Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Lantern Projects: The Collective Studio

Zach Dodson
Artist, Writer, Designer
Bleached Whale Design

I've never had a proper 'studio', but this summer I have moved in with a bunch of artists and we've begun to build a collaborative effort in a very studio-like space: a temporary gallery and office spot in the Ukrainian Village of Chicago. I thought it might be interesting to examine what we are creating together in the space from the perspectives of the four main folks involved: Caroline Picard, Devin King, Abby Satinsky, and me, Zach Dodosn. This four-part blog, everyone will give their take on what's been happening in the 'summer studio' that has become Lantern Projects.

A Summer of Architectures

I have always thought of studios as sites of investigation: physical spaces in which one can spread out and examine everything collected over the course of an interest. It is a selfish space, a place intended for indulgence and freedom and fearlessness. For that reason it always felt a little untoward to consider the Green Lantern a personal studio --because facilitating the work of others really only works when the facilitator gives up control. Nevertheless the project has become it's own process of investigation--perhaps especially because in order to give up control of the outcome, one must have a very study administrative structure. There is an art in that structure. An artistic desire to develop a cohesive environment with clear intentions--such that any future activity has the freedom to grow around and through that structure organically. It's one thing for one person to develop that--quite another for a group of people to develop that structure together.

I always think about the project as an artistic endeavor--particularly now that we are trying to explore a possible reciprocity between a non-profit and for-profit model. The physical space becomes an opportunity to manifest a rather large notion: The goal of this project is to create a new sustainable culture that supports contemporary art practice, while simultaneously building bridges between those different practices.

In moving from an apartment to a storefront space in the Ukrianian Villiage that suddenly incorporates not just one person but four regular administrator/brain-stormers, the project itself becomes a collaboration. Between Zach and Abby and Devin and myself, we are all the time working through issues, troubleshooting and of course celebrating aspects of the space. This summer was particualrly interesting because there was so much theoretical sketching going on; sometimes it felt like we were talking about a pipe dream. (Sometimes it still does feel like we are talking about a pipe dream). We met once a week at 2542 W Chicago and tried to plan as best we could the next steps. This included the gallery programming, developing an on-line presence, developing an on-line shopping cart for our forthcoming bookstore, while also meeting with other artists and writers and performers to see what kind of projects we host in the fall. Through a series of long conversations over the summer and into the now, we have snipped and tweaked and pulled our vision into shared focus. Over the course of those conversations, our surrounding environment also changed, going from empty (one visitor suggested we were "squatting in an office") to painted, to furnished to open with artwork and artist talks and screenings.

While developing our physical and administrative environment, we inadvertently began establishing a working relationship as well. I always feel like relationships develop the same way brains do. In other words where new experiences carve out new pathways in the brain, pathways which are then used again and again, I feel like a similar thing happens when you're hanging out or working with people for the first time: new communication pathways have to be built, styles of relating have to be established in order to solidify a common ground on which jokes and hard work can rely on. I feel like the empty space of our nascent summertime Green Lantern was a studio for our collaboration, as much as it functioned as a space to develop our relationships. Because I feel like studios are essentially private places, places where things develop confidence through risk, so our empty storefront was a place to, simply, spend time together.

One of my main concentrations was to look for a more permenent space. Over the course of the summer I probably saw between 20 and 30 spaces. Every Wednesday I would give an update. I would also draw out the floorplans of the most interesting possibilities. In those floorplans, we daydreamed collectively, discussing how to prioritize and organize a given (and more or less imaginary) space: Where to put the bookstore? Where the gallery? How many people would we fit in this performance space? In that action too, an action of sketches, we further articulated something cohesive--even though it lacked definite physicality.

Inviting David Moré into our space was the final step before opening our doors. David was a fifth party--our first guest. He tested the structure we had been building over the preceding three months. And of course there was a really lovely parallel in his studio-oriented project, which resonated in our own process of development.

--Caroline Picard


This was our first project at Green Lantern, Normal Bias, a minor business venture by artist David Moré. From August 21st – September 11, Moré set up a studio in the gallery space and welcoming passers-by to participate in his free service: a portrait studio rendering the customers’ likeness in sound. The finished portraits were documented on audiocassette. To take part, visitors invited to visit the space during the hours of operation and there was a group portrait on the night of the opening. The accompanying exhibition from September 11th through 18th included sound portraits recorded over the month as well as a site-specific installation that utilizes the physical, architectural space as an instrument for an experimental, auditory composition.

Our thematic exhibitions and artist projects are thought experiments, models for critical and social engagement, poetic ruminations, and interrogations of the creative process from all angles. We hope to be a center for artists’ research, meaning that we highlight the process through which artists’ arrive at their creative ideas, rather than the product of their inquiry. We also support a transdisciplinary and transgressive wandering across contemporary art and its history as well as politics, social history, economics, science, and other bodies of knowledge, to get there. At the same time, we believe in critically investigating what is being produced by artists’ research and asking what marks the difference between art as one’s life “work” and living life creatively everyday. In other words, what do artists know? We hope to welcome many more artists that will use the Green Lantern as an open studio for their investigations and contribute to a public dialogue about the process of making things.

-- Abigail Satinsky


The idea of a studio is alien to me, I'll admit. The reason being I've never thought of myself as a fine artist. The reason for that being, I don't produce fine art. Graphic design usually falls on the other side on the fence from art, and my education and practice has traditionally had a lot more to do with design than art.

That being said, I'm thrilled to find myself among artists, in an art space, that could rightfully called a studio. It's a very eclectic version of a studio, and I think stretches the definition, but that's part of what our experiment is about. Plus, there's lots of overlap. And that overlap is a great place for innovation, for all of us. Even though I might be the least involved in the art world of the four of us, I have had a hand in the creation of the look and design collateral of the space in a big way. And collaborating on that has been a lot of fun. We eventually arrived at the idea of a Secret Society, cloaked in symbology. Rather than a closed entity though, we have a Secret Society that's open to the public, with symbols which are easily decipherable. The only bar to admission is showing up and hanging out. Working out the look and logos for the various part of the space was a great design project, and one where I could bring my poor art skills to bear.

One thing I've learned here though, is that art practice extends to all things. Caroline considers the entire business her art practice. Abby and Bryce have introduced me to the practice of 'Arts Administrators' (though I call them Art Bosses, cause that's easier). Devin tells great jokes.

Figuring out how the various pieces of the puzzle relate to each other, and how they don't has been a long tangled process this summer. We've mashed all the ideas together, we've pulled them apart, and I think, arrived at a very finely balanced structure of really very different sorts of arts organism co-habitating the same space. As the bookstore arm, I feel I'm the least fully realized so far, as we have only one measly shelf of books for sale, in a very unserious way. Devin's performances series have started and Abby and Caroline have worked hard on mounting the art shows. Me, I'm working on an online shopping cart and check-out system for our new independent press bookstore, The Paper Cave, and it's coming great, but I don't have much that's public at the moment. I'm just happy to be in a cave-like, studio-like space drawing weird pictures.

--Zach Dodson


Most of the work I did this summer in advance of the Corpse Performance Space at the Green Lantern Gallery didn’t need a studio space—meeting people for coffee is always an option and, during the earlier summer months, I tried to have as many planning sessions outside, in the park, with a nice salad or some bread and cheese. Which is to say, since most of the work I was doing this summer was chasing performers and artists and musicians down and trying to talk them into planning a series at our space, I didn’t need a space to show them anyways.

Well, sort of. By August, it became clear that even though most of the series curators knew the space was going to be last minute, that last minute was arriving and we needed to figure out how things were going to work. I ended up having to cancel some of the larger performances and scale back some of our ideas; four hour readings with jugglers and acrobats (really) became your normal 60 minute three author and discussion after; performers known for working with large piles of dirt were asked if it might be possible to do something in the spring when we were, hopefully, in a larger, more permanent space.

Which isn’t to say that I’m disappointed in what we ended up with—we’ve still got a 9 person improv night planned and some amazing reading and film series. Only that, as with most projects, artistic or otherwise, there’s been editing. Normal, banal editing within or without a studio.

--Devin King

Zach Dodson is an active member of many different arts communities, forging connections between the worlds of design and literature. He has launched such experiments as Featherproof Books, Bleached Whale Design, and The Show N' Tell Show. His hybrid typo/graphic novel, boring boring boring boring boring boring boring, was released under the nom de plume Zach Plague. His Art Direction credits include shelter, Echo, and MAKE: A Chicago Literary Magazine. His design has appeared in Newcity, Punk Planet, Resonance, TimeOut Chicago, Mule, and Bagazine. His writing has appeared in Monsters & Dust, ACM, Take the Handle, and Proximity Magazine. In 2009 he was named to Newcity’s Top 50 Literary Figures in Chicago.

All Images Courtesy of the Artist

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

They Do It For Free

Nicolette Michele Caldwell
Sixty Inches From Center:
Contemporary Graffiti
C33 Gallery, Columbia College Chicago

These days street art is everywhere. Chicago is my hometown and even though street art does not possess as strong of a cultural presence as it does in other American cities, you will find many talented street artists who choose to live here. The exhibition Sixty Inches From Center: Contemporary Graffiti at Columbia College Chicago’s C33 Gallery attempts to foster a meaningful discussion about the importance of street art on the contemporary art stage.

As a curator, I am constantly looking for new work or for familiar pieces in a variety of Chicago neighborhoods. Sometimes the artwork remains for a while and sometimes it is “buffed” over like the south wall of Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square with work by Goons and Sonny. Street art is a continually growing artistic endeavor on the contemporary art map and has a rich and diverse history beginning with graffiti writing and tagging on subway trains in the late 1970s and early 1980s in New York City. There is a growing community of street and graffiti artists in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, but there is also a burgeoning presence of street and graffiti artists in online communities.

Hebru Brantley, acrylic on brick wall, 2008
These street artists beautify unappealing wall facades with interesting and culturally inspired aesthetics. They hide their identity with an alias, but what should not remain a mystery is the studio practice involved in this discipline. The urban space or ‘urban studio’ that street artists work in provides a unique level of artistic freedom uncommon to other art forms.

What makes up street art?
Street art, elements of traditional graffiti, wheat-pasted posters, stencils, broadsides and ephemera are the most common form of street art in Chicago followed by spray paint, acrylic paint and stickers. You will see many current street artists working with found materials such as wood and other random scraps that make sense for their piece. Another interesting alternative to traditional street art practice is a new method called ‘green graffiti’. There are two approaches that I have come across that include moss graffiti that looks like moss growing on a wall. Moss graffiti is made from specific recipes found online and applied freehand or with a prefabricated stencil. Another material used is “ stenciled mud” and is probably one of the most ephemeral since it is the most susceptible to weather elements.

Jova El Grafista, Dumpster Diving For Materials, 2010

Skill and studio practice
Within the last two decades contemporary street art has become widely popular amongst many artists who combine both traditional studio practice and self-taught skills such as “graffiti writing”. Graffiti Writing is comprised of self-designed graphic font, text and symbols. Not all street artists have a background in graffiti writing and not all graffiti writers are practicing street artists. Participating artists in Sixty Inches From Center: Contemporary Graffiti are Jova el Grafista, Hebru Brantley, Brooks Golden and Blutt who all work with a variety of media and uniquely incorporate traditional elements of graffiti style. Like all the artists in the exhibition, they all work in and out of the studio.

Brooks Golden, Installation Wall, Meeting Of Styles, Chicago, Illinois, 2010
Blutt, Sticker, Possibly 2009/10

Nothing and everything compares
When I look at a piece of artwork I consider both the production and product. This is true with street art as well. Of course, all street art can be appreciated specifically for it’s aesthetic value but after learning more about street art practice I absolutely think it is important for the public to understand the production process. After having discussions on this topic with a few Chicago street artists, it is largely agreed upon that there are certain criteria that are used to critique the production and final product of the work.

1. Risk absolutely needs to be part of the process. If it seems to easy then many will not accept the work as authentic street art. It is part of the experience of working in the urban environment as a partial studio. Risk demonstrates how solid the artist’s dedication is to their artistic practice and crew who act sort of like a collective. Murals are not street art they are commissioned, legal, public art and created with ease.

2. It is also important to make the distinction between graffiti and street art as separate disciplines. The line can become blurry but it is helpful to know that street art is planned in advance while graffiti writing is done on the spot. When ‘traditional artists’ showcase a body of work in a gallery they make sure it is their best work and that it is representative of their talent. It is the same as any studio critique – there is bad illustration, bad painting, bad photography and there is bad street art. Likewise, street artists also take pride in the art they incorporate into the urban landscape - not that graffiti writers do not take pride in their work, they just work less preemptively and you can tell because the style typically remains the same. With street art there is much more variety.

Street art and the growing dialog
In conjunction with Chicago Artists Month and the Studio Chicago Project initiative the topic of street art and graffiti art could not be more appropriate. Street Art is not a common debate in academia nor is it incorporated into the contemporary dialog in Chicago. After co-curating Sixty Inches From Center: Contemporary Graffiti with Casey Champion, I was able to become a part of a slowly growing dialog. The main purpose of the exhibition was not necessarily to say, “this is street art” but to showcase street artists, highlight their talent and make the studio process as transparent as possible. My hope is to educate others on this topic and advocate for growing acceptance of street and graffiti art. These artists are contributing an important artistic voice at the contemporary art table in and outside of Chicago.

Image Credit: Hebru Brantley, acrylic on brick wall, 2008; Jova El Grafista, Dumpster Diving For Materials, 2010; Brooks Golden, Installation Wall, Meeting Of Styles, Chicago, Illinois, 2010; Blutt, Sticker, Possibly 2009/1; Video by Cristina Aguirre, student and reporter for "The Loop" at Columbia College Chicago

Nicolette Michele Caldwell is co-director of Sixty Inches From Center: Chicago Arts Archive and Collective Project. She is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago who is passionate about increasing awareness of the city’s local artists and organizations. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Art History, specializing in Modern to Contemporary Art and the History of Photography. Caldwell’s post-graduate work has served in the development of grant proposals and fundraising efforts for Roots and Culture Gallery and as a gallery operations and administrative assistant for the Averill and Bernard Leviton Gallery. Her experiences curating include the 2009 and 2010 student BFA exhibitions and Sixty Inches From Center, an exhibition highlighting Chicago street art. Caldwell has volunteered services to the Poor Farm experiment and is also a lifelong lover and maker of photography.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Louise LeBourgeois on Studio, Partnership and Swimming

Louise LeBourgeoise
Columbia College Chicago
Art+Design Department

Where is my studio? It is the physical place where I go to make my paintings, but it is also a psychic space containing memory, experience, and ideas. I bring these mental constructs with me when I walk into my studio. I take them with me when I leave. The studio is a place with walls. And it isn't.

Painting is an incredibly solitary activity. When I was a younger artist, I thought that painting full time, with very few distractions in my life, was a level of perfection I wanted to achieve. I now know that such isolation is not good for my state of mind, nor is it good for my ability to get work done.

Paradoxically, the community I create in my life outside of the studio, spending time doing things that seemingly have nothing to do with making art, allows me to become even more creative and productive as an artist. It’s like being a deep-sea diver. When you know there are people waiting for you in a boat on the surface of the water who can pull you back to a place where you can breathe, you become more willing to take risks, to dive deeper and further than you ever have before. The more closely connected I am to other people, the easier it is for me to put in long, solitary hours in my studio.

I think this is the single most important thing I have ever learned about being an artist.

The diving metaphor is apt for many reasons. I am a swimmer, and the older I get, the more interested I am in painting water and sky. It’s an image I started working with almost two decades ago when I was an M.F.A. student at Northwestern University and casting about for subject matter onto which I could pin all my aching and almost absurd hopes of becoming a successful artist.

I wanted to become a good painter. I thought if I were able to paint water, elusive and refractive as it is, in a convincing manner, then I would be able to paint anything. It really wasn’t any more complicated than that.

But like a dream whose layers of meaning are only revealed over time, the significance of this simple image, and simple intention, has evolved into something entirely different.

Lake, oil on panel, 5.5” x 7.5”, 1994

Here are some snapshots of the relationships, experiences and community that sustain me as a painter.

For many years, I shared a studio at home with my husband Steven Carrelli . We met in 1993 while we were both graduate students at Northwestern. We married in 1995. Our entire lives as working artists has been in partnership with each other.

It’s a funny thing living with another artist. It’s like hearing the repetitive running monologue of your own obsessive/creative mind come out of someone else’s mouth. Here is a video interview of Steve with Columbia College’s Elizabeth Burke-Dain that illustrates perfectly what I’m talking about:

This is exactly the kind of thing we listen to from each other almost every day, these random thoughts and doubts. It doesn’t make sense to try to turn it into conversation. That can have doomed consequences. We only critique each other's work when asked.

Steve and I bought our condominium in Rogers Park in 1998. Until this past January, we shared the 400 square foot living room as our studio.

This worked well for all the years we both made intimate, face-sized paintings. Then Steve began to work on much larger drawings and last year I was also struck by a need to work much bigger. I ordered two 46” x 46” panels.

I quickly realized I couldn’t work the way I was accustomed to in the studio I shared with Steve. It wasn’t practical for me to move bulky panels around in the same space where he had set up intricate still lives, and neither of us wanted to risk my spattering paint onto his carefully rendered drawings.

I found a new studio at the Greenleaf Art Center, a five-minute walk from our front door. Now that I paint elsewhere, it's changed our interaction with each other.

Many years ago, we worked on our first collaborative drawing. We did a few more over time. Now that we don't share the same studio, we both have more motivation to do these drawings together. One of us starts, and we pass it off to the other in turns until it’s done. These drawings are weirder, and the outcome less foreseen, than anything either of us would do on our own.

Untitled, graphite on paper, 15.75” x 9.5”, 2010
Untitled, graphite on paper, 16.5” x 10.5”, 2010
Untitled, graphite on paper, 14.5” x 11.5”, 2010, in progress

I have a group of friends who swim at Promontory Point in Hyde Park at dawn in the summer and early fall. I am not naturally an early morning person, but it’s such a transformative experience, with such friendly people, for such a short window of time each year, that I make the effort to go two or three times a week.

It’s like swimming in one of my paintings. Or conversely, it is a visceral experience that keeps me in touch with what I need to know to make the paintings I make.

In late summer, it is still dark when my alarm goes off at 5am. Going out into the world before daybreak spooks me. Lake Michigan spooks me, for good reason. It’s a powerful body of water. Twice in my life I’ve been truly frightened by its tremendous force, and both times I hustled myself back onto land as quickly as I could.

When we get into the water around 6am in late August or early September, the sky is a dilute gray and the sun isn’t up yet. Sometimes the water is crazy cold, in the low to mid 50’s. Over the years, I’ve learned to tolerate cold water. Like any difficult skill, you can train yourself to do it if you are motivated enough.

It is true urban wilderness. The lake tells you how far and how long you can swim and it is in our interest to listen carefully. Our lives depend on it. My swimming friend Grace Tsiang wrote an article for the U.S. Masters Swimming website about one particularly challenging swim last summer.

Swimming out into the lake and watching the pink sun rise over the horizon is worth all the exertion of an early morning swim. It is as if you’re watching all that spookiness dissolve into benign reality.

For two weeks in June this year, I participated in the BAU Institute’s artist residency program in Otranto, Italy. There were about twelve to fifteen artists while I was there, the numbers fluctuating as people arrived and left. We all had our studios on the top floor of Otranto’s 15th century castle, which has a vast terrace overlooking the Adriatic Sea towards Albania. I could step outside my studio door and actually see water and sky.

During a typical day I worked for six or seven hours with pencils, erasers and paper. The simplicity of drawing was perfect for this trip, particularly since the castle and our studios were closed from 1 to 3 in the afternoon. There was no need to clean up in the middle of the day or at the end.

I swam almost everyday, the warm salt water a pleasant change from my chilly swims in Lake Michigan. One day the water was extremely choppy. I treaded water and could see the quick instant of sharp pointed peaks at the top of each wave. I decided to make a drawing of that.

Water, Otranto #7, graphite on paper, 11” x 14”, 2010

I completed seven 11” x 14” graphite drawings of water and sky while I was there.

I have vivid memories of painting when I was in nursery school. I would stand at the easel, load my brush with a bright color and slather it onto the paper. Then I’d dip the brush into another color and slide it into the first, noticing how the colors merged and blended. I’d bring home large pieces of paper that could barely support all the paint I’d layer onto it. My mother would listen to me as I gave elaborate explanations of what each painting meant. I don’t recall ever painting any thing, although I probably did. I do remember seeing what the other kids painted— people, flowers, fire trucks, the sun. I felt wistful about it, liking what I saw, but not wanting to do the same thing. I was much more interested in color and the physical sensation of messing around with paint.

Now that I am working on much larger panels, the way I paint now is beginning to feel very much like the way I painted when I was very young.

Water #430, Oil on Panel, 46” x 46”, 2010
Water #420, Oil on Panel, 46” x 46”, 2010
Water #423, Oil on Panel, 46” x 46”, 2010
I have worked with water and sky imagery for many years now, inspired by Lake Michigan and the conundrum that the horizon line presents: a straight, visible line that actually describes the invisible curve of our planet. Although none of these thoughts are explicit in the drawings and paintings I produce, my fascination with the illusion of a sharp divide where none actually exists is what drives me to create such labor-intensive images of very simple compositions.

Louise LeBourgeois swims in Lake Michigan (and other places) and teaches painting and drawing in the Art + Design Department at Columbia College Chicago. She is currently exhibiting her work in the “Imagine Everywhere” show at Columbia College’s A + D gallery.

She graduated with a B.S in Art from the University of Wisconsin/Madison, a B.F.A from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and an M.F.A from Northwestern University. She and her husband Steven Carrelli will both have one person shows at Packer Schopf Gallery in Chicago in November.

Images Courtesy of the Artist

Monday, September 13, 2010

Still Action

Elissa Papendick and Libby O’Bryan, co-curators of “Still Action”
On view at SAIC’s Sullivan Galleries through October 2

“Still Action” began with a shared interest in the artists’ process: the increasing prevalence of artists engaging in a practice of slow-, craft-, and process-based work. We wondered, what if this trend could shift from the maker to the viewer, or participant? Our question came from an intrigue in how the social and political shift of our culture has affected these art practices and what potential it has to influence its audience. We sought work for a fall exhibition in SAIC’s Sullivan Galleries that would challenge these ideas.

We were invited to participate in SAIC’s “Summer Studio,” a residency project at the Sullivan Galleries, to engage our curatorial process as studio practice. Embracing this opportunity of time and space, the six-week residency allowed for an intense period of research and interpretation of the concept that sparked our initial thoughts for this exhibition: still action – an idea introduced by anthropologist Nadia Seremetakis.

In her book Senses Still, Seremetakis explores an “anthropology of the senses,” privileging sensorial engagements of the everyday. Through stillness, the imperceptible becomes perceptible, allowing dismissed modes of understanding (partly resulting from fragmentation of labor and commoditization of goods) to be realized. In stillness is movement.

In order to broaden these ideas, challenge our perspective, and ultimately find artists to participate in our exhibition, we held an open call for conversations during “Summer Studio.” Through a process of unfolding, the printed invitation to participate revealed a brief summation of the still act and asked “What are still acts?” and “How can artists engage their viewer in still action? Close to forty artists, art historians, and art administrators from Chicago and beyond responded to our call.

With a full schedule of discussions, we considered how this curatorial process would take form during “Summer Studio”? How would we occupy the studio space during our residency? We felt the following were essential:

1) To embrace the shared, open studio environment of “Summer Studio” which would be filled with artists and administrators with whom we could visually present and share ideas.

2) To create an intimate space for private conversations which would engage and comfort our guests.

3) Ultimately, to embrace the duality of public and private – of making and thinking – of collaboration and independence.

In the way we wanted our concept to develop and expand, we wanted our studio space to mimic this process – much like the intricate unfolding required by our printed invitation. We presented this idea to architect Brandon Pass and he designed and built – along with Nick Bastis, our unfolding studio structure. A ten-inch thick suspended plywood “wall” deploys into a “Murphy bed” desk with storage and pin board on the public side. The wall hinges toward the gallery walls to delineate the conversation space with coat closet, small table, and access to folding chairs.

When a guest arrived at our studio, the structure was closed. We then asked the guest to assist in the labor of deployment; we thought this would be as fun for the guest as it had been for us! We learned from our guests that this aided in their transition into the present experience. Also, the investment of creating a stimulating and purposeful studio instilled our work with intention and integrity, and therefore, sincerity in the invitation for conversation. From this we learned the value of creating a thoughtful, enjoyable experience within the studio – for your collaborators, guests, and yourself – and how your studio can reflect and nurture the nature of your work.

We wanted to pursue an unconventional curatorial model, so we created an unconventional office. We wanted guests to feel comfortable, open and present, so we nestled them in with tea and treats. This physical environment was vital to our process. It gave the process a visual expression, and inspired interesting and often pleasantly unexpected reactions; it formed a personality for the work.

Elissa Papendick is currently pursuing a dual MA in Modern Art History, Theory & Criticism and Arts Administration & Policy at SAIC, after receiving a BA in Environmental Studies and Art History from Oberlin College. Elissa continues to explore the role artists play in affecting positive environmental change, including creative remedies for polluted sites and strategies for urban agriculture. Elissa has worked with The Chicago Park District, The Joan Flasch Artists’ Collection, The Headlands Center for the Arts, and in curatorial and administrative positions.

Libby O'Bryan, a native mid-westerner, has returned to Chicago following a career in New York City's fashion industry. She recently received her BFA from SAIC, where she focused her studies in the Fiber & Material Studies and Performance departments. Libby has served as Project Manager for “Local Industry” during Anne Wilson: Wind/Rewind/Weave at the Knoxville Museum of Art (Knoxville, TN) as well as Curatorial Assistant for Shannon Stratton and Judith Leeman with Gestures of Resistance at The Museum of Modern Craft (Portland, OR). She has exhibited work in New Blood III at Chicago Cultural Center, The Breathing House in Minneapolis, Ano Viejo at Tom Robbins Gallery and She went back to where she began . . . at The Attic.

Images Courtesy of the Artists

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Rereading Letters to the Editor

Shane Aslan Selzer
Artist In Residence
School of the Art Institute
Summer Studios

In July I participated in Summer Studio at The Sullivan Galleries, sharing an open studio with a dozen artists and at least as many different approaches to the idea of a studio practice. In the weeks following, I’ve been reading, The Studio Reader, and enjoying the diverse tapestry of studio descriptions compiled within it. Inevitably, this led to personal observations of my own studio habits, and models for working in the nine cities that I’ve maintained a studio at various points in the past twelve years. My practice usually looks back in order to move forward, gathering an index of images, attitudes, and production through a determinedly assemblage method of research and practice of looking, analyzing and categorizing.

For the summer, I committed to memory a black and white, scanned catalogue image of a geometric sculpture made by Burgoyne Diller in 1943. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the image I had seen was oriented sideways, within a scanned catalogue of images oriented vertically. By the time I realized the error in my perception of Third Theme Construction, opinions had already formed in my mind’s memory map and I had grown attached to the shallow depth provided by the side view. Which side? I rescanned the faded Xerox I’d held onto, and flipped the image, re-emphasizing the distance between the page and the space it contained.

Third Theme Construction III
xerox print      2010

Diller was a founding member of the American Abstract Artists, and the head of The Mural Division of The WPA/Federal Art Project. In 1936 he commissioned little known abstract painters to create nonobjective murals that were intended for public spaces of transience, gathering, and leisure in the Williamsburg Housing Projects.

In time, the maintenance and protection of these public in between spaces diminished and the murals were covered over, and disregarded until their recent restoration and exhibition at The Brooklyn Museum.  I draw on the potentially overused term in between to describe a type of time spent. Neither completely engaged in work, nor leisure, these spaces were multi-use, occupying visitors during brief durations of time spent daydreaming, having a cigarette, or chatting with a coworker. This time spent in proximity of the murals was neither fully subconscious nor fully conscious and as a result, the mind was able to wander, dwell, skip ahead and fall behind. I have an Eames chair in my studio on wheels, which serves as a vehicle for this same sort of in between time in my own practice and I began to wonder if, and what types of seating were originally present in view of the murals. The space between the viewer and the mural seems visually aligned with the shallow depth of field created by the sculpture Third Theme Construction, at least when viewed in black and white, on its side. I began to reference this shallow space visually in the gestures of simple objects at hand.

Third Theme Construction V
inkjet print    2010

I wonder about the specifics of the studios used by the artists commissioned to create the Williamsburg murals. By indexing the shapes found repeated between several of the murals, I imagine a series of studio visits and visual discussions happening between the artists during production. These fantasies are based in part upon my own desire to work amidst a community of individuals engaged in the lexicon of visual culture today. These visual overlaps are comforting, as if reassuring me that on some level we do have shared perspectives, albeit across our oceans of difference.

The formation of The American Abstract Artists (AAA) Group fascinates me as a community effort to draw attention to a shared way of seeing and interpreting, not previously acknowledged through American exhibitions. Indeed, it was Diller’s support for the group that lent it credibility in those early years; a brave move for a federal employee during the latter part of the Great Depression. A year after he commissioned the murals, seven members of AAA Group wrote a letter to the Art Editor at The New York Times, which was published on August 8, 1937. The letter was signed by; Hananiah Harari, Jan Matulka, Herzl Emanuel, Byron Browne, Leo Lances, Rosalind Bengelsdorf, and George McNeil. These artists were repositioning themselves in response to statements made by the AAA Group, of which they were all continuing members.

Using the following paragraph from The New York Times letter as a grounding text concerning my own practice, I started a series of single session sculptures, which attempted to index the reoccurring shapes found within the Williamsburg murals:

It is our very definite belief that abstract art forms are not separated from life, but on the contrary are great realities, manifestations of a search into the world about one’s self, having basis in living actuality, made by artists who walk the earth, who see colors (which are realities), squares (which are realities, not some spiritual mystery), tactile surfaces, resistant materials, movement. The abstract work of an artist who is not conscious of or is contemptuous of the world about him is different from the abstract work of an artist who identifies himself with life and seeks generative force from its realities.

– excerpt from Letter to Art Editor at New York Times, August 8, 1937

Working in clay, a material I had little prior knowledge of, I rolled out slabs, cut out the discrete shapes seen in the murals, and then draped the leftover, remaining slab in a single gesture fold. I found that these intimate gestures carried the connective force that the murals brought to viewers’ physical awareness and symbolic relationships to other works in the body’s visual vicinity.

Single Session Sculptures
clay and steel (view of six, from larger series)

Shane Aslan Selzer is an artist based in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has been exhibited internationally in venues such as P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, Jamaica Flux in Queens and The Bag Factory in Johannesburg. She teaches a contemporary art seminar for graduate students at The University at Albany and is currently organizing a symposium based on experiences of FAILURE.

All Images Courtesy of the Artist

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Mind In The Body: Thoughts On A Conceptually Oriented Material Practice & The Studio of Clayton Merrell

Adam Grossi

Ground Floor Exhibition at Hyde Park Art Center

I received a fantastic undergraduate art education from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. CMU was a relatively forward-thinking institution, rather agile on its pedagogical feet considering its size and history, when it transitioned its traditional studio arts program into a more conceptually oriented studio program in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. By the time I arrived as a contemporary-art-ignorant first-year student in 1999, the undergraduate curriculum was well established. Traditional media courses like “2D Media Studio” were (and are) requirements alongside courses called “Concept Studios” which are designed to introduce young artists to the idea of thinking about art as a discipline in its own right.

It is not without difficulty that I developed and sustained a focus on painting in this environment. My commitment to the disciplines of painting and drawing had little to do with any judgment on my part of their perceived relevance in the artistic discourse, nor was my continued interest in these traditional forms some kind of implicit protest against newer models of practice; in fact I was incredibly taken (and still am) by video, performance, and various forms of social practice that were emerging within the school at that time.

The difficulty I experienced was an internal one: while the curriculum had me parallel processing material-based and conceptual practices, I was having a hell of a time synthesizing them in my third and fourth years of study. Painting, in particular, felt just about impossible to engage with, event though on some other level I desperately wanted to continue painting. Of the traditional disciplines, painting is probably the quickest to wilt under intense exposure to flippantly applied Marxist economic critique. The cognitive dissonance I experienced while absorbing eloquent lectures on critical art theory and concomitantly observing the powerful possibilities arising out of my own art-object-producing studio practice was paralyzing. In a sense, my body wanted to paint but my mind would not let me.

It was at this point in my development that the artist Clayton Merrell became an invaluable guide, resource, and example. Clayton is a painter and professor at Carnegie Mellon, and I credit him with providing a formative example for myself and other students of a materially based conceptual artist. In his studio classes, painting was not defended from conceptual practices; it was just another form of conceptual practice, one that relied on thinking through materials in a particular way. Of equal importance was his understanding that the intellectual or theoretical realm of painting involved the theory of painting but was not confined to it; that paintings have subjects beyond their own navels, and that perhaps painting is a discipline uniquely suited to grappling with certain concerns in the realms of representation and the production of cultural meaning. His own work is absorbed in the nature of landscape, both its construction and perceived appreciation, and he was always working on a couple paintings in his on-campus office/studio that students could have the privilege of seeing in person as they met with him to discuss their own work. I developed an appreciation for the clarity and geometry of his paintings, and to this day, some ten years later, I still find my own evolving painting practice to be heavily indebted to my admiration of his methods.

In March of 2009 I had the opportunity to visit Clayton’s home studio for the first time, and after years of absorbing his paintings it was a revelation to see how he cultivates the site in which they are produced. Over the course of our conversation Clayton was generous enough to allow me to photograph anything that interested me. If a conceptual painting practice is a form of thinking through materials then it follows, as these photos demonstrate, that a conceptual painter’s studio is an arrangement of materials and space that can ably encourage the body and stimulate the mind.

“I use the simplified and codified languages of landscape painting and mapping as means to examine context and world-view in general. The bewildering multiplicity of the natural world is equaled by the multiplicity of explanations and systems (scientific, pictorial, psychological, etc.) which purport to represent the world. These systems are interesting to me largely by virtue of what they omit, and what those omissions reveal. So, in a sense, landscape is my medium because its unassuming quietness is a kind of transparency through which structural differences and subtle systemic shifts can be more clearly apprehended.”

--Clayton Merrell

Clayton’s studio is a two-level house-like building that sits on the steep slope of his backyard. He shares the studio with his wife, Valerie, who is a ceramicist.

Valerie’s workspace is the first area of the building, and without knowing much about her work, it’s already apparent the influence of sharing space with her has on Clayton’s practice. From her materials and works in progress I deduce that Valerie is forming curvilinear vessels and covering them with mineral glazes, which can only further ignite Clayton’s fascinations with pigments and non-flat pictorial surfaces.

Here’s Clayton standing in front of a few of his paintings in progress. The photo is taken from the second floor, and you can see the openness of the space allows for a multitude of angles from which to view the work, which must be helpful in exploring the different geometries and perspective shifts he employs.

The paintings occupy available space, and at the same time, the form of the space seems to encourage some of the spatial distortions in the work. At left, a sky seems to fold in on itself, and on the right, a horizon line is mirrored along the central axis of the canvas.

On the second floor we have a kind of relaxation area, for reading or conversing. Hanging on the opposite wall are finished works that straddle sculpture and painting; the shiny golden areas are actually hand-carved wood that is painted with gold leaf. As we get to talking, it turns out that Clayton has also carved the table that sits in the middle of the chairs.

A bench he’d been carving. I had seen the carved paintings in a gallery, but seeing the carved furniture reframed my understanding of the paintings; it now seems like the carving may have been initially peripheral to his practice, possibly as a form of productive procrastination (we’ve all got those), that then worked its way in the actual paintings.

Smaller paintings, studies, and works on paper hanging in close proximity. The small works on paper at right look like they may have been cut down from larger paintings and repainted, always an incredible advantage to using paper. Evidence of sanding is apparent on the two panels, presumably functioning as a way to reclaim the surface after some kind of failure, but also serving as a texture and method of application as the painting is reconstituted. At bottom left is an actual map adhered to paper and embellished with painted icons.

Intricate assortments of collected odds and ends, variously categorized and uncategorized, occupy several tables in the back of the second floor. This area looks to be designated for tinkering. I see that some spherical forms are painted, so they must have served at some point as research for other works. I’m not sure if the beakers are interesting to Clayton as objects or if they are tools. I know he mixes his own pigments and maintains an interest in alchemy (which is, essentially, what painting is) so they could function as both.

More of Clayton’s work can be seen on his website:

Adam Grossi is an artist who relies heavily on images and words, which usually take shape as paintings and texts, though occasionally become other things. He hails from Reston, Virginia and is nearly 30 years old at the time of this writing. Adam received his MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2009 and five of his recent paintings are currently on exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center as part of the show "Ground Floor." He lives and works in Chicago.