ARTS

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October 24, 2008

Substances’s mix muddles exhibit’s theme

I risked life and limb to make it to the opening of the new Zhou B. Art Center exhibition, Collective Substances, only to face disappointment. While individual pieces are hit or miss, without a unifying theme—in artist or subject matter—it’s hard to fully engage with the exhibit.

Running until November 22, Collective Substances is a group exhibition at the Art Center’s 33 Collective Gallery. The gallery is open during the day, which should make any other potential viewer’s trip there much safer than mine—a harrowing night journey on the #55 bus to the #8 that could easily have resulted in a loss of personal property, at the very least. The Art Center itself is clean and nice with a pretty little coffee shop in it, a marked contrast to the somewhat seedy industrial neighborhood that surrounds it.

Presented as part of Chicago Artists Month, a City of Chicago program that celebrates Chicago’s visual art scene, Collective Substances is promoted by the gallery as a celebration of “the collective experience of art making, including painting, drawing, sculpture, and mixed media.” Entering the gallery, the viewer is struck by the diverse styles and media. Bronze hands reach out; photos, drawings, and paintings line the wall; and near the entrance a woman’s portrait wears a crown of thorns and a cactus heart that could poke viewers who come too close.

Although this diversity is in keeping with the all-encompassing and eclectic spirit of Chicago Artists Month, it proves a problem in the small space of 33 Collective Gallery. The theme of “Artists Month is Artists and Issues that Matter,” but when each artist is concerned with a different issue, and only has one or two works on display, a clear overall shape to the show fails to emerge.

On one wall the viewer is confronted with a huge orange portrait of a young black girl. This is the self-portrait “Me #1,” by Kimberly M. Harmon. The piece elicits an emotional reaction with its size and directness (and with the girl’s creepy lack of pupils), but it would be more effective if offered with more context about the artist’s life and work, which would help flesh out the themes that Harmon explores. Studying “Me #1” alongside “Me #2” and “Me #3” gives the viewer insight into Harmon’s abstract technique, as the clear image of the girl is lost to swirling colors in the background until only an outline remains. The series of portraits also suggest the psychological breakdown of the self. But when viewed alone among the other artists’ unrelated works, “Me #1” is hard to connect with.

A piece that can stand alone is Carol Weber’s “Continuum.” This mixed-media work is composed of white boxes reminiscent of both buildings and film or photo reels. The lack of a real-world reference to the boxes’ shapes encourages an appreciation of the work’s formal aspects: the blend of painting and cloth that gives the work texture, and the effective use of a small amount of blue paint to bring out the different shapes created primarily with white and off-white colors.

Steve Sherrell’s acrylic collage “CO2” is another successful work. The piece shows a clearly defined car and Citgo sign against a rural background that is beginning to fade away. The trees in the painting are depicted in an impressionist style, blending into the greenish-blue background of the painting. Dripping green paint that overlaps on the background suggests both the beauty of nature and the ominous effects of civilization.

Cheng-Yung Kuo’s photograph “Escape,” showing a view of the clear blue sky from the bottom of a fire escape, is another effective piece. Kuo is a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he is getting an MFA with an emphasis in ceramics and photography. In “Escape,” he gives a new perspective on commonplace urban architecture.

Like Kuo, many of the artists of the exhibit are Illinois natives. That fact, and the simple, unassuming layout of the gallery, gives the show a personal feel. But if the basic goal of Chicago Artists Month—to heighten our appreciation of Chicago art—is more or less fulfilled, the exhibit doesn’t do justice to the talent it draws on, because it doesn’t provide the space to explore anything in depth. As much as my postmodern sensibilities appreciate fragmented narratives, Collective Substances could have been a little more collected, allowing for a more interesting and accessible whole.