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Art Facts: living above the neighborhood gallery

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"It's the shortest commute I've ever experienced," says Bruno Ast about his 100-year-old house in Old Town. For 21 years Ast and his wife, Gunduz Dagdelen, have run an architectural firm out of their house. For the last six months, the two architects have also been operating another business: since June, the 250-square-foot space in the front of their ground-floor office has housed an art gallery.

So far, they've taken turns curating and promoting exhibits in their spare time for the tiny Gallery 1756. One exhibit expresses his philosophy of what a gallery should do; the next illustrates her ideas about what art is. But though their ideas about what's best for their gallery are often different, both their tastes are influenced by architecture. "Every gallery should have a focus," says Dagdelen. "And in the long run, our philosophies do combine."

Ast and Dagdelen are best known for rehabbing and redesigning Old Town homes--six on their block alone, including their own, part of which is still in progress. "We have areas of responsibility in our projects," says Ast. "Gunduz is strong in design, in the initial work. Then we work together on the definitive design. Generally, I take over on the construction documents and work with the contractors at the site."

Ast came to the United States with his family from Yugoslavia in 1949, settling in downstate Illinois. Dagdelen came from Turkey, about a six-hour drive from Ast's Slavic home, in 1958 to study architecture at the University of Illinois at Champaign, where Ast was also studying. They met, and after she finished graduate work, they moved to Chicago and settled in Old Town. They both speak with accents.

Working together as both architects and curators, Ast and Dagdelen have few breaks from one another. But they do get some breathing space; he teaches architecture at UIC, and she does work for several organizations, including the Chicago Architecture Foundation. And they keep their curating projects separate.

So last week, as Dagdelen removed her exhibit "Turkish Flatweaves" from the small gallery's pale, bare, wooden display walls, Ast began to organize his next show, "Oil' Works by Architects," which will showcase during a three-week run conceptual works by 18 architects on the subject of oil. Ast was moved by the current situation in the Middle East to organize the show, but in his call for entries he didn't insist the works be about the current crisis; rather, he asked for any commentary about oil's effect on everyday life.

"Architects do think about major questions that are part of society, like homelessness and incurable diseases," says Ast. "And we have visions that need to be put forward and discussed. I think the gallery should allow that kind of dialogue to occur, to give young architects the opportunity to talk about not the way buildings are constructed, but about the future."

Architect Julie Hacker's work, "City of Tomorrow; Naive Comedy, Tragic Economy," uses xerography: what appears to be a pen-and-ink drawing of old oil wells and other things has actually been cut out, collaged, and rendered on a copier machine.

A piece by Dagdelen called "Oil Doesn't Mix With Blood" is made of architectural materials--wire mesh, plastic tubing, conduit wire--woven together into a three-foot-square panel.

Stanley Tigerman contributed real pen-and-ink drawings dealing with conflict and tombs and death and dying. Architects Robert Somol and Linda Pollari put together nine panels, four by six feet in all, filled with military images taken from TV coverage of the current crisis.

Dagdelen, meanwhile, has just returned from a three-week trip to her native Turkey, where she bought rugs and pottery that she plans to display in the future. Household furnishings like rugs and pottery, she says, are also part of the architectural process.

"They connect so much with architecture," she says. "The [rug] patterns, for instance, go back hundreds and hundreds of years. . . . They are regional patterns from small villages that have been kept alive and repeated. Sometimes [architects] find it essential to stop time and have a chance for thoughts to surface."

"Each pattern has a meaning," Ast adds, pointing out the symbols among the brightly colored shapes and zigzags. "There are symbols such as houses of worship, birds, dancers. They each have a language."

Ast says he and his wife love people to stop in, and the gallery provides a reason. "Tiny galleries are very European," he says. "You know, Harry Weese started his career working behind a furniture store, and with our gallery in front and office in back, it's similar to that.

"Old Town was always an art community, but the artists have moved away during gentrification. So the gallery is our way of maximizing and trying to stabilize this artists' community."

"Oil' Works by Architects" runs through December 7. Then "Turkish Crafts," a show curated by Dagdelen of porcelain and copper works and knitted socks and ornaments (some knitted by Turkish children using toothpicks), runs through Christmas. After that, Ast will curate a show of watercolors by architect John Macsai. The gallery is at 1756 N. Sedgwick; hours are 9 to 4 Monday through Friday and 10 to 2 Saturday, or by appointment. Call 642-6900 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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