Contrary to the rumors, there is no Axe Street manifesto of political correctness. Nor is there a board of directors, a corporate structure, a millionaire backer, a profit motive, or a bottom line.
"We wanted to have a gallery that had a political impulse," explains M.J. Marchnight, one of the six founding members of the Axe St. Arena collective. "But we didn't want to show art that was strictly propagandistic."
"We're considered political by other artists, but political types see us more as artists. We see ourselves as political artists," explains Michael Piazza, another member. "I guess if there's one thing we all believe in it's the right to self-determination. You know, politics shift, so we don't really have rules or anything, and nothing written down."
Headquartered on the fourth floor of a commercial building in Logan Square, the 60s-style collective has spent the last four years living and working together, and exhibiting art by Nicaraguans, feminists, graffitists, gays and lesbians, and others they felt had something to say. They've also made their space available for events like readings and performances of various kinds.
Come August, however, things will change. The collective's four-year lease is up, the building has been sold, and its new owners are considering commercial development.
While it lasted, Axe St. Arena was unique. Unlike other galleries--both commercial and not-for-profit--Axe Street didn't even try to sell art.
"There's no sense in setting yourself up to do something unless you're going to do it fairly well," Marchnight says, a hint of horror in her voice at the very thought of peddling. "We sold all kinds of things, really, but we took no commission. Some artists were generous and offered something, but sales just wasn't our job. We just wanted to show the work. I think as a commercial gallery we would have been pretty hopeless."
But the collective experiment has been overwhelmingly successful in less tangible ways. "Being around this exchange of ideas, this energy, has been the most inspirational thing for me," says Piazza. The group includes three painters, a composer, a writer, and a textile designer. "Of course, it's also been crazy to live here, especially with two small children. Sam, the five-year-old., thinks every kid lives in a gallery."
Piazza and his wife, Laura Piazza, have lived in the 12,000-square-foot space since they signed the lease in October 1985. The others--Marchnight, Rebecca Wolfram, Bertha Husband, and Tim Andrews--have lived there intermittently or rented out studio space. According to Wolfram, the six adults involved include "one nuclear family, one lesbian family, and a couple of others who live, well, different life-styles."
"Sometimes it's been really stressful," admits Piazza. During a dinner for collaborating artists, the Piazzas' youngest son spent the evening sick and crying. "We didn't know what was going on with him, and like we had our minds on two things at once, and we kept going back there trying to calm him down, trying to make sure everything was all right. That kind of thing was hard."
At times it was even hard to keep visitors from wandering from the gallery space into their living room, although "sometimes if we knew people with kids were coming over, we'd just open up the bedroom and let them play in there," Piazza says. "Really, it was a lot easier than just having everybody all over the place."
"It took an enormous amount of time--on top of the time needed for our own artwork, and for our jobs," says Marchnight. "The first year, we did ten shows; we just didn't know better. It was incredibly demanding. Even when we weren't in a show, or responsible for a performance, we still had to clean up the place, repaint, put out the brochures, do the mailings."
Collective members--whose real-life jobs include teaching, picture framing, and secretarial work--paid for everything--printing, mailings, advertising--out of their own pockets. Occasionally, they'd charge groups to hold special events, but not if the group was politically simpatico, such as Casa El Salvador or Casa Guatemala. More often than not, the only income was generated by modest cash bars that helped defray the cost of utilities.
"It was very expensive to heat the place in the winter," says Marchnight. "And the building was in horrible shape, so we always had to be on the lookout for leaks because, you know, they're not very compatible with artwork."
Now and then, the cleanup was more than just sweeping and dusting, as when graffiti artists involved in one of their shows decided to tag the stairway. "It was, I suppose, a compliment," Piazza says with a sigh.
"We had no structure, no grand design about what kind of shows we put on other than whether we thought it was exciting or interesting," says Marchnight. "About the only other thing we considered was whether the idea lent itself to an event--a reading, music, something like that. We hoped the artwork was good on some level."
Sometimes it was brilliant, but often it was awful. Occasional reviews came from community papers, but most critics stayed away. So did some artists. "It was the thing about us being so political," says Piazza. "Artists seem to be either not politically involved at all, or they want to do banners and posters. I wanted something in between. It wasn't until I met Bertha that I found somebody else with my concerns."
That was back in the early 80s, when Piazza, Husband, and Wolfram were members of NAB Gallery. In 1984, they put together the Chicago chapter show of Artists Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America, a national exhibit protesting President Reagan's policies.
"We sparked each other," says Piazza. "It was great, it's always been great." But for now, at least, the group has decided to give exhibiting a rest. They're not going to look for a new space. And they're not going to live together.
"But we're not disbanding," says Marchnight. "We'll still do performances and, when the need arises, we'll sponsor exhibitions."
Piazza says right now the group has its hands full anyway, editing an international anthology of essays. "I suppose some people might think it's about postmodernism," he says. "But I think it might turn out kind of antipostmodernism."
The collective's last show, "Subversive Axe--Myths and Truths of the Apocalypses," includes work by its members as well as jailed Puerto Rican independentista Elizam Escobar. It opens with a reception tonight from 6 to 9 at the gallery, 2778 N. Milwaukee Ave. Free viewing hours are noon to 6 Saturday and Sunday or by appointment, at 252-6082.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.