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An overview of the art scene in Chicago
By Claire Molek and Una Dimitrijevic

Courtesy of Brave New Art World, a website dedicated to art practice in Chicago.

For some time the community of artists and administrators in Chicago operated with the understanding that to really make it in the Chicago art world it was necessary to first find success elsewhere. Still, as the city grows and as the world gets smaller, or perhaps just simply as the community matures, Chicago is beginning to build a context rooted in accessible conceptualism, impressive institutional practice and focused emerging work. Museums like the Art Institute, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Contemporary Photography, the Chicago Cultural Center, and the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art are among those showing world-class contemporary art.

Chicago is known for its exceptional displays of public art. Starting with a 1967 Picasso sculpture (known simply as The Chicago Picasso), the city has been collecting permanent, large-scale sculptures from artists including Miró, Chagall, Calder, Dubuffet, Anish Kapoor and Magdalena Abakanowicz, among others. Recently, more temporary displays have begun to appear throughout the city: sculptures by Jun Kaneko and Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir have been shown in the central parks; the Chicago Loop Alliance consistently brings emerging work to the touristy downtown neighbourhood; a recent, large-scale, seemingly guerrilla sculpture initiative in Logan Square has populated the boulevards.

Chicago boasts around 160 galleries in total, a handful of which the global market would consider established, which leaves a great majority of emerging, mid-career, DIY spaces. Galleries, art spaces, collectives, incubators, residencies and performance art hubs are popping up everywhere. Many have found quite innovative ways to sustain themselves and produce exhibitions and events which have become increasingly sophisticated. In the realm of performance art, DEFIBRILLATOR is a première gathering place for conception, discussion and criticism, and ROOMS Gallery in the animated Pilsen neighbourhood regularly puts on performances in empty window fronts to engage passing audiences.

Some of the city’s more industrial or less developed neighbourhoods house large arts collectives, bringing together dozens of artists and curators under one roof and offering artists’ residencies to those from out of town. Places like Lacuna Lofts, Zhou B Art Center, MANA Contemporary or the Flat Iron Arts Building frequently open to the public during lively evenings which include music performances, exhibition openings and other events, and allow for interaction with artists in their studio spaces. Such locations become an alternative to official galleries, giving emerging artists other opportunities to get their art seen, and the public a more laid-back atmosphere to view a great variety of art and share reactions with the authors.

That’s not to say that Chicago doesn’t have its fair share of established galleries showing top-quality work from local and international artists. These spaces are highly concentrated in two areas of the city: River North and West Loop. River North boasts some of the best outsider art dealers in the city including Judy A Saslow and Carl Hammer, as well as wonderful photography galleries and other contemporary arts spaces. Stephen Daiter Gallery specialises in vintage photography but also shows excellent contemporary artists in their main space, most recently Kenneth Josephson and Abelardo Morell who also had a retrospective this year at the Art Institute. Catherine Edelman represents more daring artists, and this year has been noted for the ‘Smoking Kids’ show by photographer Frieke Janssens and the recent poetic ‘Homegrown’ series by Julie Blackmon.

In the West Loop, long-standing notables like Linda Warren, Rhona Hoffman, Kavi Gupta and many others are still seriously holding their ground and upholding their reputation. Rhona Hoffman gallery has been showing some well-established yet still provocative artists like the MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius Grant’ winner Carrie Mae Weems, whose photographs and video works directly confront racial and social stereotypes, or work by the likes of Gordon Matta-Clark, Suzanne Harris, Tina Girouard in the show ‘The 112 Greene Street Years’. Kavi Gupta has recently opened a second gallery space and is displaying some of the best installation art in the city including pieces by notable local artist Theaster Gates whose voice has become ever-present in Chicago, and the stunning, large-scale, hand-carved dioramas of Roxy Paine.

Chicago’s art scene is ever-expanding and there is always more space to welcome new arrivals like Bert Green Fine Art, which is one of the rare spaces to have made its home in the central ‘Loop’ district. Bert Green has been showing high quality emerging and mid-career artists and has embraced wide-ranging styles, from the delicate pencil drawings of local artist Raeleen Kao, to the conceptual time-capsules of Stephen Kaltenbach and the vibrant oil paintings and light installations of Morgan Sims. And the city is happy to embrace variety and innovation. The Chicago gallery scene has, without a doubt, become more of a culture of support than a fiercely competitive playground.

For years Chicagoans have felt all but snubbed by the international art market, and because of a lack of strong market or ready clientele, the Chicago art-world tends to form into strong and magnetic groups that seek to support the production process, but also to make work that is fresh, raw and inspiring. It is integral to the contemporary art scene in Chicago that the work being made and the canon being pushed is, almost across the board, intellectually driven and for lack of a better term spiritually substantive. And because Chicago is the city that works, the work also tends to be about the work itself, and not simply in that artists are interested in process-driven work or ephemeral etceteras; the work ethic has become just as integral to the sale and the show as the actual product.

A lot of exciting art has recently been happening on the street. Artists like Don’t Fret, Hebru Brantley and Left Handed Wave have become recognised presences in the city and their work has started appearing not only on empty walls but inside gallery spaces. Don’t Fret has already had two solo shows this year and is participating in the Cultural Center’s ‘Paint Paste Sticker: Chicago Street Art’ exhibition. The large, multi-coloured inflatable work of artist Claire Ashley is also represented there, although her pieces are more frequently spotted on street corners and during outdoor art events. Another young local artist worth keeping an eye on is Daniel Hojnacki, whose unique multimedia method explores memory and personal history using old family photos. But there is striking talent emerging from Chicago on every level, whether we’re dealing with more conceptual art (Industry of the Ordinary), photography (Jason Lazarus), or light installation (Luftwerk). More artists are staying here and even more are migrating to Chicago; maybe there’s just something in the air, but it’s an exciting time to be creating in the city that works.

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