- Michael L. Abramson
"Michael L. Abramson: Pulse of the Night"
9/2-12/19, Columbia College Library, 624 S. Michigan, 312-369-8177, mocp.org, free
None of the 36 black-and-white photos that make up Michael Abramson's first solo show in Chicago come with captions or any identifying information—if you weren't "the woman on the right" or a regular at south-side clubs such as Pepper's House or Perv's House in the mid-70s, chances are these images will be a total mystery. Abramson, who passed away at 62 in 2011, didn't even name his photographs.
The absence of a backstory makes it easier to get lost in Abramson's lively images. "We wanted ones that showed the energy of the nightclubs," says Abramson's longtime partner, Midge Wilson, who helped curate "Pulse of the Night." The energy is there; it's in Abramson's unconventional framing, which occasionally sits at a slight angle that accentuates the spontaneity of many moments he captures; it's in the crumpled cigarette packs, half-drunken glasses of booze, and worn-down furniture that fills the background of some shots; and it's in the intimate shots of clubgoers relaxing on benches or getting lost in a song on the dance floor.
Abramson printed all but two of the photos back in the 70s—Numero Group published most of them in 2009's Light: On the South Side, which packaged a hardbound book of Abramson's work along with a double-LP compilation of blues tunes that filled south-side jukeboxes during that time. Six of the photos weren't included in Light: On the South Side, and according to cocurator and archivist Kristin Basta, they've never been seen publicly either.
"Pulse of the Night" is spread throughout the second floor of Columbia College Chicago's library. It's an unusual space for a gallery show, but it's kind of fitting; Abramson documented people as they lived, and rather than quarantining his work in a gallery this show is on display in a building that's an integral part of college life. —Leor Galil
- Sandro Miller
- Miller and Malkovich's take on Diane Arbus's photograph Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967
"Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to Photographic Masters"
11/7-1/31/15: Catherine Edelman Gallery, 300 W. Superior, 312-266-2350, edelmangallery.com.
Sandro Miller first shot John Malkovich 17 years ago, and the actor remains one of the photographer's favorite subjects/collaborators. "He's a genius, a chameleon," Miller says. "He's willing to go places other actors of his status wouldn't think of going. He'll let me do anything with him." When Miller decided he wanted to pay homage to the photographers who influenced him as an artist by re-creating some of their most famous shots in painstaking detail, there was no question who he would use as a model. In the resulting exhibit, opening at Catherine Edelman Gallery, Malkovich appears as more than 30 characters, including Truman Capote, John Lennon, and Marilyn Monroe (thrice). "If you see John in a little dress like Diane Arbus's twins," Miller says, "you wouldn't believe it." After Chicago, the show moves on to New York and Paris; there will also be a companion book and a documentary from local filmmakers Jon Siskel (Gene's nephew) and Greg Jacobs. —Aimee Levitt
- Michael Schmelling
- Untitled (dancer_1)
"Michael Schmelling: Your Blues"
10/16-12/21, 600 S. Michigan, 312-663-5554, mocp.org.
Michael Schmelling doesn't typically insert himself into his work. Though the photographer exhibits in galleries and museums, he has a journalistic approach, capturing his subjects—which have included the likes of Lorde and Earl Sweatshirt—with a sense of objectivity. But when the River Forest native returned to Chicago after more than two decades to document the city's music scene, he consulted with himself. Or, rather, with the person he was in 1991, when he left for college. "I really wanted to figure out what I'd be doing if I'd stayed—if I was 17 or 18, what shows I'd be going to," he says. "It was going back and getting back into things that were interesting to me then, getting back into that head space."
Last year, Schmelling began traveling here from his current home in LA. He caught acts in the basements of DIY venues like Animal Kingdom and shot while Jimmy Whispers writhed around the Hideout stage at the Summer in Pain Fest. He wrapped up the yearlong project in late July after attending Pitchfork, and in October he'll display 60 to 80 images at the Museum of Contemporary Photography.
Before the museum commissioned the project, Schmelling spent a year infiltrating Atlanta's music scene, and subsequently released a book called Atlanta: Hip-Hop and the South. The photos in that series betray common conceptions about blinged-out, big-money Dirty South rap; one of the most striking images depicts a makeshift recording booth, egg-carton foam sloppily affixed to the walls of a closet that's empty except for a microphone. Schmelling sent the book to MCP curator Karen Irvine, and the two decided the photographer should similarly record Chicago's music scene.
Reintroducing himself, Schmelling didn't have a point of entry—a particular band or venue. He says one of the first performances he attended was at, of all places, ChiTown Futbol, a Pilsen soccer facility. "You go to one place, you see a flyer for another show, you get connected," he says. Plugged-in Chicagoans—among them Reader music writer Leor Galil and musician/author Tim Kinsella, who wrote an essay to accompany the exhibit—helped direct him when he literally lost his way (DIY venue addresses aren't commonly known). Schmelling avoided focusing on one genre to the exclusion of others, as he did with the Atlanta book; its name notwithstanding, this is not an exhibit about the city's blues pedigree.
"But the history of Chicago music was always on my mind," he says. "I hope it's there in the show." —Gwynedd Stuart
- Image courtesy of the Artist and Monique Meloche Gallery
- Black Power by Hank Willis Thomas
Through 11/30. Bench locations available at moniquemeloche.com.
For four years, Monique Meloche has tried to rent the ad space on the bus-stop bench that sits in front of her Division Street gallery on the southwest edge of Wicker Park. "It's always occupied by this real estate agent," she says. "We inquired, and he flat out said no." Unbowed, Meloche decided earlier this year to widen her scope. With funding from the local chamber of commerce, the gallerist rented six benches in Bucktown and Wicker Park, envisioning them as an extension of her exhibition space, a few more surfaces to be curated. On September 1, the gallery debuted its first Off the Wall show, "Bench Marks," a series of photographic works by Hank Willis Thomas. That one of his pet subjects is the portrayal of African-Americans in advertising made the 38-year-old New York artist a shrewd choice to subvert a space traditionally used to persuade commuters to consume rather than to consider. "Advertising is this amazingly powerful, ubiquitous language," Thomas said recently over the phone. "I'm interested in using it to talk about the market of ideas rather than to market a product." In a couple of the pieces plucked from past series, Thomas alters vintage ads that appeared in magazines like Ebony and Jet, removing the product and brand logos to spotlight the image of blackness being sold in tandem. In The Cotton Bowl, a Thomas original that has the sheen of a sports drink ad, a lineman on a football field crouches down, mirrored by a slave bending over in a field of cotton. The work is presented free of explanation or context. "It's going to cause some sort of dialogue: 'What is this? Advertising?' It could piss people off," Meloche says. "But I wanted something provocative. Once you put something like this out there, you have to be willing to face those conversations and those confrontations." —Jake Malooley
Correction: This article has been amended to reflect that Jimmy Whispers played the Hideout stage at the Summer in Pain Fest.