CHICAGO — We all have our art weaknesses. Me, I’m a sucker for anything made from found objects. Call it repurposing, appropriation, sampling, borrowing, assemblage, or any one of the varieties of collage — photocollage, bricolage, décollage. Just maybe not upcycling. Nothing ruins a word like the lifestyle genre.

Anyway, I have been wondering if this style of art making might be particular to Chicago, because so many of our most exciting local artists owe their materials to the dumpster, or at least the thrift store. Take Theaster Gates, famed for turning abandoned buildings into cultural spaces, and whose How to Sell Hardware show at Gray Warehouse last summer involved artfully displaying the extant inventory of a South Side True Value store that he bought in its entirety when it went out of business. Consider Jessica Stockholder, who in the past has employed old sofas, a freezer chest, a streetlamp, a washing machine, and an automobile, among other items, to construct and support her uproarious sculptures. In Specific Shapes at Kavi Gupta, which closed in February, she achieved the impossible: turning broken desktop printers, scourge of office sustainability, into something aesthetically exciting.

Installation view of An Instrument in the Shape of a Woman at the Chicago Cultural Center. Pictured: artwork by Selina Trepp
Installation view of An Instrument in the Shape of a Woman at the Chicago Cultural Center. Pictured: artwork by Leslie Baum

What else have Chicago artists made brilliant use of lately? Sam Jaffe turned gaudy knitwear (the kind that can no longer be called Cosby sweaters) into clever op-art canvases for Muscle Memory, her March show at 65 Grand. Claire Ashley, Judith Brotman, and Cameron Clayborn sent materials to one another — everything from scraps to completed pieces — then incorporated that stuff into the outrageous inflatables and infinitely inventive little constructions of Soft Allergy, a winter show at Glass Curtain Gallery.

Repurposing is probably not a Chicago thing, though, if I’m being art historically honest. It appears to be a fundamental instinct of makers everywhere and always, from the Gee’s Bend Quilters to Robert Rauschenberg, from your kindergarten teacher to the builders of the Arch of Constantine, who incorporated spolia, fragments of earlier structures, a practice common in late antiquity. Local or not, I’ll take collage where I can find it, and right now the ground floor of the Chicago Cultural Center is where it’s at. Currently on view in an edifice that once served as the city’s central public library is the exhibition An Instrument in the Shape of a Woman. Named after a line in “Planetarium,” a poem by Adrienne Rich celebrating the 18th-century astronomer Caroline Herschel, the show features three mid-career Chicago artists, all creators of resolutely handmade, riotously colored abstractions that sometimes find their way into deceptively charming stop-motion animations. For reasons practical, ethical, aesthetic, and otherwise, they all also continually repurpose their own and others’ creations into new artworks.

Installation view of An Instrument in the Shape of a Woman at the Chicago Cultural Center. Pictured: artwork by Leslie Baum and Frederick Wells

Let’s begin with Selina Trepp, who provides a free zine diagramming the reasons for her decision to stop bringing any new materials into the studio 10 years ago. This principle has had enviable effects: less money spent, more time gained, aesthetic adjustments, learning new things, less work-related anxiety, and ultimately a happier life. How it looks is inexhaustibly delightful and a wee bit mischievous. There’s a series of “Dirty Drawings,” mysterious and surprisingly vivid palimpsests created by leaving old drawings on the floor until they have been altered enough by being walked on, then adding a little more. “Utility Piece,” a large diamond of Cinefoil covered in irregular patterns of tape, foil, and paint, has been around since 2015 to fix awkward installation situations like an inconvenient shelf or, here, a big blank wall.

Because all venues should offer seating for video watching but too often don’t, Trepp provides her own, fashioned from sturdy leftovers; try to spot the flowery painted cardboard that forms the back of “Stage/Seating” in the immersive stop-motion animation projected on the gallery’s walls. Declaratively called “I Work with What I Have,” it’s a whimsical 40-minute loop that might be understood as revealing the secret life of art scraps. What do they get up to when no humans are around? A lot of fun, apparently. 

Installation view of An Instrument in the Shape of a Woman at the Chicago Cultural Center. Pictured: artwork by Diane Christiansen
Installation view of An Instrument in the Shape of a Woman at the Chicago Cultural Center. Pictured: artwork by Diane Christiansen

Know what else is fun? Painting with other people. In 2017, Leslie Baum began the “Plein Air Project,” inviting friends, colleagues, even strangers to join her on painting dates at a park, in a backyard, at the botanical gardens, or in some other nature area. She kept the resulting watercolors, made photocopies, cut them up, and rearranged their mixed-up parts into collage studies for a series of large canvases, 13 of which are up at the Cultural Center. These are strange, deeply pleasing pictures, done in thin, luminescent acrylic washes, and they are as much portmanteau landscapes as impressionistic memories of the encounters the people who made the original sketches experienced in those places, Baum included. In a move that is generous, in terms of sharing inspiration, and helpful for understanding how the project works, Baum’s paintings are hung above a shallow display case that wraps around the gallery and contains dozens of those initial watercolor sketches. A visitor can stop to look at “shaping the day: rs, ac, and ph” and play the charming game of locating its visual elements — the broken heart shape, the staccato marks in shades of blue — in the plein air sketches below. Nothing ever appears exactly as it once was. Instead it gives rise to something new, and then maybe something else, too.

A Buddhist might call these successions of creation and reuse by the name samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth to which they believe life in the material world is bound. Diane Christiansen, the third artist in the exhibition and a “forever student of Buddhism,” suggests as much in some of her stop-motion animations and paintings, as well as in a bench molded from layers and layers of old animation drawings. Sit on that and watch what they once were, in videos equal parts fierce and funny, darkness and light. These are toons where nothing ever stays one thing for long: in “Speck,” radiant blobs become a planet, sprout spindly utility poles that morph into chomping alligator maws, go gray and flat and brushy, then host a farm that turns into a giant, teary-eyed toad, which belches a galaxy of rainbow splotches. (There’s a walking vagina hand, too, but it’s an independent character.) Likewise Christiansen’s small paintings on plaster, with their patina of erasure and reworking, repair and graffiti, their feel of being fragments of frescos or tiled flooring. The plasterworks sometimes also serve as animation imagery, and one has even found itself inset into a large, blazing red painting on paper titled “Last Days of Capitalism.” After so much repurposing and continuation, it seems the end is nigh. Have we finally reached nirvana? If only!

Installation view of An Instrument in the Shape of a Woman at the Chicago Cultural Center. Pictured: artwork by Diane Christiansen

An Instrument in the Shape of a Woman continues at the Chicago Cultural Center (78 East Washington Street, Chicago, Illinois) through September 4. The exhibition was organized by Annie Morse.

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Lori Waxman

Lori Waxman has been the Chicago Tribune’s primary art critic since 2009. She teaches art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and performs occasionally as the “60 wrd/min art critic,”...