Although Chicago Artists Month is on the wane, this past weekend entry hailing from the near West Side came in the form of the third annual West Pilsen open studios, probably better known as Made in Pilsen III. With thirty participating locations and over sixty local artists displaying work, the loose circuit of the art walk had its highest concentration of exhibitors on Ashland between 18th and 19th streets.
It was a special treat to see a community come together around art, with exhibition sites ranging from local coffee shops and health food stores, to maybe the most outlandish location displaying work, the World Gym who hung their paintings amongst the treadmills, bench presses and sweaty gym-goers. Even outside of the local businesses participating, artwork was often displayed in very visually competitive environments. The artists’ studios themselves ranged from wood paneled basements to a warren of sloping, chipping, high ceiling spaces in what looked to be an old theater building. Ultimately, the main attraction was gaining all access to snoop around studio spaces however. Viewers were welcome to experience work unmediated by the typical trappings of a white cube space or the dealers and galleryists who populate it. This void was pleasantly filled with face-to-face dialogue between the artists and their visitors. Revelatory parts of the creative process were exposed thanks to the preparatory drawings, inspirational source materials, and art media and tools on hand, rendering even some of the more tepid displays engaging, if not just visceral.
One of the most visually arresting groupings of work was a temporary installation on the corner of Ashland and 18th inside the Pilsen chamber of commerce offices. The storefront space had devoted one windowed wall to a busy Día de los Muertos shrine, featuring sugar skulls, milagres and life-sized papier-mâché skeletons. Once inside the door, the rest of the space was crammed with artwork, salon-style from floor to ceiling with two main groupings on display consisting of photographs by the Coleridge Adult Training Program and paintings and drawings made by students of the Esperenza school, both of which engage developmentally delayed individuals in the arts.
The murals that adorned many of the building façades and alleyways filled in the gaps between participating spaces, but exhibition after exhibition in makeshift spaces featuring emerging or exploratory work, thrust Made in Pilsen III in sharp contrast to the recently lapsed 38th Annual Pilsen East Artists Open House. The older, more established set of artists who occupy the refurbished factory warehouses spaces and converted courtyard buildings centered around Halstead and 18th and 19th streets emphasize the huge amounts of conservation that the old Chicago structures a few blocks west really need. Resistance to this sentiment was palpable in the grittiness of West Pilsen however, where the belief clearly seemed to be that developing bohemian artist spaces paved the way for gentrification.
Antonio Martinez. Villa Bailout. 2007. © Antonio Martinez, photo: Thea Liberty Nichols.
Caught in the midst of all of this, located squarely on 18th at Racine, is Prospectus Art Gallery. In a more traditional, white walled space, it featured a group exhibition of thirty Pilsen artists, which runs through December 20th. A stand out mixed media on canvas piece in the front window of the space was a neon-colored, graffiti inspired contribution entitled Villa Bailout by Antonio Martinez. Another gem, reminiscent of contemporary art darling Marcel Dzama, was the crisply rendered, brightly colored pen and ink drawing, Retorno de las Almas by Diana Solis, who also had a solo exhibition up on 18th St. at Del Sol Realty.
--Thea Liberty Nichols