Art Fag in Art Land
James “Casper” Jankowiak, “Southside Spiritual”
32nd & Urban Gallery (3201 S Halsted)
Always hear the tragic stories of artists’ lives. Van Gogh slips into madness and hacks off a perfectly good ear, then later shoots self and suffers two agonizing days before his mortal ship sinks. Here’s another inspirational one: Casper, a local graffiti artist, and his journey from mean streets to greatness. Casper’s story is together along Archer Avenue and the blue-collar neighborhoods of Bridgeport, McKinley and Brighton Park – an old Indian trail leading to the heart of the city, where the river meets the lake. Tangle of highway infrastructure, crumbling industrial sites and turn-of-the-(last-)century housing stock. A drab, cement-laden corridor, providing a handy canvas for early Chicago graffiti artists.
Casper, a juvenile delinquent, added color to this bleak landscape with his spraycan art. (Now, this act of free expression is deemed a criminal act, and especially with Mayor Daley’s “Graffiti Blasters” closing in, creative proclivities are erased and incarceration is immanent.) After developing a reputation as an emerging artist of note, Casper started getting commissioned work— a White Sox mural, some corporate projects. He became a responsible daddy and got a job teaching in the After School Matters program. His art students stopped by in droves to show respect at this, his first official gallery show.
On view are Casper’s small, jewel-like canvases. Imagine sand of many shapes and colors poured from an imaginary glass timepiece. Layered, colored shapes in the manner of Gustav Klimt. Pure abstraction, they reflect this artist’s journey towards transcendence.
William Betts, “Safe”
Peter Miller Gallery (118 N Peoria)
William Betts’ current work speaks of the zeitgeist. He appropriates murky surveillance images, shadowy figures emerging from grainy urban landscapes, and a flood of autos commandeered by anonymous seated heads. The artist selects stills, extracted from raw surveillance footage, then has a computer program of his own design color the canvas in a Seurat-like manner. The work addresses topical concerns like paranoia, boredom, voyeurism, loneliness, security systems, terrorist alerts, and new society shaped by manipul-ation and control.
Perhaps we’re living in a country gripped by fears that don’t exist, fears manufactured by a government to control its citizenry. It seems everywhere I go in this fair city, Big Brother is starin’ down my ass. At the mall, on the bus or subway train, glossy black domes conceal security cameras. Blue lights flashing down city streets indicate your every move is being monitored. Every camera that goes up is chipping away at the very freedom for which this country is supposed to stand. We have to strip away the lies and cover-ups to find the truth, and stop this country from eating its own heart.
Katerina Šedá, “It Doesn’t Matter”
The Renaissance Society (5811 S Ellis, University of Chicago’s Cobb Hall, #418)
What the hell is going on here? This Czech conceptual artist forces Grandma to do over six hundred drawings, installs many of them beautifully here, and then gets credit for the project.
Katerina’s grandmother, Jana Šedá, worked all her life in a dry goods store, back when the Czechs were under Soviet rule. She was very competent at her role, won numerous awards and memorized virtually all the items available in the store. After her husband died, she moved in with her son and granddaughter, young Katerina. While there, Grandma’s spirit and interest in life seemed to deteriorate. To give Grandma purpose, to distract her from the emptiness, Katerina suggested a drawing project. Before long, Grandma was making illustrations of all the products the old store held. The work itself has a definite untrained naiveté. Imagine a Richard Tuttle/Bill Traylor clone. Funny, huh?
I don’t care if Katerina made Grandma Jana draw ten zillion saw blades or screw eyes, if that’s what it took to save her. To throw the proverbial life preserver, to pull her out of the black hole. To give her purpose and reason to live. There is an art to restoring the human spirit.
Shawn May, “Ward 7”
Co-Prosperity Sphere (3219 S Morgan)
God, I hate this kid. Just eighteen, with a first gallery show of promise and great expectations. His concerns are dead-on, and as tight as your shirt collar. I’m in my fifties and my artistic inclinations are still in the developmental stage. Shawn photographs the interiors of abandoned state mental hospitals in all their crumbling, bleak intensity, strewn with rusting gurneys and peeling medical cabinets. He zeroes in on small details: a plastic flower sticker over a blackened bedpost soaked in hell makes you wonder about the person who posted such cheery decorations in this repository of lost souls. Shawn’s social archaeology and deep humanism beg us to ponder the fate of those confined to a lifetime of locked wards and emptiness.
The more we gaze at these telling photographs, the more we realize these psychiatric hospitals were just warehouses to store the wretched, the supposedly insane and unserviceable. Hidden far from society’s eye, the inmates were banished and forgotten, vulnerable prey for unethical medical experiments and clandestine pharmacological testing. Shawn’s photography summons the spirits of the lost and vanquished, then lets them speak.
Chuck Walker, “Through a Glass Darkly”
Hyde Park Art Center (5020 S Cornell)
Okay, so the artist’s work appears dated. His figurative salon style is than a stone’s throw away from current trends. But in the 1980s, Chuck was a dynamic, promising painter. His commanding, large scale work focused on gritty Chicago’s city scenes, inhabitants, and vicinage. In spite of his artistic acclaim, Chuck mysteriously dropped out of the gallery scene. Now, amazingly, twenty years later he makes a celebratory reappearance. At the Hyde Park Art Center, we find all his masterly techniques remain intact. Light and shadow, color and execution are fully articulated. On view: scenes of the human condition in the urban environment. Couples in intimate embrace, lonely people in darkened rooms, street corner encounters. Chuck strips bare the mask of our hidden emotions and makes us face the reality of our hardscrabble existence.
Walsh Gallery (118 N Peoria, 2nd fl)
Entering the darkened gallery, we view large, black and white female nudes, beautifully rendered. On further investigation, we notice the standing nudes are urinating. At that juncture, the photographs offset this viewer with the duality of elegance and disarment. The classic rendering lessens the impact taboo being broken and diffused. But its impact is still not unlike a stone hurled from the anarchist’s hand. In recent art history, we have seen Robert Mapplethorpe’s fetishistic photographs of one man pissing in the mouth of another, as well as Wolfgang Tillman’s drunken punk standing up on a chair having a slash. So what is the intent of such shock tactics and strategies? Possibly it’s manifold: to expand parameters of free thought, to push boundaries of acceptance, and to transform antiquated conservative dictum and convention. Breaking down codes of censorship. Relinquishment of individual truths, without government or societal interference. To dislodge old values, to rewire the brain, to make change.
Navta Schulz Gallery (1039 W Lake)
Okay. Yeah, sometimes I bang around galleries, searching for art that feeds the intellect, or perhaps to solve a puzzle presented by an artist’s work. At times I want to be informed by work that addresses social, political and environmental issues. But sometimes I just want to be entertained and have fun. On occasion I need a sly joke, a laugh until my side splits or just a wide smile. Jason’s work elicits that response. He creates giant, fantastical sea creatures constructed from hundreds of balloons. Yes, he uses those sausage-shaped ones that clowns magically twist into poodle dogs for your hyperventilated kid at the circus.
Now I don’t know about you, but when serious artists utilize inappropriate materials in their art it can be devastatingly funny. Think Mike Kelly’s thrift store sock monkeys, or how about Tom Friedman’s shoplifted rubber balls, Jeff Koons’ basketballs in an aquarium … yes, artists can create a cup of good cheer, and Jason is among them. This gallery show featured photographs of his whimsical sea creature fabrications. Jason’s giant sculptures mimic life found around a coral reef: jellyfish, sea anemones, and shrimp. The installation space contained one actual balloon piece, an astounding giant shrimp-like delicacy, with two rows of red balloon nipples and fleshy balloon skin. Hoots and laughter from the opening night reception revelers spoke of an artist communicating with his audience in a most playful way.
by Art Fag