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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).