Seeing a line of uncomfortable and robed grads standing outside a Chicago school reminded me that depending on where you are enrolled, May and June bring the end of the school year and a slew of graduations. This coincidence provides a good context for Aristotle Georgiades’ exhibition “Repurposed: Sculpture by Aristotle Georgiades.”
Both the process of learning and the system of education are assessed in Georgiades’ best works. The centerpiece of the exhibition is arguably Scheme (2009, seen at top right) which piles up vintage school chairs into a rickety tower with a cast iron bell at the top. It's the kind of bell that may have once rang to announce the beginning of the school day back in some by-gone era when America's school system was still number one. The piling of the chairs is aggressive and they are dismembered to create the stack, which is wider at the bottom, narrowing as it gains height. It is structural certainly, but it's also like the chairs are all struggling to get to the top, perhaps to be the top of the class, where only one chair suspends the bell (the valedictorian?). I was reminded of the quiet competition with your friends while in school, where you are supposed to be learning while also competing for coveted spots at high school, then college, then graduate school, then for a job.
This educational progression is echoed in Pointless (2009). A small spiral staircase lying on its side on the floor, it too is wide at the bottom and narrows at the top, again indicating a progression that is only for a few. It is functionless and has no practical application, much like the coveted diplomas we are told for years to strive for. Seen in the context of the other works, Pointless seems to hint at the fact that you don’t need an MFA to make art.
Aristotle Georgiades. Old School. 2010. Repurposed school chairs. Courtesy of the artist and the Chicago Cultural Center.
In Old School (2010), vintage wooden school desks are chopped up and reconfigured as the quintessential Minimalist cube, poking fun at the still-dominant style coming out of art schools. Georgiades asks why the academy is still committed to minimalist and postminimalist aesthetics when it is decades old now. Here being “old school” is not a compliment.
These critiques are especially pointed coming from Georgiades who is himself a professor of art and sculpture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In an e-mail with the artist, Georgiades takes pains to emphasize his role as “facilitator” rather than teacher, self-effacingly noting that he “works with” younger artists rather than teaches. It’s a strategy that is paying off; Georgiades has “facilitated” such notable artists as Michael Rey, Richard Holland and Brian Murer.
In “Repurposed” Georgiades is at his best when his critique comes through, and the stronger, the better. His sensitive touch with materials can veer into whimsy easily, as happens with Extension (2009) a charmingly coiled metal extension ladder that lacks the bite of the other pieces.
This exhibition brings an influential artist to Chicago outside of the museum or gallery structure, showing the value of civic arts venues like the Chicago Cultural Center in cultivating Chicago as a cultural capital. As other cities and states cut funding to the arts it is important to remember this.
-Abraham Ritchie, Senior Editor ArtSlant Chicago