CHICAGO — The art world is not an easy place to make it, but Chicago has long been one of the more plausible scenes in which to try. There’s enough, but not too much, of most of what’s needed for a healthy ecosystem: museums, galleries, famous artists, collectors, and emerging talent. We could use a few more critics. The reasonable cost of living, large apartments, liberal politics, and generally functional economy mean that folks mostly have the time and space to make art and even to decide to display it in their extra front rooms, giving rise to waves of artist-run spaces that sometimes go legit and join the ranks of commercial galleries. Those uninterested in making salable objects have a solid local history of social practice on which to draw. The feeder network for this creative circuit are the plentiful art schools, which continually draw new recruits to the city, many of whom stay, and teach, and live — and keep on making art.
Are there adequate institutional exhibition opportunities for everyone? Definitely not. Excepting a recent collaboration with the Floating Museum collective, the Art Institute almost never shows artists from the region. The Museum of Contemporary Art fares a little bit better, with its Chicago Works series of biannual solo exhibits. The university art galleries tend to do their share, especially the DePaul Art Museum and University of Illinois at Chicago’s Gallery 400. But the most directly supportive of resident makers, time and again, are neighborhood art facilities like the South Side Community Art Center in Bronzeville, the Chicago Cultural Center in the Loop, and the Evanston Art Center.
One of the greatest of these unpretentious multipurpose establishments is the Hyde Park Art Center, founded in 1939 and since 2006 located in a funky standalone building that includes ceramics, digital and multimedia studios for all-ages art classes, an international residency program, and plentiful room for teen programming. HPAC has a storied history that includes giving the Hairy Who their groundbreaking first (and second and third) shows in the 1960s.
Today the center regularly hosts some of the most exciting group and solo exhibitions in Chicago, including the recurrent Ground Floor, a biennial display of recent MFA graduates now in its seventh iteration. This isn’t some clumsy rehash of thesis shows but a sensitively curated selection of works by exceptionally promising young artists, nominated by an anonymous array of respected local art workers and chosen by the center’s rotating Exhibitions Committee under the direction of renowned photographer Dawoud Bey. The show reliably delivers stimulating experiences for viewers and a leg up for exhibitors, plenty of whom have gone on to flourishing careers. Maria Gaspar, Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford, Tony Lewis, Assaf Evron, Leonard Suryajaya, Norman Teague, and Melissa Leandro are all alums.
This year’s edition of Ground Floor is as good and diverse as ever. Of the 20 artists on view, most can’t be singularly categorized, and that feels right for a time when countless modes, methods, and purposes are available for the choosing, renewing, and just flat-out inventing. Indeed, the show opens with Corey Smith’s “Lincoln in New Salem,” a virtual-reality opera about the time Abe spent in his 20s as a land surveyor in a soon-to-be-abandoned village smack in the middle of Illinois. I’m no great Lincolnite, but I am now fully convinced of the potential for VR to bring site-specific performance art into the gallery, stovepipe hats optional.
Cross-observations can nevertheless be made, as between works that evidence hand-making so laborious as to be ennobling and otherworldly. See wondrous examples by Sofía Fernández Díaz, who turns beeswax, glass beads, knitted wool, and the occasional bottle cap into small sculptures that might have been discovered on another planet. Bypassing marvelous and continuing on to fanatical are the textile creations of Sungho Bae, who deconstructs Frankenstein monster plushies then repurposes their materials to create a full-sized human anatomy model, keeping meticulous track of what goes where. Travis Morehead, ostensibly inspired by beavers, whittles away at a wooden pallet and pair of sawhorses until all that’s left are impossibly spindly and elegant remains.
Totemic structures offer another point of commonality. Jessica Walker presents two bewitchingly lit ice sculptures, one a howling young wolf, the other a proudly posed gull, each captured in video as they slowly melt. Frank Vega arranges a curious altar of mink fur, an egg, colorfully painted and shaped panels, with some clamps to hold it all together, and nearby a circle of carved wooden figures that look at once mythological, South American, and robotic. Pleasurable though it is to free associate with such work — a permission granted by the lack of didactic text anywhere in the exhibition — it would have been useful to know, for instance, that Patrick Dean Hubbell, maker of a terrific series of fringed canvas banner paintings that blend neon, splatter, and traditional blanket weaving designs, is a Diné artist from the Navajo Nation. Likewise, Natasha Moustache’s installation benefits from being understood as part of their project Under the Same Sun, an exploration of the Black Diaspora to which the artist, a first-generation Seychellois-American, belongs. The work encompasses three tender photo portraits of women — one trying on an African mask, one with a child caressing her pregnant belly, one in a headscarf seen from behind — on ginger root-print wallpaper, with actual ginger root sprouting in a grow cube on a nearby pedestal.
Overt politics are largely absent in Ground Floor, with two notable exceptions. Nick Jackson’s scrappy-punk illustrated reportage about the Euromaidan uprising, based on interviews he did while living in Ukraine at the time, is atmospheric and timely, given the war that Russia continues to wage on the country. Shabtai Pinchevsky creates an aerial video tour of Israel, using a flight simulator and archival images shot by a Zionist paramilitary organization during the 1947–48 civil war; what results, ironically, is rare documentation of an erased Palestinian landscape, which Pinchevsky titles, “An Abridged Draft for a Letter to Leila Khaled.” This makes it an offering to the Palestinian activist and refugee who in 1969 helped hijack a plane, ordering the pilot to fly over her birthplace of Haifa so she could see it again.
It would be injudicious to generalize on the state-of-new-art based on the modest number of artists included in Ground Floor. After all, they’re not picked to be representative of current trends but for the strength of their individual work and equitable distribution among the represented schools: Columbia College, Northwestern University, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, University of Illinois at Chicago, and University of Chicago. So instead I say: Welcome aboard. I truly hope you’ll stay awhile.
Ground Floor continues at the Hyde Park Art Center (5020 South Cornell Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through March 5. The exhibition was organized by Allison Peters Quinn, Director of Exhibitions and Residency Programs, and Mariela Acuna, Exhibitions and Residency Manager at HPAC.
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