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Top Ten of 2011
by Abraham Ritchie

2011 was a solid year for art in Chicago, with quality art appearing in all areas of the city consistently throughout the year.  The galleries in the 119 North Peoria Street building, threewalls, Western Exhibitions and Golden Age, were consistently strong all year and deserve a special nod, as they will get below.  Steps away from Peoria Street, 65GRAND had excellent exhibitions particularly in painting and, unexpectedly, the monochrome.  Though we had to bid goodbye as some of our favorite galleries closed this year: Golden Age, Walsh Gallery and Noble and Superior Projects, the city’s continued artistic and intellectual vitality assures us new visions are already emerging. Promising galleries like Ebersmoore, Chicago Urban Art Society and Alderman Exhibitions have taken part in the annual migration to bigger and better spaces.  Going into 2012, there are many reasons to be optimistic.

10. Nato Thompson’s keynote speech for “Hand in Glove Conference”

Nato Thompson’s keynote speech to kickoff the Hand-in-Glove Conference from threewalls (see number three) was provocative, humorous and insightful.  Bits of Thompson’s speech have been turning over in my mind, about how collectors impose their taste on others through the art institutions they support, his thoughts on #occupy and #occupymuseums, and especially his point, “art today is either nothing or everything, right?”  


9. The Essential New Art Examiner (Northern Illinois University Press, 2011) 

I first became really interested in the New Art Examiner (1973-2002) when Bad at Sports interviewed Derek Guthrie in 2008, episode 168.  The episode eventually attracted 284 comments from visitors, with the discussion becoming extremely heated and reaching a low point when an artist challenged someone to drop by his studio for a fist fight. Unfortunately this led directly to Bad at Sports removing the comment function, but it did intrigue many who never knew the New Art Examiner that the publication could arouse such passion. Like many defunct print publications the New Art Examiner has no web presence or archive so its only life was stashed away in libraries.  If you wanted a copy you had to get one from someone that had held on to it.   

This collection of essays, reviews and articles helps to reveal a little of a feisty magazine that would run a transcript of a speech by Hilton Kramer and the next month run an interview with Hans Haacke attacking Kramer. There's talk of more volumes to come and let's hope that we get more of this lost art history.


8. Chicago Urban Art Society and “The Chicago Street Art Show”

While the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art was breaking their attendance records with the street art exhibition “Art in the Streets,” Chicago’s institutions remained completely indifferent to street art – all the institutions except the Chicago Urban Art Society (CUAS), another vital non-profit in Chicago.  Responding to Chicago’s rich street art scene they hosted an exhibition featuring active participants. The transition to the gallery proved challenging for some artists, but that only made the show more compelling, more necessary, so these artists could have a chance to work in a different direction. (Full disclosure- after the exhibition closed I wrote an essay for a publication related to the exhibition.)  CUAS has also hosted a number of other notable exhibitions this year including a survey of artists working with wood, and a solo exhibition from the Post Family, which Steve Ruiz preemptively nominated in July for “best presented exhibition in Chicago this year.”

Installation view of Laura Davis' work in "Two Histories of the World, Part One." Photo by Abraham Ritchie.

7. “Two Histories of the World” curated by Karsten Lund, featuring artists Mara Baker, Sara Black, Laura Davis and Mike Schuh

Given the abundance of derelict warehouses in Chicago and the historic success of warehouse art exhibitions (see “Freeze” and the Young British Artists) I’m always surprised that I don’t see more exhibitions taking place in Chicago warehouses.  Fortunately Karsten Lund, recently appointed as a Curatorial Assistant at the MCA, broke that trend this year with his “Two Histories of the World” located in a sprawling salvage warehouse.  The site forced the visitor to consider their senses in addition to sight, as the “no touching” rule of galleries was no longer in force, odors of urine both feline and human alternated in strength and as sounds of dripping water and unseen forces made noises in the cavernous building.  Arguably, Mike Schuh took the biggest artistic risk of the year by not identifying any of his work on view, nor its location and allowing that the business of the salvage warehouse could destroy his work entirely.  The visitor also actively risked something just entering the warehouse; we were advised to wear closed-toe shoes and to enter at our own risk.  It will be fun to see Lund bring his sense of risk-taking to the MCA, I'm looking forward to his first project there.


6. Western Exhibitions

Western Exhibitions made my “Best of 2010” list last year and they’ve done it again this year.  Run by Scott Speh, this gallery takes ambitious risks, like “Heads on Poles.” Curated by Paul Nudd and Scott Wolniak, “Heads” was an exhibition of sculptural works that followed the titular theme.  The results were humorous while being artistically and aesthetically intriguing—each artist contributed a work that related distinctly to their oeuvre.  Western also hosted a survey of new artwork from New Orleans, curated by Keith Couser (another museum-level concept) and brought in José Lerma for a highly anticipated solo exhibition.  They presented art that features text prominently in “People Don’t Like to Read Art” in one of the best group exhibitions of the summer.  While other galleries in West Loop have presented art that is quite safe (and dull), Western Exhibitions continues to take risks—and the gallery gets noticed for it. 

Performance by Tamalli Space Charros Collective at MDW Fair. 2011. 


5. MDW Fair

Appearing twice this year, this alternative art fair is the result of the incredible labors of Ed Marszewski and Aron Gent, two Chicago art dynamos, as well as threewalls (see number three) and Eric May of Roots and Culture. Performance art became an unexpected highlight of the fairs with Industry of the Ordinary, DEFIBRILLATOR, the Happy Collaborationists, and Tamalli Space Charros Collective (the story is definitely worth checking out). Accessibility and community are at the heart of this fair, the affordable prices of which allow wide participation across the Chicago art spectrum.  Affordable participation for galleries also translates into art being priced affordably, something that one hopes both the general public and the wider collecting community pick up on. 


Installation view of "Twice Removed: A Survey of Take Away Art" at Golden Age. 2011. Image courtesy of Golden Age.


4. Golden Age and “Twice Removed: A Survey of Take Away Art” curated by Karly Wildenhaus

Describing itself as an “artist-run project space,” and carrying hard-to-find art books and magazines, especially from Europe and elsewhere, Golden Age closed its doors on November 30th, 2011.  Chicago will sorely miss this venue which always had compelling exhibitions.  Particularly excellent this year was their “Twice Removed” exhibition, curated by Karly Wildenhaus.  Featuring “take away” artwork sourced from local collections, my experience of this exhibition was like walking into my own living room, as I likewise have hanging Jeremy Deller’s What Would Neil Young Do? poster, a dish of candy from Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) as well as his “Untitled” (Silver Beach).  The gift economy of these artists is hugely influential for emerging artists as proved year after year in MFA exhibitions.  This was the kind of exhibition and idea one expects a museum to host, but Golden Age and Wildenhaus beat them all to it. 


3. threewalls

Threewalls is an indispensable part of the visual arts in Chicago.  A non-profit organization, threewalls provides critical micro-grants for the arts through their Propeller Fund (along with Gallery 400 and the University of Illinois at Chicago), supports artists through their Community Supported Art program, coordinated the Hand-In-Glove Conference for independent art organizations (see also number ten), all while running a top notch exhibitions program at their gallery space.  It is no surprise that this venue frequently attracts our attention and writing.

Installation view of Davis/Langlois in "Re: Chicago" at the DePaul Art Museum.


 2. DePaul Art Museum, “Re: Chicago”

Art history is not made objectively.  Every picture hanging on the wall of a museum is the result of a complex web of decisions that has been made over a series of years, decades or centuries.  Nothing happens by chance in a museum, and the walls tell a silent story of power, taste, and choice.  These stories and forces are not often addressed, but Louise Lincoln, Director of the DePaul Art Museum (DPAM) and curator of “Re: Chicago,” took them head-on and for the inaugural exhibition of the new building for DPAM to boot.  Lincoln posed the sticky question of who had been overlooked by art history and why, resulting in a reassessment of Chicago’s art history and an exciting exhibition that had 19th century portraits sharing space with contemporary artwork, proving immediately that the new building for DPAM will be put to great use.


1. Risk

It’s an abstract concept that underwrote nearly all of the most exciting exhibitions this year.  Creative curating and experimental concepts all rewarded risk, as in Jason Lazarus’ “The Search” which facilitated personal encounters inside a ziggurat contained in Andrew Rafacz Gallery. Western Exhibitions (see number six) did risky shows (aesthetically, curatorially, financially) all year: “Heads on Poles,” “People Don’t Like to Read Art,” and “Handler.”   Some exhibitions were made better since they were risking something real, while some venues dialed back their risk profile and lost something essential.  Art in 2011 proved true the saying, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Abraham Ritchie, Editor ArtSlant Chicago

Posted by Abraham Ritchie on 12/26/11

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