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Mike Houston and Martin Mazorra’s “Sideshow” (2001), woodcut print on canvas. (all photos by the author)

CHICAGO — There’s often a tug of war going in between what’s in a work of art and what you are told about it. So when I saw the exhibition Turnin’ the Tip at Chicago’s A+D gallery, my first response was to the work that I was looking at it, independent of catalogue essays or wall text: big black and white woodcuts, printed onto canvas banners, some of them as large as 10 feet by 20 feet, produced with a high degree of skill that calls to mind the Mexican tradition of printmaking exemplified by Posada, and the counter-culture graphic style of Robert Crumb. Confession: I was trained as a printmaker back in London, so I wanted to see this show mainly for the visual pleasure that this medium can give.

Mike Houston, “Win Giant Crap” (nd)

But then I read the catalogue, and after that I read Emily Colucci’s post elsewhere on Hyperallergic about Corporations are People Too, a show that purports to be a criticism of contemporary plutocratic capitalism. Colucci expresses impatience with what she sees as a promise unfulfilled — a show that offers an ironic critique of corporatism while displaying work that uses extremely familiar tropes. I haven’t seen the show, but Colucci’s general point is valid: what exactly would constitute an artistically original critique of Wall Street excess? If the artistic attack misses its target, what happens to the art?

So back to Turnin’ the Tip. Two Brooklyn-based artists, Mike Houston and Martin Mazorra, create extremely detailed and technically brilliant woodcut prints under the name Cannonball Press. For this Chicago show, they took their inspiration from the rough and tumble life of the carnival, both the freaks in the sideshows and the freaks in the crowds. The canvas prints are suspended on scrolls, like old-time banners, with bearded ladies, performing monkeys, an electric genie and big text that screams phrases such as “YOU WON’T BELIEVE YOUR EYES” and “HORRIBLE BUT TRUE.” Two walls are covered with gigantic prints that depict the spectators and the performers, all crushed together in a whirling flow of figures and movement.

It isn’t just any old circus, however. Apparently the artists were thinking of the Midway Plaisance, a collection of freak show attractions that was part of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The original intention of the Midway was anthropological, an assembly of curious entertainments from around the world, but various corrupt politicians, businessmen and hucksters turned the Midway into the lurid spectacle that we have all come to know and love when we think of the Carnival. (Brooklyn’s Coney Island was derived from the Midway, as it happens.) Houston and Mazorra seem to have had great fun reimagining this Fellini-esque milieu, while poking fun now and then at the excess (as in the print “WIN GIANT CRAP YOU DON’T NEED!”).

“Party No. 1” published by Cannonball Press. (date unknown)

But as for the grander claims that this is a critique of the excesses of our own time, I don’t see it. Like Colucci, I think it takes more than a written statement about the art on display to actually make a satisfying critique of social ills. In the case of Turnin’ the Tip, I think that not much is lost by the imprecision of the political aim.

What’s left? Woodcut prints that, with their variety of mark-making and the tremendous deployment of scale, are as good to look at as anything you are likely to see this year.

Turnin’ the Tip: Simp Heisters, Flukum, & the Put’n’Take at the A+D Gallery (619 S. Wabash Ave, Chicago, Illinois) until February 11.

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Philip A Hartigan

Philip Hartigan is a UK-born artist and writer who now lives, works and teaches in Chicago. He also writes occasionally for Time Out-Chicago. Personal narratives (his own, other peoples', and invented) are the focus of his studio work, and of...

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