HPAC brings changes with neighborhood Takeover

By Jenny Fisher

Approximately 50 people were shimmying, arms outstretched, torsos shaking, as an instructor from Blue Lotus Tribe Belly Dancing called “You guys look tired!” I watched little children, young women, older women, and even some men dancing without self-consciousness as the rain poured down outside.

From belly dancing to a pancake breakfast, “Creative Move,” the grand opening of the Hyde Park Art Center, was a 36-hour multimedia event which brought together members of the community, college students, and visitors from outside of Hyde Park to see the new building at 5020 South Cornell Avenue. The center offered performances, artist talks, art-making activities, art exhibits, and music all night long.

The old printing plant, donated by the University of Chicago, has been transformed from a state of thorough abandonment just a few months ago to a series of spacious galleries, classrooms, performance spaces, and offices. Standing on the catwalk above the galleries, I could see the mundane reality of Cornell Avenue to my left, and, below on my right, a room with giant works of art hanging on the walls, floor, and from the ceiling.

While waiting for pancakes stamped with the phrase, “I love you” (made by an organization of artists called “Industry of the Ordinary”), I got a detailed look at what turned out to be one of my favorite artworks in Takeover, the first exhibit in the new building. Joan Livingstone’s “Re/Site” is a collage that stretches from two ends, constructed of materials collected from outside of the old Del Prado location and the new one on Cornell Avenue.

Scraps of linoleum, rugs, and other building materials stitched together in squares stretch the length of the hallway. The most colorful portion is composed of brightly colored packaging, from Doritos to Oreos. Much of the collage is at the eye level of children, who ran their hands along the wrappers, intrigued. You wouldn’t see this at a museum, but the opening had less of the feel of a museum exhibition and more the feel of a block party.

In the back of the center, a large room was devoted to art-making activities for kids and adults. I overheard a child say, “Mom, I want to play in the darkroom again!” She admonished, “It’s not a play space,” but I could see how, from a child’s point of view, a darkroom seemed fascinating.

The opening of the Hyde Park Art Center and the accompanying exhibit, Takeover, seemed to be motivated by that spirit of playfulness and willingness to break the rules. On the way upstairs, guests stared at what appeared to be a child with arms open, having dropped something on the floor. At the top of the stairs, visitors gasped as they realized that he is a statue, Nina Levy’s “Drop.” Looking over his shoulder, I saw a lopsided head looking up from the floor. It appeared that he had dropped his mother!

“Drop” is not the only work that plays with the viewer’s expectations. Upstairs, in a seemingly deserted hallway, I noticed a sign on a door that said “Audience. Sound Installation. M.W. Burns.” From inside, I could hear shuffling, coughing, talking, and the occasional outburst from a crowd. I tried the handle. It was locked, and I laughed because I had fallen for it.

I went to the art center opening expecting to experience some interesting new art, eat free pancakes, and see what the new building was like. I didn’t foresee that I would also get to see a world outside of the University. There were kids from the local schools and even a display of photographs by students at Kenwood Academy dealing with issues of racism, class, and violence.

One of the Hyde Park community members I met was Sheila Clay, a sculptor and painter who was organizing a block party for Harper Street. While making a collage, she told me she had lived in Hyde Park for eight years but was just meeting people on her street today. She thought this was a great event, because, like her block party, it was a chance for people to come together. “See,” she said, “even the pancakes said ‘I love you!’”