The Joke is Irresistible, A Fickle Existence, and Materials of the City at The Sullivan Galleries

Joel Kuennen

Through October 16th, the Sullivan Galleries at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) will host a 3-part exhibit featuring work from current and former SAIC students. Gleaned from their activities in the studio over the summer, curators Joe Iverson, Rachel M. Wolff and Danica Willard Sachs formed individual projects into a series of cohesive shows to open the Sullivan Galleries for the Fall 2010 gallery season.

The vast space that encompasses the seventh floor of the Louis Sullivan building on State Street in downtown Chicago, was subtly trisected by color coded strips of paint on the bases of the large support columns in the gallery. To the left was The Joke is Irresistible; a look at contemporary representations of masculinity, or as the artists themselves affectionately called it, the dudeness-show.

Comprised of a good mix of video, mixed media, and installation work, The Joke is Irresistible was home to some surprisingly solid work.  I’m always a bit wary when masculinity is brought up as the subject of artistic inquiry due to the simple fact that gender is often a gaze that cannot be fully undone and so comes to warp in the presentation of a representation. Expressionist and programmatic stances combine and become reactive and acerbic leaving the field of gender more confused than before. However, this show remained playful, light and with just the right amount of seriousness to allow for some works to truly shine through. Some pieces complicated masculinity, and others merely held up a mirror. This kind of interplay is productive when it comes to questions of identity. Without the alternation between a reflective perspective and one that makes the individual struggle and question their motivations, change and understanding would be much less likely. Therefore, it was the affective work that seemed to really work here by sidestepping initial, gendered rationalizations. Andy Cahill’s piece was a series of single channel videos of the artist intoxicated and looking at himself in a mirror for about an hour. The result was a strange row of slightly weary-eyed and head-bobbing images of the artist watching himself for the purpose of being watched.

Directly across the corridor was a flat-screen monitor playing what appeared to be a camgirl performance. Artists Ei Jane Janet Lin and Miao Jiaxin’s recording of a performance entitled Collaboration #1 is a less-questionable (as far as the porn v. art debate is concerned according to curator Joe Iverson) version of the one that can be found on vimeo here. The vimeo version differs merely in the graphic nature of its content but in doing so makes it’s point at the intended decibel, a shrill cry.  Along side the video of Ms. Lin performing as an ironic Asian school girl (for race certainly has found its way into this as well) are a quickening stream of electronic catcalls, orders, and suggestions from onlookers. It is this aspect of the video screen that most grabs the viewer’s attention. An entirely different language emerges in which specialty colloquialisms of the vast world of online pornography and sexuality become currency. A world that was previously resigned to a privately-held public discourse is now made public and the slight alteration in context provides enough unsettling to produce a critical moment.  At stake is human fetishization through a gendered and othered gaze.

Also of note in this exhibition was Christopher Bradley’s “The door.” An approximately two feet wide, black three-section garage door fitted to a track hung from the ceiling of the gallery. Raised and lowered at an interval, the door is something of a memento mori, yet it connoted masculinity, domesticity, concealment and automation. The contended space of domestic life was apparent yet the size of the door itself personalized the piece.It wasn’t hard to imagine someone hiding behind or in front of the door, waiting for it to rise or fall.

Other notable artists in this set of installations come in the form of David Ross Harper’s fucked-up-fairytale creations that blend comfort and distance through an outstanding use of materials. Saiko Kase’s work of a felt skin sprouting pocks of hair  is an interesting object but does little to provoke one’s desire for an explanation. Both these artists come from A Fickle Existence, curated by Rachel Wolff, which concerns the relationship between the natural and artificial, often bridging the two in the use of material. Libby O’Bryan’s White Gold, Gin Trash is another striking part of the Fickle grouping that focuses on the strange connections between materials and their larger meaning as a cultural touchstone. In this case, cotton.

Materials of the City took the back half of the exhibition space, transforming the open area into a series of wall-less studios and lounges with finished and unfinished work. The work in this exhibit didn’t grab me as much as I had expected, orienting me instead towards the space itself. Openness, relaxation, nooks and hollows, it seemed as if the artist could be hiding somewhere. Yet, the artist was missing completely, they were vacant studios with orphaned work and instead of gaining some sort of insight into the creative process as a form of art itself, I was, rather, privied to a Day After Tomorrow-like glimpse. This exhibition was most definitely an extension of the bourgeoning “bringing the studio into the gallery” phenomenon. A movement that Chicago has already seen go through the Museum of Contemporary Art in the exhibition, Production Site. As a sort of misplaced attempt to demystify the artist, these types of exhibitions do little to expose any sort of practice. The site of production is always merely a shucked shell, devoid of the process represented by the work.

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