The complications associated with museum exhibitions are easily offset by the over-simplicity of commercial art gallery practice. Everything is wrong with the format in these shows. Where a museum can suffer from time-consuming and cumbersome hierarchal structures, a commercial gallery is often a sitting duck that may, or may not, lay an interesting egg. A good example of an interesting egg, for the second year running, is this year’s group exhibition at Feature Inc.
A survivor of Chicago’s mid-eighties art scene, Feature Inc has a long running stable of loyal artists who make up the majority of the work found in the gallery’s off-season group shows. And this could easily result in another laborious yawn if not for the fact of the delightful outcome. In the end, for this structure to work, the gallery must rely on the inventiveness of their artists, which of course, is a difficult position to take when many of those artists are signed up years in advance with no way of knowing how they will continue to focus individually, or especially, in a group.
This year’s offering is called Skulture with the subheading “builders, building, buildings, build, b but not a or c (or v for that matter).” It is difficult to miss the associations made in the title between sculpture and construction and then it is hard not to notice how the title plays out in the ad hoc, constructivist approach that many of the artists in this exhibition display. In fact, even more so than Feature’s last group show, 2008’s Shit, Skulture appears to reveal latent modernist forms in the work of B. Wurtz, Bill Jenkins, Nancy Shaver, and Richard Bloes, all of whom produce work that could easily be categorized as latter day artists inspired by the abstract sculptures and assemblages of Nicholson, Schwitters or Moholy-Nagy. Then there is the work of Alan Wiener, Richard Rezac, and Mai Braun, whose production could be thought of as updated reactions to the architectural expressionism that dominated global post-war development, i.e. Le Corbusier or Buckminster Fuller. However, there are examples in Skulture that owe no significant debt to 20th century art. But in all the mediums employed here –photo, collage, painting, assemblage, and sculpture–, we see references to the crisp boundaries of objecthood. If these works do not generally reveal the same utopian naiveté of their precursors, then it could be observed that a rougher and far more sarcastic generation has held a looking glass up to the past, not unlike how the Modernists tried to hold a mirror up to the future.
In some cases, the tangential and off-message works in Skulture provide unexpected highlights. An instance of this is Josh Criscione Nusbaum’s sculpture Observer is Watching You, which begins by confronting the viewer as another abstraction only to reveal that the work is, as the title insists, actually looking back at the viewer. Ultimately Skulture shares many of the same virtues, and artists, with last year’s Shit, so we cannot give Feature Inc credit for re-inventing themselves. Indeed, it might even be possible to think of the current show as Shit Part 2, or that Feature Inc is the proud home to a solid collection of productive and very creative artists. Either way, this is a fine case of how a commercial gallery can function as a dependable alternative to a contemporary art museum.
Images: Alan Wiener, Untitled (2009), aquaresin; Josh Criscione Nusbaum , Observer is Watching You (2008), mahogany wood, leather, winter jacket, acrylic, Italian pipe, wicker basket, brass; Mai Braun, Open Form (2008), cardboard, aluminum tape. Courtesy Feature Inc.