From left to right: Assaf Evron, "Untitled (Egyptian Embassy Tel Aviv)," 2013. Dry wall, split-face blocks, and acrylic. 6' x 5'; Conrad Bakker, "Untitled Project: SIGN [Relax and Take Your Fucking Time]," (2013), oil paint on carved wood, 82 x 108 x 58 inches; Aaron Van Dyke, "Untitled" (2013), inkjet print (double-sided), 42 x 64 inches. All images courtesy of Hyde Park Art Center unless otherwise noted.

From left to right: Assaf Evron, “Untitled (Egyptian Embassy Tel Aviv),” 2013. Dry wall, split-face blocks, and acrylic. 6′ x 5′; Conrad Bakker, “Untitled Project: SIGN [Relax and Take Your Fucking Time],” (2013), oil paint on carved wood, 82 x 108 x 58 inches; Aaron Van Dyke, “Untitled” (2013), inkjet print (double-sided), 42 x 64 inches. (all images courtesy of Hyde Park Art Center unless otherwise noted)

CHICAGO — The Midwest is no place for haters, slackers, and anyone who can’t admit that they secretly love hot dogs and regularly daydream about living on a farm, or at least somewhere in the woods. Michelle Grabner, co-curator of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, conceived and organized Midwestern Appropriation at the Hyde Park Art Center with the idea of aestheticizing the upper-Midwest as a region, more specifically a style of art and language that is apparent in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis.

But first, what is Midwestern about this Midwest? According to the works by more than 30 artists in the exhibition, some of these themes include not taking oneself too seriously, not talking too much about feelings and identity, focusing first and foremost on hard work — which is also greatly evidenced in the usual winners of Grand Rapid’s baffling ArtPrize competition, where greatness is measured by making really big sculptures out of lots of little objects — and recognizing being second runner-up to the coasts. Smack dab in the middle of the country, Chicago is both a destination city and flyover zone, a place that is here on the way there and there itself, for those who choose to live in it. What do you do when you’re destined for the middle but not for mediocrity?

Paul Druecke, "Hairy Who Memorial Library," (2013). Books, Xerox copies, ephemera, provided by artists in the exhibition.

Paul Druecke, “Hairy Who Memorial Library,” (2013). Books, Xerox copies, ephemera, provided by artists in the exhibition.

You work. A lot. Because you are not part of a New York City where the artist is “a literal servant to corporate elites, hired to impart ‘creativity’ to children whose bank accounts outstrip their own.” And because you know that it’s damn hard to be creative when you are broke, uninspired, drinking too much, wasting money on snacks and cigarettes, and giving in to total consumerist escapism.

This sort of heaviness is apparent in A Study in Midwestern Appropriation, where much of the works indulge in a one-two punch joke, a lewd FU to the art world elite, or a readymade reproduction of a consumer culture object at times where there could have been something more. Of the 40 artists whose work is included in this show, however, not everyone featured is Midwest born-and-bred, which cleverly proves that this part of the country does have a readily apparent regionalist aesthetic, but it’s up to the artist whether they embrace or reject it. That said, artists must, to an extent, become part of the culture they are in regardless of whether that place is a temporary or permanent home. 

Tony Tasset, "Hot Dog Man," (2011). Fiberglass, steel, paint. 98 x 125 x108 inches.

Tony Tasset, “Hot Dog Man,” (2011). Fiberglass, steel, paint. 98 x 125 x 108 inches.

Ben Stone’s haunting Weathercasters ’97 is a collection of framed autographed photos arranged on one wall of the gallery. The artist personally contacted every weather caster on broadcast television in the Chicago metropolitan area, and asked for a photo and the autograph. As the iPhone’s convenient prefabricated Weather app, along with many other weather apps for various smartphones, become more readily available anywhere and everywhere, the performative nature of the weather caster persona will become increasingly irrelevant, and these weatherpeople will be ghosts haunting the static airwaves.  Like documentation of a bygone era, many of the autographs on these photos mention something about wishing the artist sunny days, or hoping that things are sunny — or if nothing else, best wishes. If the weather is good, even better — but Chicago weather is not Los Angeles sunny by a long shot.

Ben Stone, "Weathercasters '97," (1997). Autographed photos in frames. 70" x 80". Image via Western Exhibitions.

Ben Stone, “Weathercasters ’97,” (1997). Autographed photos in frames. 70″ x 80″. (image via Western Exhibitions Gallery)

Tel Aviv-to-Chicago transplant Assaf Evron’s piece “Untitled (Egyptian Embassy Tel Aviv) (2013), is a jagged, three triangles melding into a series of mountains or pyramids stacked against one another, constructed from drywall, split-face blocks, and acrylic; this sculpture is a duplication of what already exists at the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv; he has appropriated it from the Middle East and plopped it down in Middle Western America.

Assaf Evron, "Untitled TK" (2013).

Assaf Evron, “Untitled (Egyptian Embassy Tel Aviv),” 2013. (image via

Karen Reimer’s embroidery “Untitled (Twain) (2011), hangs like a flag for domesticity, a MadLibs game gone wrong, refrigerator magnets turned threads, and a quiet moment of textual contemplation in this exhibition, where the majority of works seen as “Midwestern” — such as Tony Tassett’s “Hot Dog Man” (2011), a hotdog gone completely insane and Paul Druecke’s “Hairy Who Memorial Library” (2013), which pays homage to one portion of the legendary Chicago Imagists movement — are sculptural, large, and love to take up space. In the memorial library room, viewers can lounge on quaintly Amish-style furniture, flipping through Jeanne Dunning’s artist catalogues and ironic artist interpretations of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. This is also possibly the warmest room temperature-wise in the whole center, which makes for a cozy break during the freakishly cold weather of a Chicago winter.  

Karen Reimer, "Untitled (Twain)," 2011. Embroidery 20 x 30 inches. Image via

Karen Reimer, “Untitled (Twain),” 2011. Embroidery
20 x 30 inches. Image via

Conrad Bakker’s “Untitled Project: SIGN [Relax and Take Your Fucking Time] (2010), takes a concerted interest in consumer objects and commonplace signage through a giant roadside sign made of oil paint on carved wood, positioned in the middle of the gallery; propped up by two fabricated items, including a book about the leisure class, the sign simply reads: “Relax and take your time” with the “e” in the word “relax” actually a number 3 turned backwards because, presumably, someone ran out of 3s. A three-dimensional trompe-l’œil, the signs stands as if to say relax and take your time considering the Midwestern nature of these works, or just the work itself, and stop working so hard already. It’s just art, after all.

A Study in Midwestern Appropriation runs through January 12, 2014, at the Hyde Park Art Center (5020 S. Cornell Avenue, Chicago).

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED Magazine and the Chicago...

6 replies on “Making Art in the Midwest”

  1. The major critic/historian working out of London of this era re: Michelle Grabner

    Fascinating spectacle of naive narcissists staging hostile assaults on something they clearly don;t have the faintest clue about, but in relation to which they have been granted positions of great authority. This complements a previous posting here, namely the youtube record of the 2010 ICA talk on “The Trouble with Painting.” Here a similar hatefulness just takes a verbally adept rather than inept mode. Opening-Day Talk: Painting in the Present Tense For the opening-day panel discussion, artist/curator Michelle Grabner, writer Bruce Hainley, and critic Jan Verwoert join Painter Painter’s co-curators Eric … 11:10pm Wesley Kimler

    Matthew Collings Michelle thinks there’s an artist called William DeKooning.

    Matthew Collings Amazing unpleasantness of Michelle’s tone in her opening lecture.

    Matthew Collings I don’t mean just to encourage a low bitching fest. There are serious problems with the tone and content of the discussion, which inescapable weakness in terms of egotism etc, highlight — it’s not that the ideas are so serous one can’t keep up with them and therefore there’s a resort to sniping at inconsequential slips. Rather, very little is really said that is not banal, but dressed up in camp language or excruciating hipsterisms. For example, or two examples — a wrong heroic past vs a present that avoids heroism because it’s corny, and the idea that a frankly simplified or minimal visual approach need not be a mere brute or dumb materiality. These are ordinary ideas. They could still be worth rethinking, but no one involved in the talk ever attempts — seems in fact never to have heard of this approach — to describe anything, to critically problematise a painting by describing its structure. They just instead leap straight from whatever the painting might be (Heilmann etc) into general cultural notions. It’s especially irritating when the notions are either already given as obvious content by the painting and pretty well known and discussed already (the references to club culture J.V congratulates himself on seeing in the punk-coloured Heimann), or are obvious mistakes, as with Bruce Hainley waxing on obliviously about references to places in Abst’s titles when they’re really references to names.

    He then mentions how Michelle’s work is good -and how that makes her juvenile, collegiate tone even that much stranger- look at how every painter she chose for the Whitney -is deskilled -ordinary-mediocre -loud on personalities – short on any discernible skills or talent-Rebecca Morris being the best of a sorry lot….all these painters having nothing to do with Michelle’s very tight, left brained Apollonian aesthetic -which is a problem -given when she goes off in this direction a. she is ignorant, (William de Kooning?) ideologically driven (any actual skill, painting ability is apparently constued as male domain) (does it get any more victorian than this?) b. seems to have more to do with personality/hipness factor -shallow and surface-y David Foster Wallace -ooooh so he hung himself and is notably obtuse in his writing -of course Michelle would choose him -it reeks of ‘look how smart and clever I am’
    ……so stupid.
    Opening-Day Talk: Painting in the Present Tense
    For the opening-day panel discussion, artist/curator Michelle Grabner, writer Bruce Hainley, and critic Jan Verwoert join Painter Painter’s co-curators Eric …

    1. Wesley, why you continue to attack Michelle Grabner through Facebook messages and comments on reviews, I do not understand. Why not attempt to start a conversation in a way that is not aggressive and rude? For one, perhaps come to an opening and introduce yourself. All best, Alicia

  2. I’ve been wondering how many visitors to the show notice “Stair Flight Double.” Many artist walk right by it and don’t see it. “Stair Flight Double” is not about trompe-l’oeil. It’s meant to be seen as it is, an eerie, impermanent shadow of a Modernist form swept aside like a sand mandala at the end of the exhibition. Oh well. I wonder if Alicia noticed it?

    1. Yes, you can always contact me through my website regarding follow-up questions like this one. I am here:
      Kevin, I saw your piece and enjoyed its clever commentary on the nature of impermanence; so unobstrusive and unimposing, almost anti much of the aesthetic of irrevocable taking-up-spaceness that permeated much of the work in this show, I felt it a very zen ending to a cacophonous exhibition of a rather masculine appropriation aesthetic. I was so relaxed when I saw it, I felt as if it stood on its own as a piece, outside of the show’s main thrust. Look forward to learning more about your work, Kevin. Also, go Packers. Thank you. Best, A

  3. Wesley, some of your points might be taken seriously and discussed intelligently had they been stated as a critique and had you not resorted to personal attacks. That would be a decent way to open a conversation. I wonder how many men would be under this kind of personal attack for their curatorial biases? I have never read something so bitter and aggressive towards, let’s say, Robert Storr or Donald Kuspit, Humm, I wonder.

  4. Sabina -my conversation has not been personal – but rather fact based and, professional. Also, both you and Alicia seemed confused when I shared preeminent London critic historian Matthew Collings’ critique of the Painter Painter lecture -mistaking Matthews writing for mine -(I probably would not have been as nice.) But it does beg the question -how is my posting this in anyway rude? Matthew is actually quite polite I think. Isn’t it interesting how in the art world questioning authority is such a no no? How conformity reigns? And yes I definitely have some have pretty serious questions -like; isn’t it a little weird the lack of separation between church and state going on with the Whitney – where we have an SAIC Dept head (I’m aware she stepped down AFTER the fact-of course) essentially in the position of promoting her institution? What happened to the idea of critical perspective -of disinterested opinion? And what about the massively unqualified Anthony Elms -in what back room did that deal get made? I think its kind of cool that I’m the one person with the huevos to ask. Whether you like it or not. As far as men vs women -don’t insult my intelligence: I happen to be a single parent to a 8 year old daughter that I am raising by myself -and not only but if you actually knew me you would be aware that a large share -perhaps the lions share of my close friends happen to be powerful women. Also if you were actually familiar with my positions you would be aware that I have been equally critical of not one but several other curators here in Chicago who happen to be ….yes, men. So, save the sexist slur -which seems to be the crux of your fact/ and reason free complaint here. As far as my being taken seriously, I travel in some reasonably serious circles Sabina -I think that the opinions I have voiced -though far from being mine alone, are taken quite seriously -so much for the wishful thinking on your part. As far as aggression goes – Alicia, Sabina -I’m a lilting wallflower in comparison to the hustle of those I am critiquing -including their minions.

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