Chicago has a complicated relationship with public art. Anish Kapoor’s beloved Cloud Gate aside, many of the City’s outdoor works have been met with contempt or irreverence by critics and the public alike. Tony Tasset’s Eye fascinated some, but perplexed most; Seward Johnson’s Forever Marilyn sculpture was denounced as “kitsch” and was repeatedly vandalized — once with streaks of red paint surely meant to evoke menstrual blood — until it was taken down in May; and even works that are now symbols of the art establishment, such as Chicago’s Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza, are treated with an air of flippancy — come Blackhawks season the sculpture is often seen wearing a hockey mask.
Given this history, Jessica Stockholder’s new public commission Color Jam has a lot to overcome. From June 5 through September 30, Stockholder has taken over the corner of State and Adams, and has applied great swaths of blue, red and green to the streets, the sidewalk and the buildings. The installation itself was a feat in that it required coordination between five City of Chicago departments, twelve private businesses, four building owners and the consultation of six specialists. From the get-go, Stockholder’s work eschews the charges of irrelevency that were hurled at Forever Marilyn (as many rightly noted, the work neither responded to its environment nor had anything at all to do with Chicago.) Indeed, Color Jam works directly with the site by challenging and altering its perceptual atmosphere. In the process, it submerges a CVS and a Bank of America into its playful color scheme and transforms them from spaces of business and commerce into lego-like components of the work itself. In its relationship to the environment around it, Color Jam is reminiscent of Kay Rosen’s commission last year, where Rosen inserted the words “Go Do Good” in to spots usually reserved for advertising. However, while Rosen’s message struck me as a largely empty gesture, Color Jam has the ability to dispel even the cynical once you step into it. After walking through and standing on Color Jam, the cold, grey concrete beyond seems emblematic of a lack of imagination.
The Chicago Loop Alliance-commissioned vinyl artwork Color Jam, by internationally renowned multimedia artist Jessica Stockholder, is the largest public artwork in Chicago history and envelopes the intersection of State and Adams Streets downtown with flashes of color and geometric shapes; Photo by Kevin Shelton / Courtesy of the Chicago Loop Alliance.
In deference to artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who were known for wrapping buildings and landscapes in fabric, Stockholder’s aim was to create the feel of an animated film. Animation is one touchstone for Color Jam, though the work’s bright primary colors and corny-sounding name are actually slightly more evocative of the atmosphere of children’s museums. At the same time, Stockholder’s palette cannot but remind me of the Roy Lichtenstein exhibition currently on view a couple of blocks away at the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s much more like Jasper John’s pop abstractions than Pollock’s expressionistic splatters, that’s for sure, bringing with it the elevation of low culture and low experience that pop artists sometimes seemed to be arguing for, though at other times they also seemed to sneer at it. Forever Marilyn embraced this too in a way, but unlike Stockholder’s work it encouraged sexist tendencies in the public, inviting them to play misogynistically with the female body.
This emphasis on the lowbrow is Color Jam’s strength rather than its weakness. The work embraces silliness, playfulness and fun without apology and imagines a literal space where adults (for whom such feelings are taboo) can be reminded of the value of childish things. It advances the idea that perhaps alongside — and even amidst — seriousness, responsibility and necessity can exist other kinds of spaces and experiences. Stockholder’s work brings to mind theorist Judith Halberstam’s recent writings in defense of silliness, fun, forgetting and failure. As Halberstam argues, “in the process of producing this reality, many other realities, fields of knowledge and ways of being have been discarded.” This emphasis on silliness, fun and play is a recognition of their aberrant nature and their ability to critically interrogate what accounts for normalcy. In doing so, Stockholder’s intention is perhaps to reorganize our experience of reality and to remind us of what is and what could be.
(Image on top right: The Chicago Loop Alliance-commissioned vinyl artwork Color Jam, by internationally renowned multimedia artist Jessica Stockholder, is the largest public artwork in Chicago history and envelopes the intersection of State and Adams Streets downtown with flashes of color and geometric shapes now through September 30, 2012. Photo by Kevin Shelton, courtesy of the Chicago Loop Alliance)