“Please note: This is a raw space, with puddles on the ground and broken glass in certain areas off the main paths. Visitors should wear appropriate shoes and be aware they enter at their own risk,” advises the website for “Two Histories of the World.” Sure enough, this proves to be prudent advice for the exhibition, housed as it is within a functioning salvage warehouse. Occupying about two full city blocks, the William H. Cooper Manufacturing building was once an active industrial plant, but with the historic decline of that form of production the building now holds the debris of industry, some hopelessly outdated, some still useful, and some completely destroyed but not yet disposed of. Interspersed within this location and its wares is the art.
True to its title and enhanced by its location, the exhibition thrives on traditionally assumed binary oppositions: art or life, boom or bust, gallery or not gallery, blue-collar or white-collar, traditional or contemporary. In drawing out these binaries the exhibition suggests that perhaps the situation is more complicated than two overly reductive choices, maybe these oppositions are in fact not so opposed after all.
Installation view of Sara Black's work in "Two Histories of the World, Part One." Photo by Abraham Ritchie.
Whereas in most exhibition situations the artwork is presented straightforwardly, here it is up to the viewer to do real work to seek out the art. You must explore off the beaten path to discover and activate the work of Sara Black. Hidden a bit under an overhang and behind some mounds of goods is a sculptural still life. True to its historical predecessors the work is literally dramatically lit, appearing suddenly out of the darkness as a motion sensor that responds to the movement of the viewer turns on its spotlight. The work appears as a tableau, with some of the traditional accoutrement of still lifes occupying a tabletop: a goblet, a serving vessel, a platter-like object. However where food would traditionally spill out onto the table, in Black’s work a rusty chain uncoils on the table, sensuous in its color and texture but wholly inedible. This gesture recalls and conflates famous dictums from Marie Antoinette and Karl Marx, particularly as the ongoing economic woes continue to affect most people while others remain wholly unconcerned.
Installation view of Laura Davis' work in "Two Histories of the World, Part One." Photo by Abraham Ritchie.
Ascend the metal stairs to the catwalk, and numerous works by Laura Davis cover the mezzanine level. According to the press release she “alludes to Brancusi’s crowded studio,” and though the sculptures may recall the artist’s Endless Column (1938), the closer artist and influence seems to be Donald Judd and minimalism. Large foam cubes that recall Judd’s stack pieces and boxes make up many of Davis’ pieces. Unlike the pristine materials of Judd, or Brancusi for that matter, Davis salvages all of her media from the warehouse and everything is therefore pretty filthy (and understandably so). The works themselves are enjoyable aesthetically, though the minimalist language, that still dominates much current art production, seems safe, especially considering that the exhibition will be reinstalled in the Hyde Park Art Center approximately one year from now.
The works by Mike Schuh push the exhibition logic to the conceptual limit in what is the most challenging and risky artistic approach. Schuh has created sculptural interventions all over the warehouse but will not reveal their location. Indeed, in many cases he may not be able to; in the still-functioning warehouse his works may have been destroyed, moved or disassembled. Frankly I cannot be completely sure that I saw any of Schuh’s work, though I suspect I saw at least two pieces. Facing one of Mara Baker’s pieces made from salvaged textiles and sited in small rooms, was a square tile placed atop a square concrete block on the floor, formally echoing a square vent immediately next to it. It seems unlikely that a small cairn would occupy that particular spot, with those particular formal similarities, while appearing to pay a tribute to another artist’s work. Elsewhere, typeset letters were rearranged in a kind of poetic sequence that appeared to be self-reflexive about its success or failure, including the words “chord” and “dud.” I would like to believe that a beautifully decayed and destroyed office room, in the process of being swallowed back into nature itself, was the work of Schuh though I doubt it. In this way Schuh adds a crucial element to Duchamp’s maneuvers, giving a certain power back to the viewer; art isn’t just what the artist says is art, but also what the viewer says is art as well.
Chicago is full of these odd derelict warehouse spaces that are ripe for thoughtful curatorial projects, the kind that curator Karsten Lund has undertaken here. Too often large questions and tensions in art are over-simplified, reduced to ridiculous black-and-white choices that bulldoze any subtlety or nuance in positions and between them. It is to Lund’s credit that his curatorial project challenges the artists while giving them the flexibility to explore and complicate traditional art historical oppositions and narratives. Another layer will no doubt be added in 2012 when “Two Histories of the World: Part Two” opens at the Hyde Park Art Center.
-Abraham Ritchie, Editor ArtSlant Chicago