Kitsch mistaken for counterculture

By Pete Russell

My trip to see the new exhibition at South Union Arts started out like a horror movie. I strode up and down the same few desolate blocks in the cold rain looking for the place and finally resolved to seek shelter in an eerie old Baptist church whose unlit neon sign and locked front door added to the mystery. As it happened, this was my destination. I entered through a side door and was at first relieved by the building’s warmth. But I knew better than to let down my guard, for the grotesque, tasteless art was still to come.

South Union Arts is a concert venue and art gallery located in the South Loop. It’s been around for years, constantly on the brink of extinction. This past winter the venue nearly had to close, so the new exhibition, titled il stato un regalo gradito (or in English, “welcome back gifts”), is a reinvigoration of the space. The show features 30 different artists using media ranging from photography to old seatbelts. This wide variety of materials is the most striking aspect of the show and helps keep up interest even when the individual pieces fail to do so.

I found my favorite pieces tucked away in corners of the venue. A series of ink drawings by Michael Pajon featured subjects assuming serious, stiff poses reminiscent of early long-exposure photography—except the figures had the heads of pigs and raccoons. A photograph by Johanna Wawrow of a Hispanic boy with an over-sized T-shirt crusted with rubber ‘benjamins’ in front of a cash backdrop also caught my eye. Finally, I enjoyed the graffiti that fills the hallway and stairwell, which included impressive classic-style and some freehand spray-paint sketches.

On the whole, however, the artists merely showed their skill at recycling what has already been overused. Many of the photographs were hackneyed, and the style and content of many of the ink drawings were equally cliché. A lot of the drawings seemed to be inspired by, or simply taken from, graphic novels. And photographs of teddy bears in rubble or decrepit bathroom stalls elicited a queasy feeling of déjà vu, as if I had already seen this art before and it was obvious and ineffective the first time. Some pieces were simply arts-and-crafts works lacking a real idea behind them, while others had a good concept but struggled in execution.

The most prominent, and irritating, piece consisted of a series of eight large pictures, all displaying an iridescent cross hung with a handsome, half-nude male or female. The color scheme and figures suggested a commercial aesthetic; below each cross was the words “persecute the prophets.” The decision to combine one of the oldest and most profound symbols in Western art with this commercial style seemed to me a desperate grasp at giving the work gravity, while voiding the cross of its significance with an attempt at irony. If the point was to poke fun at people who have used this kind of symbolic means for cheap ends, the piece failed by doing just that. It only mocked itself. By combining the profane and the religious in this quick, offhand way the artist failed to achieve something that has already been done very well—by Fellini and Joyce, among others. The piece only appeals to the sophomore in us who rebels for the sake of rebellion.

That’s the problem with the South Arts Union. This countercultural clubhouse banks on a shock factor that doesn’t even have edge anymore. There are better cultural institutions to lampoon right now than Christianity. The ironic use of the cross in a church whose Christian iconography remains intact, along with the huge depictions of the sprawled nude, made me feel like the whole point was a perverse infatuation with doing something naughty in the house of the holy. All this does is betray a deep sense of guilt—how else would one feel the rush?