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Into the belly of John Preus's The Beast

The artist's mammoth new installation, which contains furniture repurposed from shuttered Chicago public schools, takes over the Hyde Park Art Center.



John Preus had a detailed plan for The Beast, his installation that opens this week as part of the Hyde Park Art Center's 75th birthday celebration, but he threw it away. "A plan with no room for intuitive decision-making becomes boring to me," says Preus, who was one of the cofounders of SHOP, the Hyde Park artist/educator/community outreach collective, and has worked as lead fabricator for the artist Theaster Gates. As of two weeks ago, all he knew was that The Beast was going to be a large (30 by 60 feet) structure, built from two-by-fours, that would use up most of the space in the HPAC's main gallery, including the catwalk above the first floor and the five garage doors that open the gallery to the outside, and contain within it furniture repurposed from some of the Chicago public schools that were shut down last year. (Preus has a relationship with the company CPS contracted to remove the furniture; his collection, stashed in a storefront on the south side, includes lots of desks and tabletops and a rocking chair.) The structure would have to be strong enough to bear a lot of weight, both physical and ideological. It would also be in the shape of a steer.

With the opening a little more than two weeks away, Preus, 42, seems remarkably calm. He works fast: in just three hours, he was able to assemble a proto-Beast that takes up most of the space in his studio at HPAC and is sturdy enough to support a swing made of old CPS chairs. Much of his time has been spent considering the nature and purpose of The Beast.

The shape, for instance: "I've been reading a lot about early human civilizations," Preus explains. "I came across a theory, or suggestion, that very archaic societies had some form of human sacrifice. It was very strange. Then I started to imagine, with the help of theorists, that it was a way of ritualizing collective animosity and a way to diffuse more general belligerence." The animal these societies most frequently sacrificed was a bull or steer.

There will be no sacrifices in The Beast, but it will represent a particular point of collective animosity: the closing of the public schools.

The shape of the installation won't be apparent at ground level. Viewers will get a sense of the whole only from looking at it from the catwalk. "It's playing with the existential questions," says Preus, "how you have to get far away from something—including the self—to see it as an entity. Life is a series of revelations, how you see the self in relation to others—politically, socially. You learn by being in relation with the world, not in isolation."

The Beast is a physical embodiment of that idea. From the outside, Preus plans for it to appear somewhat terrifying, even ugly. Step inside, though, and it will be warm and welcoming, functioning as a sort of community center. Preus has scheduled a lineup of musicians, dancers, and storytellers to perform and organized a weekly potluck.

The project is a continuation of Preus's previous work with Gates and at SHOP. It's also a segue into his next project, which will appear at Expo Chicago in the fall, in which artists and designers will create furniture prototypes from Preus's vast collection of CPS castoffs that can then be ordered through a catalog—"an almost Ikea-like enterprise," he jokes.

"I see the material cycling over as a way of embracing where we've already been," he continues, "the history and things we don't want to deal with."

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