CHICAGO — Projects of a collective and dispersed nature, with umpteen moving parts both human and artistic, are not new, but they are being freshly embraced by the art establishment. The Art Institute of Chicago is right on time with Floating Museum: A Lion for Every House, a highly communitarian undertaking on view through October 17.
What lion? These lions. You can avoid them, and the crowds, by entering the museum through the Monroe Street doors.
In Floating Museum, the AIC elected the perfect partner. The collective was founded in 2014 by poet avery r. young, architect Andrew Schachman, artist and community organizer Faheem Majeed, and sculptor Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford. As the name implies, they basically exist to think outside the box about museums, and they have done this with equal parts jubilation and cleverness throughout Chicagoland — in roving park installations visible from CTA trains, even atop a traveling river barge. Invited by the AIC’s Photo and Media department to mine its holdings, they vastly one-upped the typical response to such requests, which usually result in a delightfully idiosyncratic collections show, as in MoMA’s long-running Artist’s Choice series. What Floating Museum did instead was to riff wildly on the art rental programs run by some colleges and museums (including, formerly, the AIC). They identified 10 hosts from across the city and offered each a choice of three reproductions from the collection to have in their homes; tasked 10 local photographers with creating domestic portraits of the hosts and their loans; and integrated the commissioned photos into a series of novel sculptures. It sounds unwieldy, but it’s terrifically simple. Instead of asking people to come to the museum, bring the museum to them, and then bring it all back to the museum.
A Lion for Every House, which is uncommonly coherent and spare for a collectivist endeavor, begins with 10 large photo-sculptures arrayed in a circle facing inward, like a group meeting. These photos feature the hosts with the loans, displayed in light boxes propped up on elaborate metal armatures, backed by inscrutable arrangements of domestic light fixtures, a few of which resemble lamps glimpsed in the pictured scenes. It’s hilariously challenging to locate the borrowed artworks in these compositions; most of the hosts live with so many beloved possessions that one more merely fits right in. This is literally the case in Jonathan Castillo’s straightforward portrait of artists Roman and Maria Villarreal sitting on their couch, surrounded by a densely hung collection of art, including a photo of the couple from 1985, a watercolor of a lion, and Edward Weston’s 1941 image of the open-air studio of self-taught sculptor William Edmondson. It’s comically amplified in one of my favorite pictures here: Guanyu Xu’s staging of Field Museum curator Alaka Wali, resting contentedly at the center of a whirlwind of her private objects and photos, along with Xu’s own photos of her space and belongings, and, if you can find it, Lucas Samaras’s polka-dotted still life of his necklace collection. This is a total non-issue in Monica Boutwell’s posing of Heather Miller, former director of the American Indian Center of Chicago, outdoors amid long grass, blue sky, spindly forest, and the four large-format Polaroids that comprise Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons’s magical take on birds, nesting, and hair.
The show raises, and in its own way answers, all sorts of questions about how museums can decentralize power, knowledge, ownership, and privilege. These are profound issues rocking art institutions right now — but they’re not actually what I was thinking about as I stood in the center of that circle of hosts. What I wanted to know was why they chose the art they did, why they didn’t choose the other works on offer, how they determined to display the loans in their homes, and what it’s been like to temporarily share space with these new things. Living with art is nothing like seeing it in a museum.
The exhibition prompts musings on all of these points and more through its deft organization. The next room features a salon-style hanging of the 20 artworks that were not selected, and I feel fairly certain that pictures by the Indian photographers Gauri Gill and Dayanita Singh were suggested to hosts Shireen and Afzal Ahmad, founders of the South Asia Institute and longtime collectors of South Asian Art. Maybe Roman Vishniac’s 1930s study of a worker’s hand and Judith Joy Ross’s tender likeness of an elementary school boy were proposed to host Joann Podkul Murphy, a longtime history teacher and southeast Chicago community archivist. Then again, maybe not. As for Kenneth Josephson’s clever Chicago postcard collage or An-My Lê’s jungly Vietnamese landscape or Larry Sultan’s scene of his retired parents at their kitchen table — I really have no idea, but it was fun to ponder and also just to see such a random group of excellent photographs hung together.
In the room displaying the originals of the 10 chosen artworks, detailed information is finally forthcoming about these collection works and their makers, and also about the hosts and the local photographers who made those joint portraits. Waiting until the third gallery was a nice, if unusual, move; it gives viewers permission to have their own feelings, to think their own thoughts, when they haven’t yet been told what’s what and who’s who. Here it all comes out, and it all comes together, on some ace wall labels. We learn that West Side Cultural Arts Council Director Levette Haynes chose a print from the late 1960s by freelance photojournalist Bob Crawford because she could imagine herself as the artist he was documenting: Myrna Weaver painting a section of the historic African American community mural “The Wall of Respect.” Naturally Haynes’s portrait was made by Nicole Harrison, whose LEGACY project fashions elegant images of Chicagoans descended from Great Migration families. It all connects, likewise, Luis Medina’s odd picture of a tree covered with a plastic tarp for protection while the adjacent apartment building got a fresh coat of paint. Erika Allen, who runs urban farms on the South Side, picked it for its juxtaposition of plant life and city; Tonika Lewis Johnson, who made Allen’s portrait, created the Folded Map Project, which pairs addresses on opposite ends of Chicago’s segregated geography.
The last of the show’s four galleries gives a glimpse at the personalities, the no-doubt substantial administrative efforts, and the sheer noisiness of an endeavor like A Lion for Every Home. It features a video with clips from online get-to-know-you conversations held between the hosts, Floating Museum, and the AIC curators. Everyone is interesting, yet more is revealed about how art can have meaning for a diverse group of individuals, and it’s blessedly brief.
Floating Museum: A Lion for Every Home continues at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through October 17. The exhibition was organized by Floating Museum and Art Institute of Chicago curators Grace Deveney, Elizabeth Siegel, and Matthew Witkovsky.