Chicago is having a moment

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Hamza Walker

It’s an exciting time for Chicago’s contemporary art scene. At least Hamza Walker, curator of the Renaissance Society and recipient of the 2010 Ordway Prize, thinks so. “This is a moment for Chicago,” says Walker. “Madeleine Grynsztejn has become the Phil Jackson of museum directors. She’s assembling her all-star team: Michael Darling, Naomi Beckwith and Dieter Roelstraete.” While the new curatorial team at the Museum of Contemporary Art has garnered a lot of attention, the art world has also migrated here to see three significant exhibitions that have charged Chicago with new energy.

“Helen Molesworth’s show, 'This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s,' is the kind of show that makes me feel like Chicago is connected on a national and international scale,” says Walker. “It is the first show to really historicize the 1980s with a deliberate sense of pastness.” Taking on the 1980s is a daunting task. Molesworth, who is chief curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, has been celebrated for the sheer breadth of the exhibition. "This Will Have Been" manages to illuminate the political and cultural significance of a decade often reduced to kitsch and bad hair.

Like “This Will Have Been,” Matt Witkovsky’s “Light Years” at the Art Institute is the first survey of conceptual photography and its role as an amalgamate medium (using techniques from painting, film, and sculpture) during the conceptual art movement. “The scope and ambition of the Helen and Matt’s complimentary shows are carving out a really nice presence in Chicago,” says Walker. Walker also mentions FEAST: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art at the Smart Museum as another main-stage exhibition that has attracted national attention. FEAST is a group show (with artists like Theaster Gates, Michael Rakowitz, Laura Letinski, and Rirkrit Tiravanija participating) that elaborates on tradition, cultural practice, and hospitality. While the show, curated by Stephanie Smith, is rooted at the Smart Museum, it also extends beyond the gallery walls with site-specific dinners throughout the city. Smith’s city-as-canvas approach challenges the common complaint that Chicago’s art community is entirely decentralized. FEAST not only introduces new cultural practices, but also unexpected, eccentric, parts of Chicago.

The three exhibitions exemplify Chicago’s assertion as a significant player in contemporary art discourse. And it’s about time. “These are the kinds of shows we should all be talking about,” concludes Walker. “And I take this moment as a sign of things to come.”

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