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Gallery Tripping: Oskar Friedl's bait and switch

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On the 1400 block of West Chicago Avenue, across the street from a couple of beauty parlors, between Avila's Bakery and Elite Auctioneers, is a storefront with an awning that until recently read "Day Spa." But you can't get a massage there. The "spa" is actually the Oskar Friedl Gallery.

A German native, Friedl opened a gallery in River North in 1989. But after closing it two years ago, he began to realize how unfulfilled he'd been by the marketing and sale of objects. That task, which is central to most galleries, seemed to Friedl to be a "sidetrack that didn't lead me to the core that I was interested in, which is the art itself," he says. "The traditional gallery visitor is either a critic or an appreciator. All that happens is you either like it or don't like it. I want to place the artists' thinking and being at the center of things. I want art to be an experience that goes beyond staring at objects. I don't want to be in a gallery area and be approached only by people who come to look at art. Here the art experience starts when somebody comes into 'Day Spa' looking for a facial and is confronted with a completely different idea. Your thinking is challenged the moment you step in the door."

Friedl chooses a new name for the space in collaboration with each artist he exhibits. "Day Spa" announced the work of Christine Ackermann, which included fabric sculptures of flowers and constructions that paired her photographs with etched floral designs. When Ackermann, also a German, first came to Chicago a few months ago, Friedl quizzed her about her work. "I asked her for her main concerns. They were love, passion, embracing positiveness--and she always uses her body as a model and places it in the mountains, which for her is the purest recreation she can think of. That was in such stark contrast to the American perception of beauty, this obsession with the body, that it has to be depilated and embalmed. 'Day Spa' came out of this discussion--I wanted to integrate my storefront with the street, to challenge from within." People did wander in to make appointments, which "always resulted in a conversation that gave me an opportunity to explain that this is an exhibition of an idea, that a day spa to this artist was this getting reinvigorated from nature. Everybody looked and enjoyed. I thought they looked closer than they would have otherwise."

The only requirement Friedl imposes on the artists is that they work with him to create a unique window design. "The window will become the razor blade that manifests the artist's thinking, dividing these two worlds, inside and outside. I want to foster artists' conceptual approach to themselves--I want them to work in a way they haven't before. But as soon as the window design is resolved, I'm satisfied. The rest is up to them." Ackermann covered her window with the outlines of roses, which still allowed passersby to look in.

For the gallery's latest exhibit and official opening this Friday, Chicagoan Glenn Wexler has decorated the window with vinyl cutouts of abstract religious designs; the awning outside now reads "Church of Holy Inspiration." This is Wexler's first full-scale installation, which Friedl chose from several small models the artist had made in the past. Inside are pieces by Wexler combining photos of Renaissance art with graphics of atoms, warships, and handguns. Another part of the installation combines photographic reproductions of a Rogier van der Weyden altarpiece with gold replicas of the symbol for a fallout shelter. Wexler connects his use of this "radioactive imagery" to the gold halos on traditional paintings of saints--and to the biblical prophecy of the end of the world.

"The thing about Oskar," says Wexler, "is that he is not so much about looking at art and thinking, 'I can package this, slap a price tag on it, and move it out the door.' He is driven by his passion and love for art itself. A lot of exhibition spaces say, 'Let's see what you've got'; Oskar stimulates you."

In keeping with the church motif, Friedl plans to host "not sermons, but some gatherings for collective consciousness. I have asked several people to write inspirational texts."

The opening of Glenn Wexler's show, "Church of Holy Inspiration," takes place tonight from 6 to 9 at 1463 W. Chicago. Visitors are asked to "bring a book," if possible one they found inspirational; these will form the basis of a free lending library. Wexler's exhibit will remain up through April 25; gallery hours are noon to 6 Friday and Saturday. Call 312-421-3141 for more.

--Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Eugene Zakusilo.

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