Here is another one of my irregular columns, this one for Chicago Journal about downtown art. This month’s “Art Department” is about two retrospectives currently on view – one of political cartoons from Chicago Tribune by John T. McCutcheon at the turn of the 20th century and the other of zines, ideas and interventions by Anne Elizabeth Moore at the turn of the 21st century. Check it:
Art Dept: Print culture from 1889 to the present
by Daniel Tucker
Print culture in Chicago is rich and diverse. In 1860, the city boasted 11 daily newspapers, several in the European languages spoken by immigrants of the time. And while that culture is changing due to the broader economy and the evolution of Web publishing, two exhibitions currently on display demonstrate how Chicagoans in the past and today circulated their ideas, critiques and opinions on paper.
Cartooning the issues of the day
A key figure in local and national printed culture is John T. McCutcheon, the cartoonist for the Chicago Record and Chicago Tribune newspapers between 1889 and 1946. The Chicago Cultural Center is presenting an exhibition with documents and reproductions of a wide range of McCutcheon’s work, curated by Tim Samuelson, the city’s cultural historian.
The cartoons depict the most pressing challenges of McCutcheon’s time, demonstrating his capacity to address complex topics in humorous and efficient ways. In a single-frame cartoon, he could capture a political subject like war while illustrating a nuanced perspective on deeply patriotic soldiers losing their lives in a game beyond their control. His subject matter documented history as it unfolded — the explosive growth of Chicago as a metropolis near the turn of the 20th century, the Great Depression, World War I.
McCutcheon’s cartoons about life in the fictional town of Bird Center, Illinois were famous beyond the borders of Chicagoland. The world of Bird Center centered on daily life in a small Midwestern town, with many recurring characters. While the content was believable, the drawings were loose and funny; he did not attempt for social realism that would have relied on facts or precision in these works. This made Bird Center familiar, potentially an Anytown, USA — a place readers could project their imaginations onto.
One of my favorite parts of this exhibition is not a drawing, but a photo of a theater troupe based in the Fine Arts building. The troupe adapted Bird Center into a play, which featured McCutcheon as a lead character. The document of their set, the costumes and the evident community built around making culture together will be inspiring to anyone interested in the evolution of cultural forms. First a comic, then a piece of community theater, Bird Center was clearly a predecessor to television dramas we are familiar with today.
New issues, many approaches
A contemporary commentator on the issues of the day is Anne Elizabeth Moore. Moore, well known for her stint as editor of the defunct magazine Punk Planet and for her writings in mainstream and alternative publications, is also a prolific conceptual artist and community organizer.
In recent years, primarily in Chicago but with connections to places ranging from New York City to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Moore has positioned herself as a public commentator on the encroachment of consumerism and advertising into every aspect of daily life. A retrospective of the last decade of Moore’s art on display at Columbia College’s Center for Book & Paper Arts offers a long view of the overarching themes and goals of Moore’s work. Often fun, sarcastic and nearly always participatory, this exhibition addresses subjects ranging from the 2016 Olympic bid to popular dolls from American Girl Place.
Moore, as the exhibition shows, works with many materials and takes diverse aesthetic approaches. There are ‘zines made in workshops with children and adults as well as lots of documents from sprawling projects and events series that cannot easily be contained in the gallery. But Moore successfully pulls it off through a combination of video documentation and written timelines. Such guides are needed: some of Moore’s projects involved a dozen events, press releases, numerous collaborations and extensive research.
Readers will have an opportunity to see more of Moore’s work, other print publications and an exhibition of books created by South Korean art students if they attend the fifth annual Printers Ball on July 31 at Columbia College.