Art About Cities for Chicago Journal

This is from my new Chicago Journal irregular column “Art Department”

(Claudio Onorato, 2008, “Assassinio di un sindacalista Colombiano a Brooklyn”

Consider the city
Contributing Reporter
Urban space is a fashionable subject. Walk into Prairie Avenue Bookshop or Powell’s on south Wabash or and you’ll see a plethora of books about the future of the city, the city and tourism, walking the city, the city and technology, sports and cities and more.

But most of them are quite useless, in that they have no aspiration beyond describing phenomenon in the city – they want to change nothing. Art shows about cities and space are kind of the same way. You can get away with a lot of vague ideas because the aesthetics of cities, suburbs and other people-populated environments are often exciting and rich with associations and icons viewers know and connect with. You can get away with loose ideas because, hey, cities are complex and complexity is complex.

A number of near-downtown art spaces are currently exhibiting visual works that deal with urban or rural space. Taken together, the art in these shows are compelling but the trend behind the work, less so. As viewers and makers of art, we should aspire for more than depictions of the city around us, we can use our fantastical imaginations to produce or contribute to real future cities.

The most ambitious of all of the exhibits is “The Edge of Intent” at Columbia College’s Museum of Contemporary Photography. Featuring 10 artists working mostly in photography, this show was programmed in coordination with Burnham Plan centennial year events and commemorations. The show sets out to critically explore the implications and unintended consequences of master plans and urban planning in general — likely one of the only such critiques presented officially within the Burnham Plan celebrations.

Outstanding works include Liset Castillo’s large color photographs of sandcastle-like depictions of urban environments composed or wrecked versions of various iconic architecture from different historical moments all mashed together in one frame.

Andrew Harrison’s depictions of New Jersey, meanwhile, show the state reconfigured along the planning systems of famous fictitious lands such as Oz, Eden and Atlantis. The other set shows the same New Jersey state map sliced up in pieces to be recombined according to the principles at work in well known historical master-plans that actually existed, like Garden City, Brasilia, Radiant City and even Burnham’s plan for Chicago.

The result is a rather simple and compelling demonstration of the absurdity of imposing visions (fantasy or actually existing) of better futures through urban planning that do not take into account the already existing culture, geography and land use of a place. The only strange decision made in this work is to use the map of a rather large territory (the state of New Jersey) as the base for these puzzle-like renderings of urban spaces of much smaller terrain. Why not pick a familiar city to re-work into the image of these fantastical and historical master plans?

Other notable works include Eric Smith’s photographs of an abandoned and derelict Detroit train station; Christina Seeley’s “Lux” series of portraits of several city’s light pollution; Simon Menner’s series on Mumbai, Paris and Chicago, which utilizes contexts where the homeless populations have remade corners of the city for their own use. The work of Dionisio González prefigures the gentrification of a poor neighborhood in his modified landscapes of Brazilian shanty towns with components of fancy contemporary architecture digitally inserted into the panoramic photographs of favela building facades.

“Edge of Intent” runs through July 5 at the Museum of Contemporary Photography , 600 S. Michigan.

Over at Kasia Kay Art Projects on Fulton Market, a group exhibition entitled “The (Un)Real City” opened on May 15. Stefania Carrozzini curated this exhibit of predominately Italian artists. While half of the work is sloppy in its digitially edited composition, carefully handmade works by by several contributors stand out.

Claudio Onorato’s paper cut-out “Assassinio di un sindacalista Colombiano a Brooklyn” (“Assassination of a Colombian trade unionist in Brooklyn”) addresses the ongoing murder and torture of Colombian SINALTRAINAL (National Union of Food Industry Workers) union leaders and organizers who work at Coca Cola bottling plants — content which seems substantially more pointed than the rest of the works, despite its fantastical and somewhat silly placement in a chaotic street scene in Brooklyn.

“City Dream nr1”, a tall painting by Qin Fengling, has a three-dimensional quality. Fengling shapes and details straight-from-the-tube multicolor paint blobs into mad city scenes: people get pulled from their cars and buildings fly into the sky as if gravity has surprisingly given way. People have to cling onto each other and their built environment for dear life, for fear of floating into space.

Pino Chimenti‘s paintings on wood combine iconic qualities of ancient Egyptian illustrations with the informational graphics associated with geological or architectural textbooks. He shows castles, palaces and churches in mythic environments with faces, fish, birds, clouds, machine cogs and snail tails — some merge into one another to create anthropomorphic or cyborg-type figures. Others float next to one another, some on a flat plane and others clearly with multiple dimensions. The effect is dizzying, the work calls for close examination and attention.

“The (Un)Real City” can be seen at Kasia Kay Art Projects, 1044 W. Fulton Market St, through June 12.

At the West Loop’s Monique Meloche Gallery, central Illinois based photographer Joel Ross heads into the country and the suburb to install curious, humorous signs on the side of the road. Imagine being on the last leg of your road trip, after driving past miles of monotony, and then on the outskirts of the suburbs, with farm fields mostly passing by, you see a colorful sign advertising a “Uni Sex Bordello” with an arrow pointing in the direction of … nothing.

Ross erects the signs, often without permission, and then photographs them, most often at night. Some of the ads seek to entice drivers into a rural porn or fireworks store on the edge of a state border. Others make use of hand painted or movable text signs used by churches or small businesses. The signs play on our expectations of advertising along rural highways.

“False Promises” is a 55″ x 80″ color photograph depicting a gravel side road at sundown with a handmade sign reading “False Promises” over a large arrow pointing one direction on a split direction road. Presumably if you went the opposite direction that the arrow was pointing you would find true promises, or no promises? The blue sign has reflective materials on it and is lit up as if by headlights of the car which is easing down the dark path.

Ross’s work at Monique Meloche Gallery, 118 N. Peoria, will be up through June 13.

The orange glow cast over the fictitious city in Aaron Delehanty‘s new painting/installation “Visible City”, at Finestra Art Space, is eerie and dramatic. It is unclear if the sun is setting or rising. The city center is built up while the edges face into farmland and fog. And in the foreground the viewer is confronted by a flock of birds cutting across the large painting from top to bottom and side to side. The flock is messy, no flying v. It resembles a cross between a mid-flight bird fight and the mythical dust “monster” from the popular television show “Lost.” Delehanty elaborates in a written manifesto for this series about this imaginary city being within reach, perhaps this work would move more forcefully in that direction if it was directly engaging an audience? I see murals in his future, and I hope his murals are in our future.

Delehanty’s work is shown at Finestra Art Space, Fine Arts Building at 410 S. Michigan, Suite 516, through May 30. The human-operated elevator in this building is worth a trip in and of itself.

Published by Tucker

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