A husky man in a puffy coat, a pinch-nosed woman attempting to walk forward, a throng of other humans trying to move in various other directions, and a wall--these things had me pinned for a full minute on Friday night at Van Harrison Gallery. For one scary, thrilling instant it actually felt like it could've turned into another Chicago trampling disaster. People kept spilling plastic cups of wine on my new dress, and Van Harrison himself kept having to nail art back to the wall that'd gotten knocked askew or completely off. I would have felt bad for him if he weren't about to pack up permanently for New York, the bastard.
I like my art openings nerve-racking, panic attack inducing, and hectic, and so does Harrison. He says it's too bad it doesn't happen here that often. He's also bummed about the lack of support for young galleries and artists from big museums, schools, and collectors here. "I've been in Chicago for five years and had a gallery for four," he says, "and I just want more from the city. There's just not the critical dialogue that exists elsewhere, nor the support from other institutions--museums, not-for-profits, the whole gamut. For some reason they don't do it here, not like in other major cities."
When he moved here in 1999, "everybody was opening galleries in their apartment or garage"--including his own gallery, Apartment 1R, which was housed in his Pilsen home for a year--"and then it sort of all disappeared. Chicago goes in waves: there's a very strong alternative scene and then it shrivels up. These spaces would exist longer if someone just put some money down. A lot of times you'll find Chicago collectors going to New York and Los Angeles to buy Chicago artists because they don't have the confidence to buy them in Chicago. It's a whole status thing, which people have to get over."
What's more, Harrison says, his New York peers--he mentions Daniel Reich and John Connelly--do way better business at their galleries than he does at his. "I'm of their generation, I'm doing what they're doing, and they're getting press over press over press. It just kills me. I feel like I'm being passed over. I want a piece of the pie." I understand that if you can't make a living somewhere it's probably a good idea to leave, but it breaks my heart when the launching pad is my scrappy little hometown.
It was the third Friday in a row I'd visited that monolith of hipster monoculture known as 119 North Peoria, which houses Van Harrison and other fashionable galleries whose openings are filled with art students staring at incomprehensible pieces of eye candy--Bucket Rider, Three Walls, Bodybuilder & Sportsman. I love going to openings in that building--there's something comforting about how predictable they are. But this particular opening, for "The Four Color Pen Show," was full of surprises.
Elysia Borowy-Reeder, manager of external marketing at the Museum of Contemporary Art, curated the show with Heather Hubbs, a former Stray Show director who now directs the New Art Dealers Alliance Art Fair in Miami. Borowy-Reeder's husband, Art Institute painting teacher and conceptual art star Scott Reeder, also pitched in, as did his brother Tyson, who paints vibrant, gentle abstract art. (Both Reeders, incidentally, are represented in New York by Daniel Reich.) Scott got the idea for the show from work by David Dunlap, one of his old teachers at the University of Iowa, who's done a series of drawings and sculptures using the four-color pen, including foot-high wooden statuettes of the pens themselves.
More than 70 artists contributed sketches, doodles, scribbles, made-up board games, to-do lists, and little flags made with that ill-tempered spring-action contraption from the 1980s. Remember it? Just when you needed to write a note during class the fucker would lock up, and then you'd have to write about how much you secretly loved Brian Szymczyk in stupid ugly black when you really wanted to use red and green.
Despite the limited color palette--"Most people can only handle them for about an hour," says Scott--the results were surprisingly varied, ranging from creepy (Eric Jordan's folk-arty tableau including a winged man flying into a puddle of melting human figures) to crappy (Jim Lambie wrote LIGHT ON FIRE on a cigarette), stopping somewhere along the way at cute (Megan Whitmarsh's line drawings of Sasquatches clinking mugs and dancing with little Draculas). The show included work by local and national artists, plus old friends from the Reeder brothers' high school, near East Lansing, Michigan.
Local artist Vince Dermody, formerly of the art collective Law Office, pointed out his contribution, a detailed group portrait of Donald Trump, Britney Spears, Martha Stewart's head on Kirstie Alley's body, Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson, and "the guy who says 'fuck' all the time" (he meant Colin Farrell). While I tried to browse, Dermody kept following me around, telling me all about the bridges he's burned and trying to sound like a bad boy. For instance, he told me, when the MCA asked him to decorate a patio umbrella in 1998 for the outside of the building he very daringly put a bright green anal vibrator on top of it. Someone stole the vibrator and he had to replace it--with a foot-long clear double dildo. When that disappeared too he got pissed and asked the MCA to destroy the whole umbrella. He added, with a bit of bravado, that he doesn't think he'll ever get representation in this town again. I was slightly impressed. So when he launched into another story, about how he took down those beloved I (blue dot) chicago T-shirts by making I (upside-down heart) (blue dot) 9 posters, I threw him a bone and called him an asshole. Sated, he finally left me alone.
This wasn't the first time the world had been treated to these glorious achievements of the four-color pen: half the art at Van Harrison was shown in December at Locust Projects in Miami while the other half was up at Milwaukee's General Store, a gallery, boutique, arts-and-crafts space, and party venue owned and operated by Tyson Reeder. The shows opened on the same night, and Hubbs and the Reeders wanted to do some kind of live feed between the two, so they passed around cell phones to strangers, who, says Scott, talked to other strangers, saying, "Yeah, I'm looking at four-color art. Cool."
Because of General Store, Milwaukee's not just getting art before we do--in some cases it never comes here at all. The night after "The Four Color Pen Show" opened, the Reeders had to hustle back to Milwaukee to finish setting up a sandbox and light-up sculpture installation by David Aron and Hanna Fushihara. Fushihara runs Little Cakes, a gallery that specializes in sweet morsels of neopsychedelic work by artists you maybe haven't heard of but will really soon, out of her East Village apartment. If Fushihara travels with art it's usually to Tokyo, where she curates shows for a gallery called HaNNa, but her first art-related trip to the heartland and all she hits is Milwaukee?
"I haven't heard of somewhere in Chicago that's a sort of artist-friendly space to have things in," she told me over the phone. "You would think that a big place like Chicago would have a space for that."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Beno.