The history of The School of the Art Institute’s (SAIC) search for student exhibition space is a long one, beginning almost twenty-five years ago when, in 1984, they christened their first formal art gallery space in a small storefront on Superior Street. Despite its size, it was SAIC’s only exhibition space until 1987, when they purchased the top floor of a warehouse building located at 1040 W. Huron. Although longer lived then the Superior St. space-- lasting for about a decade-- it was roughly the same size as its predecessor, and so in 1995 they purchased the expansive ten-story White Tower building located in Greek Town.
Generically named G2, it represented the first permanent thesis exhibition space for SAIC’s flock of graduating MFA and BFA students, as opposed to the previously migratory thesis shows that, each year were at various leased warehouse space locales around the city. With the sale of G2 in August 2005 to Cormony Development, the thesis exhibitions had a few last years in a downsized space in the building, sans the ground floor, complete with wrap around glass window walls, which had been parceled off.
Having moved once again, this time to the heart of the loop, the sprawling 32,000-square-foot gallery space is housed within a Louis Sullivan designed building, formerly the Carson Pirie Scott flagship store. SAIC has previously colonized several other floors of the old department store with everything from a warren of student services offices to the newly endowed fashion, architecture and designed objects departments. The show space, aptly named the Sullivan Galleries, bifurcates the seventh floor into two main spaces, with the smaller, northern space remaining free of permanent walls and used for a rotating series of exhibitions and the larger, southern space outfitted with permanent walls in order to host all upcoming installments of SAIC students’ thesis exhibitions.
Installation view of "Ahh...Decadence!" Photo: Thea Libert Nichols.
Presently, it’s packed to the max with 122 works created by 42 artists, all of whom are from the city and many of whom are SAIC alums, in a commendably Chicago flavored smorgasbord curated by Lisa Wainwright. Her gaudy missive, entitled "Ahh...Decadence!", rounds up an attractive pack of the city’s heavies, featuring beautifully baroque soundsuits by Nick Cave, recent, abstract paintings by Jim Lutes, captivating and creepy groupings of Anne Wilson’s dainty needle points sewn with strands of hair instead of thread, exquisite paintings of poetry by Phil Hanson, and several large and inspired Phyllis Bramson's that wink at viewers through collaged patches of sequenced fabric. Laura Letinsky’s three colored still life photographs stand out for their understated gravitas. With brightly lit, brilliantly saturated colors, her nature-mort scenes translate Dutch still life’s into the twenty-first century, depicting a moralizing tableau of the decay and waste that befalls even the most elegant table settings and succulent menu selections.
The calming effect Letinsky’s contemplative work has on the eye is amplified when set against the plum and fuchsia walls, opalescent palsied curlicues, three foot tall candelabras and cut glass chandeliers of the exhibition design. True to its theme, the razzle-dazzle of the curatorial frame for "Ahh...Decadence" is just as indulgent as it claims the artwork on display is. As a result of its sensory overloading glut, it risks self-parody, and while full of good things to look at, it almost instantly leaves you wondering what you just saw and why.
--Thea Liberty Nichols
(Top image: Nick Cave's Soundsuit.)