Juan Angel Chavez, “No Campground Just Water” (2005) in “RE: Chicago” at the De Paul Art Museum (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

CHICAGO — Is Chicago an artistic center on the same level as New York, London or LA? Is there an identifiable “Chicago school,” in the same way as the school of Paris or the post-war art movements in Manhattan? Does Chicago produce “famous” artists and artists worthy of greater fame?

Marienne Dawson, “Study for Differential Complex” (1910)

These are the central questions posed by the show RE: Chicago at the newly expanded De Paul Art Museum on the Windy City’s north side. The art museum at De Paul University used to be a couple of galleries in the campus library, until September 2011, when it moved up in the world and into a purpose built museum on a vacant parking lot nearby. To inaugurate the new space, the museum now has a Big Boys acronym (DPAM!) and a great show of works by Chicago artists past and present.

On two floors, the curators have installed paintings, prints and sculptures produced by Chicago artists over the past 150 years. There are some nineteenth century portraits, which used to belong to the excellent but now defunct Terra Museum of American Art on Michigan Avenue. There is a good selection of work by early twentieth century artists: a 1910 abstract painting by Marienne Dawson called “Study for Differential Complex” (why does nobody create titles like that anymore?) and a sensitive, Degas-like portrait by Archibald Motley, the first African American to graduate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. From the mid-twentieth century generation of artists, there are good pieces by Margaret Burroughs (who founded the Du Sable Museum of African American History), installation pioneer Don Baum and Imagist artist Suellen Rocca.

Foreground: Don Baum, “ARF” (1986); Background: Suellen Rocca, “Dream Girl” (1968)

Tony Fitzpatrick, “The Winter Tiger” (2010)

About half of the work in the exhibition is contemporary, from the museum’s own collections or on loan from galleries, museums and collectors around the US. No current survey would be complete without a tattoo-like collage by Tony Fitzpatrick or a painting by Kerry James Marshall. Fine as those pieces are, they are matched by the direct honesty of Dawoud Bey’s photograph of a young boy in a park and Juan Angel Chavez’s trash-sculpture-spaceship construction. Not even the inclusion of a Sound Suit by that tiresome dilettante, Nick Cave, can spoil the impression conveyed by the show of a city that is a breeding ground for the talents of unique individuals.

And that’s where I arrived after looking at some good art, reading the informative wall texts (a rare feat these days) and admiring the new building. There may indeed be a “Chicago style,” but it’s not clear to me what would that would be, based on the work selected for this particular exhibition. It seemed more like a showcase for very good artists, responding to the artistic currents of the times (Impressionism, abstraction, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art) in their own way.

If there is a discernible trend, it would be in the work of the African-American and Latino artists, each of whom used or uses their art to respond to their own experience in this particular place. Chavez and Bey demonstrate that Chicago is a rich source for artists who want to talk about people and about the urban environment. To go from that to saying Chicago is on the same level as New York seems like a game that can’t be won. And why enter that race anyway? The talk about “fame” or being famous is a peculiar way to represent the artists in this show, unless the intention is to draw attention to artists whom the wider art world may have bypassed. The art is the reason to see RE: Chicago – that, and the fact that the new building housing it is a great addition to the museum culture of the Second City.

Re: Chicago will be on view at the De Paul Art Museum (935 W Fullerton, Chicago, Illinois) until March 4.

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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)...

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