Art

Pushing Back Against the Sensational Image of Chicago as “Chi-raq”

Amanda Williams, an architect turned artist, has shifted her practice from constructing buildings, to making work that understands and reveals the social implications of how and when they are destroyed.

Amanda Williams, “First Responders” (2017) (photograph byTom Harris Photography)

CHICAGO — A giant red X greets you as you walk up the stairs to Amanda Williams’s eponymous solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, but only if you happen to glance up. The X is a painted brace in the landing above, and titled “First Responders” (2017), a nod to the mark once placed on vacant buildings’ doors to warn emergency personnel of structural dangers that may be inside. The architectural intervention makes sense for the architect-turned-artist, who has shifted her practice from constructing buildings to making work that understands and reveals the social implications of how and when they are destroyed. In her exhibition Chicago Works: Amanda Williams, the artist highlights Chicago neighborhoods in a state of continuing erasure, both in the news media’s representation and through the loss of physical structures that are torn down after being condemned.  

Amanda Williams, “Crown Royal Bag” from Color(ed) Theory Suite (2014–16) (courtesy of the artist and McCormick Gallery)

Several pieces from Williams’s series “Color(ed) Theory” (2014-2016) (a project included in Chicago’s first architectural biennial in 2015) are prominently displayed in the exhibition’s largest room. For the project Williams used brightly colored paint to draw attention to houses in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood slated for demolition. The colors reference consumer products marketed towards African Americans in Chicago: the orange associated with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, the deep purple of Crown Royal bags, and the bright blue hue of Ultra Sheen hair conditioner. The images provide a cheerful glimpse into the past of the sites, while simultaneously showcasing an aspect of the area’s culture that slowly diminishes with each demolished home.

Installation view, Chicago Works: Amanda Williams MCA Chicago (photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago)

Elements salvaged from the razed homes are scattered throughout the exhibition. A segment of orange trellis leans against the wall next to a photograph of the house where it once stood. This installation seems awkward and unplanned when compared to its counterpart found elsewhere in the exhibition: a toy box Williams constructed from fragments of another demolished home. The piece was made in collaboration with a boy who had become enamored with the house before its destruction, and sits in front of a wall painted in the same shade of Crown Royal purple. “Reliquary II: LOT 49 IN THE SUBDIVISION OF BLOCK 1 IN WRIGHT, EMBREE AND AYRE’S, A SUBDIVISION OF BLOCK 33 IN SCHOOL TRUSTEES’ SUBDIVISION OF SECTION 16, TOWNSHIP 36 NORTH, RANGE 14 EAST OF THE THIRD PRINCIPAL MERIDIAN, IN COOK COUNTY, ILLINOIS. C/K/A: NJ’s Toybox” (2017) projects a possibility of regrowth in an area plagued with removal, a neighborhood often seen through the news media as a nexus for crime and death.

Installation view, Chicago Works: Amanda Williams MCA Chicago (photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago)

Several pieces seek to interrogate this negative reputation impugning many far south and west Chicago neighborhoods. The series “Chicago is Iraq?” (2017) places laser cut paper outlines of Iraq over paper maps of neighborhoods such as Englewood and Auburn-Gresham (the neighborhood where Williams was raised) to dispel the nickname “Chiraq” that circulated widely in songs, film titles, and documentary media during and after the Iraq War. Others seek to simply imbue pride, such as “A Dream or Substance, a Beamer, a Necklace or Freedom?” (2017), a tiny walled-off room scaled to a typical Chicago lot. The room is covered in imitation gold leaf, and can be only entered by the residents of Englewood who were commissioned to build the work.

Amanda Williams, “Flamin’ Red Hots” from Color(ed) Theory Suite, (2014–16) (courtesy of the artist/ McCormick Gallery)

Gold leaf subtly fills the grout of the stairs leading to and from the exhibition, another element not readily apparent, and only noticed if you happen to stare at your feet. This coupled with the gesture of the painted brace are outstanding, quiet moments that prep the viewer to look where they might not typically. These interventions, alongside Williams’ photographs and sculptures, act as architectural call-outs that bring acknowledgment to spaces that for some are consistently overlooked.

Chicago Works: Amanda Williams continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (220 East Chicago Avenue, Chicago) through December 31.

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