CHICAGO — I dislike the expression “You do you.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Colson Whitehead wrote an op-ed for the New York Times back in 2015 that explains many of my reasons far better than I ever could, but basically it comes down to the narcissism of selfie culture and the discussion-ending aspect of tautological phrases in general. A contributor to the article’s comments section — yes, I read them; they’re fascinating — didn’t think that Whitehead really understood that adolescents, herself included, actually used the saying in reaction to somebody doing something a little odd but ultimately harmless.
That sort of gentle acceptance seems cool to me, so I will attempt here to use “You do you” in the way of kids these days, and in particular as a frame for thinking about a handful of otherwise unrelated shows currently up in Chicago galleries. Art has long been a place where the very weird belongs — and here I refer to people as much as objects and actions — and may it ever be so. I’m talking about Fluxus scores and hot pink dogs and EVA & ADELE, the couple who for the past 30 years have comported themselves as a bald, heavily made-up, genderless living artwork from the future. But art is also a place for the more subtly eccentric, the stuff that’s a little bit odd but ultimately harmless, and that can structure entire bodies of work for years on end. I speak here of the artist who paints gingham patterns one square at a time for decades; who commits to making 101 duck decoys that will never fool any fowl; who writes books out of thread and metal leaf and rock. We don’t really bat an eye at any of this in the art world, but maybe we should. A little bit of weirdness goes a long way.
The gingham can be found in A Minor Survey, a show of new work by Michelle Grabner on view at MICKEY. “New” is a funny term here: although the paintings and sculptures in the show were all completed in 2022, they could have been made at many points during the artist’s 30-year career. The wildly productive Grabner, who is also a beloved professor, respected critic, prominent curator, and now organizer of her own survey — that’s highly unusual, but who better? — is deeply into repetition as both subject and process. Tedium is her thing. She casts handmade baby blankets in bronze, forever patinating their regular stitches; draws a million graphite lines to form shimmery starbursts on round panels; collects, cleans, and gilds fish tins with their lids and tabs still attached. The gallery contains first-rate examples of these and a few other long-running series, but a Michelle Grabner show would not be complete without gingham, and gingham there is aplenty. Primarily she recreates the familiar fabric pattern using paint on burlap, changing up the colors and brush widths and canvas sizes but always maintaining the essential gesture of one brush stroke per check. Gingham also figures on the jam jar lids that Grabner collects and embeds into beautifully finished planks of walnut alongside other lids — silvered trash can covers, bronzed container tops — making of them a collection of flat circular things from daily life, like constellations and ellipses. I know I will try to imagine that the next time I go grocery shopping.
The duck decoys are the work of Oli Watt, and while some of them look convincingly duck-like many of them don’t even come close. He began making them while in residence at the Roger Brown House in New Buffalo, Michigan, inspired by Brown’s own collection of decoys. Brown was a perennial and idiosyncratic collector, so the decoys were not a sure thing. Then the pandemic hit and Watt’s project became something to do, and to keep on doing. He’d originally planned to make 101, but he didn’t stop at that point and he still hasn’t. They’re made out of carved wood from downed trees, found objects, plus the occasional purchased part, like pewter feet bought from a speciality taxidermy shop. Currently they can be seen in two local shows, the SAIC Faculty Sabbatical Triennial and BTWXT #1 at Carrie Secrist Gallery, and they epitomize the inventiveness and humor that can arise from limits and repetition, despite the odds. Who knew that a duck could be fashioned from a drill battery, a toilet plunger, an orange sand bag, a broken wicker basket, a threadbare baseball cap, a lightbulb, a wooden crutch, an old remote control, a single Converse sneaker, a bunch of crumpled paper bags tied together, a rusty pair of pliers, a stack of flip flops, a dirty mop head, a plastic lighter, a bread roll, a garden hose, or a spray nozzle? Who knew that bad decoys could be such good sculpture?
The books written from metal leaf, thread, and a volcanic rock are by Dianna Frid, and they appear in Time is Textile, a solo show of her recent artist’s books and wall pieces at Alan Koppel Gallery. Frid does not type or print her books: she darns and cuts and pastes and layers them into being. Words are stitched thin as a line or thick as a scar. They duplicate, get split up by spacing and line breaks, and disappear into articulate silence. The colorful pages of “KERNEL” turn around a thick chunk of black obsidian, sat snuggly in a hole cut through the center of the tome, every page ringed with shiny foil that spills from the crater like lava. An apocalyptic accordion-fold volume epigraphically repeats and fragments the phrase “YOU DIDN’T DIDN’T SEE IT COMING,” filling the canvas pages in between with embroidered explosions, part comic book graphics, part cosmic musing. You can never see any of it coming with Frid’s best work, which reinvents word, binding, page, and subject with exquisite restraint.
You really can never see any of it coming, actually, not anything truly exciting that calls itself art. Those who create it have invariably lived and worked by the tenet of “You do you” regardless of whether the phrase annoys them or not. I still hate the saying but that’s okay — I’ve got art to help me get by.
A Minor Survey — Michelle Grabner continues at MICKEY (1635 West Grand Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through December 18. The exhibition was curated by the artist.
BTWXT #1: Diana Guerrero-Maciá and Oli Watt continues at Carrie Secrist Gallery (1637 West Chicago Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through December 17. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.
SAIC Faculty Sabbatical Triennial continues at the SAIC Galleries (33 East Washington Street, Chicago, Illinois) through December 3. The exhibition was organized by Staci Boris, Director of Exhibitions, and Graduate Curatorial Assistants Clayton Kennedy (Dual MA 2023) and Christine Magill (Dual MA 2023).
Dianna Frid: Time is Textile continues at Alan Koppel Gallery (806 North Dearborn Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through January 13. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.
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