As noted in a recent ABC News report, there has been a Mayor Daley for 42 of the past 55 years. Whether it was Richard J. Daley (Mayor of Chicago, 1955-1976) or Richard M. Daley (Mayor of Chicago, 1989-present), Chicago has long been dominated by the Daley dynasty. So it took the city by surprise when last September the Mayor called a press conference to announce that he would not be seeking a seventh term. The announcement also came as a surprise to the curators from Johalla Projects and the Chicago Urban Art Society, the organizers of “The Daley Show,” who had been preparing the exhibition under the assumption that the Mayor would be running again. After September the show changed in focus; to paraphrase curator Peter Kepha, it became a farewell show for Mayor Daley, but with a kick out the door. So most of the artwork avoids a nostalgic farewell in favor of a satirical kick.
In an interview, Kepha also sums up the conflicting feelings about Daley that the artists and many Chicagoans are pondering as he prepares to leave office: “Good or bad, the man still made a pretty damn good city.” Thus the artwork largely falls into two camps: works that take a few jabs at the autocratic side of Daley in the spirit of political satire, and artworks that consider Daley as an individual; a man whose power is already waning but whose political legacy will be debated long into the future; a man who is glimpsing his own mortality, and his wife’s, in a very public spotlight.
The exhibition begins with Nick Adam’s Mayor Daley, Forever and Ever. Arranged in a grid and bearing letters that spell out the exhibition’s title, at first it looks simply like the familiar political yard signs. But closer inspection reveals the campaign slogan “Forever and Ever," writ large on another wall nearby, see the image at top if you can't make out the slogan. The work captures the ambiguity of how many Chicagoans feel about Daley. “Forever and Ever” could a wish for continued tenure or it could be a comment on a stagnating democracy.
Moving along, to the right of Adam’s work is Ray Noland’s stencil of Mayor Daley golfing and glaring at you in the backswing of his stroke. Clearly the Mayor seems a bit teed off, but the pun is a bit too obvious. Elsewhere in the exhibition is Noland’s Daley Dog, a screenprint of Daley eating a Chicago-style hotdog that bears no discernible critical weight or commentary. Noland has previously received a lot of attention for his Run, Blago, Run! series of stencils that feature the disgraced and impeached former governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich running in his recognizable tracksuit. Caught mid-stride Blagojevich could be running from justice or from the burdens of his job, but Noland created an image that captured the spectacle of the governor’s arrest on federal corruption charges and the governor’s own irresponsibility. Hopefully Noland will return to his pointed criticism of Chicago politics in his work, there certainly is enough fodder in the city.
Two artists cast Daley as a king. Paul John Higgins (his work seen immediately below) and the street artist Don’t Fret envision Daley as an absolute monarch along the lines of Louis XVI. A similar image from Higgins graced the cover of a March issue of the Chicago Reader, which prompted me to write about it on the Chicago Art Blog and to call for a revival of Honoré Daumier’s satirical wit in the face of Chicago’s political landscape.
For the “Daley Show” Higgins presents Portrait of Richard Daley II of Chicago, King of the Chicagoans, an image also inspired by portraits of Louis XVI by 18th century French painter Antoine-François Callet. Higgins has used a computer to place Daley’s face over that of Louis XVI, but leaves everything else intact: the ermine furs, the decadent drapery, the crown and scepter. He then printed out the image and placed it in a gaudy frame. The result is a détournement of royal and civic portraiture, a genre especially ripe for satire since Daley’s face is plastered all over anything that has to do with the City of Chicago, just open up the City of Chicago website. Don’t Fret contributes a similar work that also riffs of Daley via Louis XVI, but the digital manipulation isn’t as good as Higgins’ (which is most likely on purpose), though the gaudy rococo-style frame is better.
Elsewhere Daley also receives the royal treatment. Jason Hawk and Jess Stone created King of Chicago for the exhibition, a crown, scepter and a pair of brass knuckles that bear the Mayor’s initials, all executed in shining nickel-plated steel. Steel is a fitting material for a Mayor who likes to play up his blue-collar roots. It’s also a material that has violent associations. The artists have created a set of monogrammed knuckledusters to drive that point home, but nickel-plated steel is also a common material in gun manufacturing as nickel-plating the steel protects it from corrosion. Of course this association brings to mind Daley’s now notorious outburst from the summer. During a press conference responding to Chicago’s handgun ban that was overturned by the Supreme Court, a reporter suggested that the handgun ban had been ineffective given the number of shootings in the city. Daley picked up a rifle displayed at a nearby table with other guns and replied, “It's been very effective. If I put this up your butt, you'll find out how effective it is. Let me put a round up your, you know.” This prompted Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass to compile the “Stupidest Daleyisms” in celebration of the Mayor’s most recent public gaffe.
One of the best pieces in the exhibition is Andy Resek’s video Hardscrabble. Presumably it takes place on the most recent Thanksgiving, we see a turkey dinner being prepared in a solidly middle-class home where a football game plays in the background. As the family sits down to dinner and say a prayer over the meal, the video cuts to a drive-by view of City Hall with a voice-over from Mayor Daley announcing that he will not run for Mayor again. In a segment that could be shortened up a bit, Resek visits Daley’s childhood home which has been turned into a sort of low-level shrine to the mayor and speaks with the current owner and tours Daley's old neighborhood.
The video eventually cuts back to the family gathered around the table, who, like so many other Chicago families this year, were discussing the Mayor’s impending departure, with a few prompts from the artist. One male family member seems to take a predominantly negative view of Daley’s tenure, noting the homeless problem that was exacerbated by the destruction of affordable public housing with no alternative housing available, “Lower Wacker Drive! It’s covered in boxes!” referring to a downtown street that is heavily occupied by Chicago’s homeless population. He also rails against Daley’s widely criticized decision to sell the rights to the city’s parking meters to a private business, a deal that saw parking prices sharply increase and a host of start-up problems, “He screwed up big time with that meter deal, he did!” A female member of the family takes a more middle-of-the-road view, asserting, “I think he did a good job,” and “he beautified the loop.” Resek's video shows that this is the way in which Mayor Daley’s legacy will be judged: not by historians or political science wonks, but around the dinner table by Chicago families who will weigh how Daley’s choices affected their lives and their city.
The “Daley Show” ends with Jennifer Greenburg’s excellent photographs of Daley that capture the Mayor in an introspective moment as he walked away from the podium after announcing he would not seek another term as Mayor. Both untitled, one shows him walking away from the podium with a downcast gaze. He does not walk away lightly or carefree, he seems to walk away with a heavy heart, perhaps contemplating what he could have done for the city rather than what he has done. Greenburg’s other artwork may be the best piece in the show. She focuses on a close-up of Daley’s face, lined and careworn, Daley’s furrowed brow speaks to his apprehension, not only of his own future, but that of the city he has worked so long to improve. Greenburg’s image sums up what Peter Kepha and many Chicagoans feel; good decisions and bad decisions, here was a man who deeply cared about the city of Chicago and worked tirelessly to improve it.
-Abraham Ritchie, Senior Editor ArtSlant: Chicago
The Chicago Urban Art Society will host a closing reception for "The Daley Show" on Saturday, January 8th from 6pm - 11pm. All images used by permission of the Chicago Urban Art Society.