5811 S. Ellis Avenue, Chicago, IL 60637
May 3, 2015 - June 28, 2015
An Actual Location for This Moment: Gabriel Sierra at the Renaissance Society
by Gan Uyeda
Posted by Gan Uyeda
| tags: conceptual sculpture interactive art immersive art humor
Gabriel Sierra creates structures of relation, platforms where humans, architecture, and paper media collaborate on the creation of artworks. His current exhibition at the Renaissance Society—the first solo exhibition in the United States for the Bogotá-based artist—is a scatter piece of sculptures, rules, and relationships in which 14 constructions, mostly in modernistically white plywood, lie on the gallery floor. They look at first like a kind of stern minimalism in the Ren’s soaring angular ceilings. This straight-faced formalism, it turns out, is a ruse, the butt of a joke that requires viewers to sully the seriousness that their forms suggest.
Upon entry, the visitor receives ASSEMBLY INSTRUCTIONS, a how-to guide for putting together the actions that constitute the works and a self-help manual for gathering in assembly with other humans. “Please only access designated areas and platforms if able to perform the instructions below” the sheet reads, establishing a rule system ostensibly based on ability, but actually based on the arbitrary facts of one’s intersectional identity: Area for 21-year olds to stand for 21 minutes with their hands in their pockets; Area for five non-Americans; Stone for children and small adults to stand up and look through the window into the opposite window. Not a 21-year old? Not non-American? Not a small adult? The piece is not open to you. Look elsewhere.
Press releases for the exhibition showing eight different titles
The show has eight titles, one for each open hour, to be swapped out in rotating shifts so that a visitor walking into the exhibition How the Outside Leaks into the Room may exit from the exhibition Smells Like 100 Years Old. The titles are changed in the entrance hallway each hour, as are the eight press releases, their texts identical save the titles. The exhibition consists of 14 sculptural zones, 3 of which operate differently in the morning than they do in the afternoon, so let’s call that 17 zones, which we can multiply by the number of discrete exhibition titles: eight. The exhibition’s 14 sculptural platforms bloom through time into 136 variations.
Gabriel Sierra, Installation view, 2015. Courtesy The Renaissance Society. Photo: Tom Van Eynde
Some instructions ask the visitor to confront the ambiguities that live on the edges of qualitative and quantitative boundaries. Area for people wearing old shoes; Stand 6”, 8”, and 12” off the ground. How many shoe birthdays make a pair of shoes old? How might one determine 8 inches from the ground on a gently sloping platform? Ergonomic modernism suggests that the objects and structures we use should reveal themselves to our hands and eyes, that they should give notice of their function. Sierra’s structures reverse these terms of functionality, hiding their use value somewhere in the conceptual space between the object, the user, and the instructions for use.
The exhibition casts a glance at modernist architecture and formalist sculpture, turns away, and laughs. It tells you to drag your dirty old shoes over the pristine white plane, to contemplate the cosmos while chugging fizzy water, your thoughts of transcendental disembodiment stymied by burps. Architecture is the organized practice of humans framing and ordering the chaos of the outside, a practice that Sierra embraces and sends up with absurdity and mirth.
Gabriel Sierra, Installation view, 2015. Courtesy The Renaissance Society. Photo: Tom Van Eynde
While linkages between the platforms, the instructions, and the exhibition titles reveal a number of recurring themes—insides versus outsides, representations of time, 21-year-oldness—one with particular subtlety and an unexpected degree of pathos is the image of the closed gallery. From 10am through 11am each day, the exhibition title is Monday Impressions, and from 2pm to 3pm it’s In the Meantime (This Place Will Be Empty after 5:00pm). In a similar vein, a small strip of white wood in the corner carries the instructions Area for considering Mondays, when the gallery is closed. These gestures of self-effacement carry a memento mori slap, realigning attention from the humans on the platforms to the platforms themselves, their object lifespans, and the ways that institutions, like the physical structures that house them, carry through time beyond us. Smells like 100 years old.
Lost in the Local
by James Pepper Kelly
Posted by James Pepper Kelly
| tags: corporate residencies local ArtSlant Editions milwaukee Pfister Hotel artist-in-residence
I take a night train to Milwaukee with an overloaded shoulder bag, a bottle and a half of red wine in me, and full of hope. On the way north I reread articles on the great artist migration from big cities to bankrupt ones, to the exurbs—be born rich or move to Detroit/Cleveland/Jersey City/Belleville. Or Milwaukee, where I’d be staying at The Pfister Hotel for a pop-up arts symposium on empowering the local arts scene, the whole affair orchestrated by Niki Johnson, the hotel’s artist in residence. Go local!
Looking out the window at cheap grocery stores and tunnels of excellent graffiti, I remember that Amtrak has its own residency program. Facebook, too. If artists are being priced out of the urban zone, maybe (corporate) residencies will be their only access point in the future. Artist-in-residence in every retailer up and down the Magnificent Mile/Broadway/the Champs Elysées. Go corporate support!
The MKE symposium was to celebrate both of these: the local, small-city arts scene and the completion of Niki’s year-long residency at the Pfister. In honor of the occasion, and in bid for coverage, the hotel would be putting me and three other writers up. I glance around the train car: people in discount workwear sipping tallboys or snoring. No obvious arts writers. I connect with them on Twitter, Sid Branca (of Bad at Sports) and I agree to meet on the platform. Out the window are spotlit waiting rooms, construction machinery bearing vigil in the night.
All photo: James Pepper Kelly
Sid is cool, with white-blonde hair, here to meet a friend about their theatre group. She’s curious to see if the hotel halls will work for a video project. We walk over the highway together and it feels almost like high school, stopping in a small gas station for cigarettes (Sid) and lottery tickets (me). The wine is still working as we climb up through Milwaukee, wind blowing at our chests one minute, our backs the next. What, I wonder, are we doing here? Sid says this is a regular thing, from time to time she leaves Chicago to eat sausages and drink beer in Milwaukee. I might be here for the same reasons, I think, not sausages or beer but the other part. Go. Local.
After walking up Milwaukee’s wide, empty streets we reach The Pfister Hotel (pronounced “Fister”). Not what I had guessed at: not quaint, not corporate. No, everything in the lobby is marbled and gilded, fluffed and shined. Painted Victorian women lower their tops while bronzed bare long legs lead up to tilted, childlike hips. Overhead, chandeliers light the cheeks of smirking, naked cherubim. From the hotel lounge/bar comes laughter, ennui, the scent of a hundred (dollar) perfumes.
A friend of mine once had a studio visit with Doris Salcedo during which the all-star artist declared, “I don’t want to hear about you and your bourgeois friends!” It’s easy to empathize. Of course we should care about the working artist’s concerns, but having to actually hear them enumerated is dull. I came to Milwaukee from Chicago, The City That Works, expecting the standard talking points around art world economics: student loan debt, the plight of the adjunct, the W.A.G.E. system, lack of collectorship, the sins of mega-galleries, and the numbing standardization of art fairs, to name a few. Retreading these issues, worthy as they are, is usually the art world equivalent of talking about the weather, or the record of your local sports team. Looking round the lobby of the Pfister I wonder if those points are relevant here. What can you say about the weather while sitting in the antechamber to the orgy?
Just off the lobby, in the former Business Center, is Niki Johnson’s studio. This is where she’s spent 30+ hours per week over the last year. Glass walls and an open door encourage visitors to stop, watch, engage, and Niki is chatting with several of them as Sid and I walk up. I look round the studio, take some pictures, read wall text, but mostly I’m watching Niki charm her guests. Later at the bar she’ll laugh and refer to the space as a fish bowl and I’ll feel sorry for her having to make the same noises every day like clockwork, and impressed with her too, and on some level I’ll know that as we sit there, me and Sid and now Kate Sierzputowski too (of Inside/Within and Newcity), that Niki is handling us just as well as anyone.
The three of us keep Niki up late, until we’re nodding off, playing our roles as question-askers. The entire time she sparkles. Her role here is the personally magnetic artist and she’s damn good at it, self-deprecating and honest and polished—but almost too much. Behind her the dark bar stretches out, empty aside from our table. Small tealights go out here and there and stay that way. We were talking about what? The bartender spins a beer bottle between his palms to get the last dregs into a glass (never seen that one before), shortly after kicks us out. We laugh our way back to the hotel, up the elevator, and I notice a gift basket waiting in my room: cheeses, mustard, dip-able pretzels. I read through Pfister press releases while chewing Gouda. Pretzel crumbs are everywhere but I don’t notice because I’m learning that the Pfister is haunted, at least the Internet says so and some sports teams won’t even stay here, but I’m losing focus here so I fall into the bed and pass out.
In the morning there’s a bright sun over Milwaukee, the wind just as strong. I walk down to the lake where there’s an art museum hosting a flower show, then back to the hotel past buff, short-haired insurance employees. If Nelson Algren was right—loving Chicago is like loving a woman with a broken nose—then is loving Milwaukee like loving her clean-living Boy Scout cousin? If so, the Pfister is that vanilla boy’s ID.
Before lunch with the marketing team I explore the hotel lobby. I’m happy to see that the hedonism holds up in daylight. I start reading wall labels and thrill to the realization that the text is as idiosyncratic as the artwork. Up on the mezzanine a portrait of Mr. Ben Marcus, the magnate who purchased the property in the early 60s, smiles out at me. There’s also a woman there peering out from beneath an Alice in Wonderland hat, not smiling, tapping on a classic typewriter. The Narrator- in-Residence, I guess based on last night’s PR binge. She stares at me a minute then starts tapping faster.
At lunch the writers (now joined by Corinna Kirsch, Art F City) sit down with three members of the Pfister’s marketing team. We cover the details of the press releases, which, surprisingly, I seem to somehow remember. All three of them love working for the Pfister, or, more accurately, for The Pfister Hotel’s holding company, Marcus Hotels & Resorts, a division of The Marcus Corporation (NYSE: MCS). Mentally I flip what’s instantly “problematic” —who doesn’t love to bash corporate?—but it’s a reflexive impulse. The Pfister gives the AIR studio space, pays her, feeds her, gives her latitude to make use of the hotel’s resources and propose projects. Hence the symposium, which Niki proposed, and The Marcus Corporation inviting us all to Mil-town. During the talking points I fantasize about being rich and investing ethically: only corporations with AIR programs.
Towards the end of the meal things pick up: one of the employees starts describing her hobby as a competitive dog-track trainer. At this point the Pfister has my complete respect: how, how does it completely fail to be normal?
And then, the symposium. I wish I could say that the arts speakers did well by the Pfister’s weirdness. I wish that we’d met in that haunted ballroom, old man Pfister looking down on us from back balcony, and truly realized where we were. Speakers could talk about the poetry of wall labels, the painting of a regal lion hanging up high by the ghost, how this spectacular art collection of hope and perversion came to Milwaukee and how we should face it today.
But that didn’t happen. We hear about how to write for grants, that we should talk to strangers, that someone writing for Hyperallergic said something about Kehinde Wiley and there are a lotta blog comments. That “there is art writing out there.” When an earnest young man insists that “community is about food but it’s not about cocktail parties.” I walk out to go buy toothpaste.
I walk through the cold, bright city, thinking about Charles Pfister’s “vision for ‘The Palace of the People…[w]here anyone would be able to walk through the doors and gaze upon the work of famous artists from Europe and America.” Why, then, are the symposium’s speakers coming off self-conscious and defensive? We sit there in the inner chamber, surrounded by raw possibility, and they want to talk about whether it will rain. Go local?
Back at the Pfister the art press table taps away avidly. Corinna is live-blogging for Art F City, Sid and I snapping out tweets, Kate loading her computer with notes. We drink lots of coffee, and soda, then Sid leaves and Kate and I steal beers from the caterers out in the central staging area while Corinna grabs her gift basket lager from her room. Up front a trio of presenters bluster in the language of self-help manuals, something about creative communities and branding. I look around the room. Does anyone understand what they’re talking about? Beside me, Kate raises her hand. “I’m from Chicago and not familiar with your work. Can you explain what you do?” The man guffaws. “How long ya got?” After that, we’re treated to several minutes of an incomprehensible explanation from the brand specialists.
The sun goes down outside and the last speaker, painter and former Pfister artist-in-residence Reginald Baylor, takes the stage. Baylor jokes, poses, delivers copious biography about himself as a young man. Baylor charms. His dubious message—concentrate on direct sales to the suburbanites of middle America—isn’t what sticks. He winds up, we laugh, and then it’s over and Niki’s up there thanking everyone. And her piece of artwork being dedicated to the Pfister is borne up the front of the aisle and it’s a little crib-like structure for from a fairy tale, laced with feathers, and finally there’s a little bit of fantasy in the room. Niki won some notoriety making a portrait of the Pope with condoms some years back, and I’m glad that she found her way to the Pfister which otherwise has played it safe and innocuous with its residents, and that she orchestrated this gathering because how else would I ever have known that such a place existed, a temple impervious to our pedantry?
That night after, Kate and Corinna and I go to a bar for journalists with a dead cat (locals look down their noses at it but we don’t care) and after Kate and I stop by the hotel’s city-view dark bar, I take the elevator back down to the lobby. It’s 2a.m. In eight hours I’ll be on an Amtrak back to Chicago, but before then I want to breathe in the air here and spend just a little more time staring at this thing I can’t make sense of. Mr. Marcus, with his fixed grin, watches me as I pass him on the stairway. I walk round the circular floor on each level, taking in every blushing painting and softly lit landscape. The carpeting is thick so that I become a silent witness to the invisible guests, their sounds drifting out into the hallways. Laughter, loud talk, quiet TVs, small groups bringing together their noises in the night. The seventh floor, Niki’d said, I hear there’s a kitchen there that’s locked and no one’s ever allowed in—too haunted. Sounds come and go in the hallway but not a person to be seen, not even over my shoulder (which I check, again and again and again).
In the other hotel tower, the unhaunted one, Sid and Kate and Corinna are asleep, and Niki too. And tomorrow we’ll pick up our lives and talk about Theaster Gates and adjuncting and #activism but at this very moment Charles Pfister’s ghost is stepping in stride with me just one floor away, admiring the collection he built a hundred years ago while working to bring culture to Cream City. Somewhere across town nonprofits and collectives are dreaming about community but here in The Pfister Hotel everyone’s asleep and I’m lost, Charles’s ghost bearing down on me, gut out, pausing here and there to stroke the ornate frames of his favorite pieces. By now the paintings are positively leering at me. I stop, exhausted, and suddenly the sounds of hardcore sex surround me: slapping, pounding, moans building up to voice-snapping octaves. Full-throated. I look down at the carpet, spinning. After the climax, a voice: “Oh, yeah…. That was for a you.” And then silence.
—James Pepper Kelly
 An image that I admit the power of but also find heinous. “Dated” would be the conservative way to put it. The problem is precisely that sense of allowance by which the broken nose is accepted and deemed valid, and incorporated into some self-mythologizing hype about what’s “real” while avoiding any ethical considerations at all. Today loving Chicago is like loving made-for-Netflix specials.
 The notable exception is Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design professor Jill Sebastian. She’s fresh and fierce and one of the only speakers to spend more than a perfunctory amount of words on audience.
Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA)
220 East Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60611
May 9, 2015 - October 4, 2015
Sizing the Immaterial: S, M, L, XL at MCA
by Stephanie Cristello
Posted by Stephanie Cristello
| tags: sculpture scale MCA Chicago
Stratospheres of experience have been described in art since the early narratives of heaven and earth. Since Biblical cosmology, our understanding of time and place has been oriented according to predetermined concepts of measure—even time is an invented unit. But how do we measure the intangible? In a system where contemporary art is increasingly judged by scale, how do we quantify the poetics of experience?
Robert Morris, Portal, 1964. Collection of the MCA Chicago, gift of Mrs. Robert B. Mayer. Photo: Nathan Keay,
© MCA Chicago. © 2014 Robert Morris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
S, M, L, XL, currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, manifests this question. This is Chief Curator Michael Darling’s most impressive group exhibition since The Language of Less: Then and Now, which took place at the museum back in 2011–12. The exhibition, which features just five sculptural works selected from over five decades of art since the 1960s—many of which could surely fit a curatorial scheme as broad as scale—does not feel empty, but is rather a considered, sober, and challenging presentation that rethinks how size influences our interaction with art objects in the twenty first century.
Here, forms are presented as they ought to be—meaning that the works and their intended use value serves their purpose. This use is not always function. In a close attention to form, Darling carves out space to consider the relationship of scale to other, less quantifiable categories of feeling—the viewer’s body in space is as equally a subject as the sculptures in the show; the individual affects resulting from the installation range from compression, to anxiety and surveillance, freedom and elation. While S, M, L, XL certainly compartmentalizes the public negotiation of sculpture in a physical sense—which has become quite familiar within an institutional setting such as the museum, ever striving for engagement—it also points toward the desire for the incorporeal affects of sculpture. Between the thing, and its subjective interpretation, this exhibition inserts itself as a necessary link to installation-based practices.
Kris Martin, T. Y. F. F. S.H., 2011. Collection of the MCA Chicago, gift of Mary and Earle Ludgin by exchange. © 2011 Kris Martin. Photo: Nathan Keay
The title of the exhibition is in reference to an eponymous publication by Rem Koolhaas for the OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture). While Koolhaas’ book frames contemporary architecture through the explosion of the market economy in the face of globalization, the exhibition’s only shared tenet is a similar organization—a type of chronology—through scale itself. Where essays in the publication were sorted by length, here too are the pieces placed inside the gallery in the order of how they are experienced, with size in mind. The first work is Robert Morris’ Portal (1964), a signature freestanding passageway that was also included in The Language of Less. Indeed, minimalism is an essential entry point into an exhibition that aims to address the “accessibility of sculpture,” a goal that is cited in the press release, but is also shared within the interactive expectation of the works on view.
Franz West, Blue, 2006. Collection of the MCA Chicago, gift of the William J. Hokin Family.
Courtesy of the Estate of Franz West and the Franz West Privatstiftung Archiv. Photo: Florian Kleinefenn
In Portal, as with all the works included in S, M, L, XL, the concept of crossing a barrier into another state (which is not always altogether transformative) is consistent throughout. To the right of this piece, Franz West’s Blue (2006), viewers cut around the crude baby cerulean plaster screens into a small cavernous space; a seat rewards viewers who make the effort to enter—pale pastel light bulbs delicately guide the viewer’s gaze upward onto the wires, intertwined. Departing from the Koolhaas publication, which focused on the permeation of globalism, Darling instead refocuses travel as an act that can happen in the smallest of spaces. An individual in space can cross boundaries without moving if their mind is positioned correctly; an experience in the gallery can cut across oceans if the perception is right. This sense of existential freedom is illuminated in a work by Kris Martin, entitled, T.Y.F.F.S.H (2011)—an acronym for Thank You For Flying Sies + Höke, a nod to the artist’s Berlin gallery where the piece was first shown. Viewers enter the piece through the wicker basket of an iconic hot air balloon, installed through a doorway with fans so that the fabric adapts to line the museum walls from floor to ceiling.
Robert Morris, Untitled (Passageway), 1961. Photo Courtesy Castelli Gallery, New York © 2014 Robert Morris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Within this purposefully anachronistic symbol of travel, the inside of the installation functions as an aphorism for a psychedelic trip, where the lines and stripes of color one would typically recognize from afar on the horizon line twist and warp within the gallery. The final piece in the exhibition, another Morris work entitled Passageway (1961), offers a similarly psychotropic experience, though in much simpler terms. Strictly viewed one at a time, the piece consists of a grey doorway down what appears to be a curved hall. Walking into the piece, with slow and metered steps, the walls constrict ever so slightly, the path becoming subtly narrower—not in a way that is visibly identifiable, but is rather felt. The pressure on the body in this exhibition is a poetic distancing from sculpture as pure form, though its means are stark: maybe travel takes you somewhere or nowhere.
(Image at top: Kris Martin, T. Y. F. F. S.H., 2011. Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of Mary and Earle Ludgin by exchange. © 2011 Kris Martin. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer. Courtesy of the artist and MARC FOXX, Los Angeles)
The Personal Is Political: Ellen Rothenberg at Sector 2337
by James Pepper Kelly
Posted by James Pepper Kelly
| tags: photography conceptual installation Sector 2337 WOODSTOCK bertolt brecht activism
In experiencing elsetime, Ellen Rothenberg’s solo exhibition at Sector 2337, there’s a moment when you realize that you’re not going to get any answers. Nothing conclusive, that is. Rothenberg’s approach to making—performative, research-based explorations of personal/political history—has no time for neat folding-up. The plethora of media on display—ranging in scale from large lean-tos to shifting photocopies of books—all of these give the impression of a slowly shifting organic system complex as a treetop or a marsh. Focus on just one element and you risk missing the rich interplay on hand.
Rothenberg herself is the gravitational center holding everything together. Elsetime’s major components include photographic documentation of Bertolt Brecht’s studio; individual photocopies of pages from books relating to Brecht, his lover and collaborator, Elisabeth Hauptmann, and his theorist son, Stefan Brecht; two photographic montages, one seemingly showing a performance of Rothenberg’s, the other, Woodstock; a series of large lean-tos, one with shoes from the aforementioned performance; and a working turntable that visitors can use to play records from 60s-era musicians. The exhibition isn’t strictly about Brecht, or Woodstock, or activism. It's about Rothenberg’s personal experience of all of these.
Courtesy Sector 2337
The Woodstock montage, for example, includes an image of a MacBook keyboard, disrupting the easy assumption of the images as simple documentation. Are we meant to be experiencing the historical event, or documentation of the event years later—or both? Rothenberg’s own performance (from years earlier) is shown in a similar photographic format, as an event suspended in time to be reflected on, rather than as a smooth, ever-contemporary video. Four large photographic prints of a political protest take a different technical approach to subjectivity, relying on the blur of camera shake to signal the (color) saturated excitement of destabilization. Rothenberg historicizes her memories while insisting on personal truth, as experienced in both the past and the present.
In what may be the exhibition’s most grounding work Rothenberg turns her attention to Brecht-Weigel Gedenkstätte, the house where Brecht and his wife, Helene Weigel, lived for several years until his death in 1956. Rothenberg photographs Brecht’s bookshelf, a stitched up old armchair, light bulbs, her own feet on the floorboards. There’s comedy in the photographs (what on earth can one learn from looking at Brecht’s and Weigel’s light bulbs?), and familiarity (who hasn’t looked reverently at the objects of Great People?) and, finally, an implicit feminist critique: today, Brecht is mythologized for his brilliance as a writer and director, as well his constant affairs. Rothenberg’s insistence on the details of live domesticity pull Brecht out of the History of Great Men and back into the land of humankind.
Courtesy Sector 2337
This version may seem overly simplistic. It is. Focusing on one thread of discourse in Rothenberg’s work means not fully considering others. It would be easy, for example, to trace Marxism as a theoretical consideration of the exhibition, from Brecht’s debatable commitment to the largest of Rothenberg’s three lean-tos, which is covered in plastic from generic plaid shopping bags and features two Constructivist photographs of workers on steel scaffolding. But then look down and see a third photograph: a pair of feet (Rothenberg’s?) in sneakers with a large pair of slip-on slippers on top. The theoretical and the personal are beyond separation. A small photograph of Rothenberg’s son hangs near the Brecht photos—is he fated to be Stefan Brecht, living under the shadow of a successful creative parent, or just another distanced viewer of an archive ready to apply his own subjectivity? The personal is political is personal.
The pleasure of experiencing elsetime lies in the works’ layering. Rothenberg, and Sector 2337's Caroline Picard, an occasional ArtSlant contributor, have created an exhibition that is deeply academic without pedantry, deeply personal without bathos. Anyone prepared to spend time with the work will be rewarded, not with answers, but with a deepened appreciation of how unnecessary such summaries are. As Gertrude Stein put it: “There’s ain’t no answer. There ain’t gonna be any answer. There never has been an answer. There’s your answer.”
—James Pepper Kelly
 Brecht never joined the Communist party, despite a strong interest in Marxism. He was blacklisted by the Hollywood studio system during the Cold War, subpoenaed by Congress in 1947, and received the Stalin Peace Prize in 1954.
 Full disclosure: I know Caroline Picard! I have had the pleasure of working with her in different capacities over the past several years, and I count Chicago lucky for having Sector 2337 as a relatively new arts destination. Regardless, I would not be writing about this exhibition unless I was interested in the work itself. I have no connection to Ellen Rothenberg.