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All This Useless Beauty

On pink sunrises and moist orifices, the ridiculousness of fashion, and the Jessica Simpson of art genres

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I'm no fancy-shmancy art historian, so I couldn't tell you for sure what a pink sky in a painting means. Is it the beginning of a new day? Or the end of an old one? In the reviews I've read of Gregory Jacobsen's work, most critics look on the bright side, referring to the rosy skies behind his gruesome, puffy, hypergenitalized creatures--garish pink piles of meat with improbable orifices dripping with translucent juice and wrinkled, bedsored, snaggletoothed people with flagpoles penetrating their vaginas and heinies--as beautiful sunsets, as though all this moist depravity is about to come to an end.

They probably know a lot more about art than I do, but I choose to believe the local artist and musician, whose solo show is currently at Zg Gallery, is painting sunrises, suggesting that his characters have been up all night engaging in debauchery--and they're still not done.

I've been especially aware of Jacobsen's favorite theme--human excess--as I've gone out these past few weeks. A high-concept fashion show at Open End a couple weekends ago seemed to romanticize the whole idea of unnecessary indulgence even as the program claimed loftier intentions: to "question the common preconception of what a garment is" and explore "the effects of time on objects." Six current and former students from the School of the Art Institute showed self-conscious designs that bound and displayed the body in impractical ways. Models shuffled down a runway made of old throw rugs as best they could, swaddled in garments for which we don't yet have names: pantlike things with crotches that hung down past the knees, adult Onesies padded at the belly and bum, ceramic and wood chest casts/girdles with unreal proportions, like one boob way higher than the other.

This was all a comment on how we take our healthy bodies for granted, wrapping them in frivolously pretty things, until they let us down, until we can't walk anymore. But fashion by nature is a luxury. And what's more decadent than making clothing that purposely restricts your movement in order to make you more aware of your body's freedom?

Recent SAIC grad Jillian Gryzlak showed loud, clunky, unwieldy accessories fashioned from plastic cutlery and old ticket stubs, making tongue-in-cheek reference to the ways people in third world countries recycle and repurpose the first world's garbage. Of course it's only first world people who have the freedom to wear things that are impossible to wear. Clothes that comment on our excesses are kind of, well, excessive.

But all art is unnecessary, right? And some art's only purpose seems to be to drive that point home. The newish West Town space Booster and Seven is run by two SAIC students who really believe in art, bless their hearts, but are so blinded by the light they're not yet able to discern when something's bad. Instead they just show everything, and the sheer volume of work doesn't do their gallery, or the few talented artists who actually deserve some attention, any favors.

Booster and Seven's last show, a collection of Andrea Myers's plush paper sculptures and Amy Mayfield's dreamy enamel-and-ink paintings, was its strongest yet, and the one opening tonight, which focuses on drawings, photos, and sculpture by local art star Kelly Breslin, promises to be even better. But gallery directors Stephanie Pavone and Brittany Reilly are a little too obsessed with the aesthetic of the millennium: colorful, pretty, and jammed with visual information, but ultimately empty and meaningless--the Jessica Simpson of artistic genres. But hey, Pavone and Reilly are 22 years old and they run their own gallery, which is more than most people have done at twice their age.

The pinnacle of privileged, arty excess is found at convergences like Resfest, the traveling showcase of digital art that came to town last weekend. Its Icon Chef showdown pitted two teams of graphic designers against each other in a real-time challenge. Each team got 60 minutes and a bank of 50 stock images and video clips to create promotional material for a hypothetical movie--one that included a meteor, a volcano, dinosaurs, Bruce Willis, the Olsen twins, and the imminent destruction of the human race. A crowd of design junkies, each of whom had paid $15 for the privilege, got to watch the whole thing happen live, as the competitors' laptop screens were projected on a giant screen behind them.

Gum magazine creator Colin Metcalf and font wizard Jim Marcus comprised Team One; Elliot Lim and Ryan Dunn of the design firm Vitamin were Team Two. Marcus started by asking a slightly husky audience member to play the role of a cop for a photo shoot. "Would you mind taking your shirt off, please?" Marcus said. The guy initially balked but eventually complied. Marcus dirtied up the volunteer's back with charcoal and sprayed him down with a mixture of water and baby oil. "Tense up!" he barked. "Totally tense up!"

The rest of it was pretty technical--Illustrator this, After Effects that, careful with the lens-flare-filter abuse. Though I didn't understand most of it, I was digging the tension and was literally sitting on the edge of my seat waiting to see if Team One's file would transfer in time. I was too hyped to ask myself why the fuck it even mattered.

Which brings me to a kind of moronic question: Who cares? This week the storage building of Aardman Animations, the company that produced Nick Park's Wallace and Gromit movies, burned down. The building contained the company's entire cinematic history, including the sets for all of Park's films. Immediately afterward, Park told the press: "Even though it's precious stuff and nostalgic--and it's dreadful news for the company--in light of other tragedies it's not a big deal."

Of course he's right. Art can be nice to look at, but what purpose does it actually serve? It can't help or feed anything besides an artist's ego.

I was hoping Tony Fry's keynote speech at the Smart Museum's exhibit "Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art" would answer my dumb question, and maybe alleviate some of the guilt I feel going to gallery openings and fashion shows when hundreds of thousands of people are being killed around the world by natural disasters, famine, and war. But when I got there last Friday night the place was closed. (I should have read the fine print on the Web site, which said the speech would happen downtown at the Chicago Architecture Foundation.)

Outside, next to the museum, someone had pitched a room-size tent and hung up a few floodlights, which illuminated a glistening heap of ice cubes melting into the ground, probably detritus from a party that had just wrapped up. The grass was fluorescent green, the shadows deep and dark. I felt like I was tripping, seeing the world in high contrast. At the risk of getting all plastic-bag-blowing-in-the-wind on you, I enjoyed it because it once had a function beyond beauty, because it wasn't meant to be art. It just was.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Bauer.

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