze heads, “Invaders Must Die,” and Laurie LeBreton’s “Pilgrimage,” which is a procession of figures made from handmade paper and other media that curl around a corner from the rotunda into a corridor. Eric W. Stephenson’s “Soul Catcher” gets my vote for the most intriguing use of materials: steel, iron, rubber, and glass, put together to make something that looks like a weird kabbalistic drilling machine.
In the middle of the floor-space, directly beneath the center of the dome, is a table covered with blue fabric, and one place setting comprising a plate, a glass, and a knife and fork. People attending the exhibition preview kept putting their plastic glasses of wine on the table, only to be reminded by a nearby artist that this was in fact an artwork, too. Glenn Doering, who is one half of the conceptual art collaborative DOE Projekts, explained: “When my partner Deborah visited the space to get ideas for a site-specific piece, she discovered that the staff were removing whole cabinets of medals for cleaning.
The medals were sitting on the cloth for so long that they left a series of ghost images, so we made a print from those medal shadows and reproduced it on the table cloth, and on the surface of the china plate, too.” Titled “Place Setting,” the piece is a simple idea, and in many ways it’s the least technically accomplished work in the show in terms of traditional sculptural technique. But it packs the biggest emotional effect in relation to the space. The forms of the medals look decorative at first, then you realize that every single one is the trace of someone’s military experience, whether peacetime or wartime. Each tiny shadow adds up to create a powerful sense of the lives that hover in the atmosphere of a war memorial, even if they are not visible.
Cowan placed it in the middle of the building, he says, because “there was a direct reference to the piece and the site, so I wanted to pay it tribute. I liked the idea of the center of the building, specifically the dome center, as I saw it as a portal into the world of the Elks, both present and absent. The blue color and the pattern reminded me of the infinite concept of space and the cosmos, where there is no beginning and no end, just continuum. The empty seat and place setting at the table represents all those lost but still remembered.”
I asked David Augustus, the building manager at the Veterans Memorial, if he or other senior Elks had balked at the idea of letting a bunch of artists loose in the space. “Not at all. I’ve been wanting to do something like this for years, so I was glad when the CSI approached me.” The efforts of all involved have accomplished two worthwhile things: providing wider exposure for one of the finest Beaux-Arts interiors in Chicago, and showcasing the variety of sculpture being created in the city at the moment.
Invoking the Absence continues at the Elks National Veterans Memorial (2750 North Lakeview Avenue, Chicago) through October 26. The memorial is open to the public daily, admission free.