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Lots of Meaning

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METAMORPHOSIS

Mauri Formigoni
at Milwaukee and Erie, through October 1

As I approached the intersection of Milwaukee and Erie, wondering on which corner the vacant lot with Mauri Formigoni's installation would be, I heard a deafening roar. Looking up, I saw four jets streak by, flying in tight formation--wanderers from the Air & Water Show. Soon after, I came upon Formigoni's Metamorphosis in a triangular grassy lot.

Eleven burned tree trunks, blackened near the top, poke up from a wide circle of black lava stones, which crunch underfoot. The irregularly spaced trunks rise at various angles--none is exactly erect--but most are bent inward, toward the circle's center, and two are so angled that they touch. Especially in contrast to the ordinary location, these trunks growing from a ring of black stone are powerful, almost surreal. The installation is as weirdly displaced as the jets flying over the Loop skyline--but while the jets describe precise geometric patterns, Metamorphosis has the organic irregularities of nature.

Without knowing anything about the artist's intent, the viewer might well guess that this is a memorial. The tapered trees, which Formigoni installed to point toward the sky and toward each other, fall short of both. The circle recalls primitive religious sites--burial structures, druid circles, as well as Greek temples, outdoor sacred spaces enclosed by columns. Everything about it directs the eye toward the center, which is empty except for the grass and weeds of the vacant lot.

Formigoni, 52, head of the art department at Sangamon State University in Springfield, lives in Springfield and Chicago. She began as a painter but found that her paintings were getting bigger and bigger and that she was adding sound, light, and smell, so she switched to installations. Visiting the newly free Yugoslavia before it fell apart, she was excited by the possibility of a diverse but unified state and produced installations in Belgrade and Skopje. The seeds, eggs, coal, dormant birch trees, and live birds of one of them, she says, symbolized hope. Then, a few months ago, after years of mass murder and other horrors had destroyed large parts of what was Yugoslavia, Formigoni created a large installation for Artemisia Gallery, Metamorphosis for Bosnia. She covered the floor of a darkened room with lava stones; there were candles, small purple flames, a dark pool of water. The current Metamorphosis uses some of the same materials.

Though Metamorphosis for Bosnia was powerful and affecting, it had a certain precious, self-enclosed quality. The current Metamorphosis gains immeasurably from its relationship to the area around it. Seen from one angle, the burnt trunks stand out against the windowless brick wall of a building that abuts the site. From another, the buildings and traffic of Milwaukee Avenue form the background. Seated on a piece of concrete near the brick building, one can see beyond the trees some nearby light and telephone poles, and beyond them Loop skyscrapers: the contrast between the tree's organic curves and the city's rectilinear forms is like the installation's contrast with the Air & Water Show jets. The burnt trees with their tapered tops not only have the modesty, even pathos, befitting a memorial, they're also the opposite of the aggressive, dominating planes and soaring office towers.

My favorite position for viewing Metamorphosis was sitting on the Milwaukee Avenue sidewalk. If the soaring verticals of Gothic cathedrals reflected their makers' sureness of the truths of their religion and of salvation in heaven, the irregular angles of Formigoni's trees suggest randomness, doubt, the self-effacement of an artist who knows her forms can never heal the loss she memorializes. Seen against the empty sky, they frame but are far from filling its emptiness.

ARMPIT

in the 1400 block of South Wabash

Formigoni was careful to obtain the landowner's permission for her installation. Not so the three members of Armpit, who have created an untitled group of eight totemlike towers in a vacant lot in the 1400 block of South Wabash. They don't even know who owns the land. Chester Alamo, 26, Jesse Bercowetz, 25, and Nick Nuccio, 30, have made a kind of guerrilla installation; central to their intention is the fact that anyone who happens by can add to, subtract from, or otherwise alter it. Bercowetz told me with some amazement that one of the heaviest pieces was removed for two weeks, then returned with no damage except what might have been caused by loading it into a truck.

In this fundamentally collective work, in which the artists' contributions and those of others are not easily identifiable, sometimes even the artists don't know who did what. The smallest of the towers, consisting of cinder blocks piled on top of each other and capped by an irregular chunk of concrete, was an anonymous contribution according to Bercowetz--but then Alamo told Bercowetz that he himself had made it. Of course, not all the anonymous contributions are positive. When I first saw the work, one of the towers had been toppled; later three had been, but the artists were planning to right them.

The towers themselves have none of the formal elegance or modernist austerity of Formigoni's Metamorphosis. These "urban totems," as the artists call them, are made of scrap wood and scrap metal, old tires, plastic sheets, all manner of tubes, and assorted other materials. Near-chaotic accretions, they look seriously messy. One of the most rewarding is a cylinder of brightly colored wood and metal; the artists added some sloppy streaks of yellow, blue, and red paint in their studio before bringing the piece to the site. A plastic water bottle is attached, neck first, to one of the tubes; a small plastic garbage bucket sits on top, an appropriate crown for this sculpture made of junk. Bercowetz told me that they brought the cylinder, which weighs about 140 pounds, to the site and installed it on the ground, but an anonymous visitor managed to get it on top of a giant metal spool lying there discarded.

On the front of the spool Nuccio attached a molded plastic panel bearing a variety of different designs, perhaps part of a low-budget home interior. Its ordinary symmetries look almost elegant beside the chaotic tower, but that "elegance" is also predictable and boring. The panel's forms have surely been used before, and their regularity is the aesthetic opposite of unbalanced elements in the tower like the stuck-on water bottle and the irregular streaks of paint--each element seems to be pointing in a different direction, disrupting whatever expectations the other elements may have set up. Given that aesthetic, it's not surprising that Armpit encourage anonymous additions and alterations they can't control.

Armpit also have a social purpose in mind. "We're basically offering a free service to the people in the area," Alamo says. He sees their work as an improvement on what was "a pretty awful looking place originally"; the way it's being constantly transformed is meant to "take the tedium out" of residents' drives past. On one of my visits, a couple walked by and the man asked me, "What is this? Art?" I tried to describe the group's goals, which the woman translated as "doing something constructive." They lingered for several minutes, viewing the towers more carefully than the average museumgoer does official masterpieces.

Alamo, who refers to such installations as "urban drop-offs," told me that the first one he and Bercowetz did was in his native Indianapolis, in 1992. As they were installing it the police surrounded them, thinking they were vandals; but in the process of expelling them from the site, the police failed to notice the art they'd already left. "We're not trying to be vandals," Alamo remarks. "We're trying to take areas that have been neglected and turn them into something other than the pile of shit that was there before." In fact, according to Alamo, about half the materials in the present installation were found discarded on the site.

If I'd come across Formigoni's and Armpit's pieces in indoor exhibition spaces, I don't think I'd have liked them nearly as much. They don't have the precision or inner complexity of great formalist works--but then works that make their own worlds are often sealed off from our own. Formigoni's sticks are moving because she draws the city and sky into her meditation on loss: her work is an event in the world, its elements the stuff of the viewer's daily life. The sky that makes us sad when framed by her trees is the same sky we see a few blocks distant, walking away.

Armpit's installation gains much from its relationship to the site, and from the social goals that made the group choose it. Apparently this lot was once a parking lot--there are painted yellow lines on the cracked concrete, with every manner of grass and weed growing up through it, a natural messiness that's a neat analogue to many of the totems' irregularities. Across the street are mounds of dirt in another vacant lot. Behind it is a tall transmission tower, its perfect geometry a reminder of the intentional imperfections of Armpit's installation. To the north is a self-storage building; flags bearing the company logo hang from the fence protecting that site. One flag flies from a pole mounted at the fence corner, but this flagpole is a bit bent in the middle and stands at about a 45-degree angle. Presumably the work of a vandal, it nonetheless bears a formal resemblance to Armpit's "constructive" contribution.

But the most amazing aspect of the site is a sign to the left of the towers of about their height, erected after they were installed. Bercowetz, who passed by while the sign was going up, was pleased when the foreman told him that they'd chosen to erect it to the side of the towers to avoid blocking the view of them from the street. The sign reads in part: "The Townhomes on Wabash at 14th Place / 32 Luxury Townhomes / 2,535 to 5,227 Sq. Ft. / Starting at $250,000 / 2, 4 & 5 Bedrooms / 3 to 7 Baths / 2-Car Attached Garage / 2-Story Living Room With Fireplace / Skylight Over Master Whirlpool Bath." I noticed the sign only after looking at Armpit's work, and suddenly felt that I understood its ethos, which this sign seemed the antithesis of.

I'm not saying that the artists of Armpit--or even some free-lance art critics--might not care to live in a 5,227-square-foot town home. But the values implied in the sign were those of order, isolation from others, and possessiveness: the town-home owner looking through the skylight above his whirlpool bath may not be encouraged by that neatly framed patch of blue to see the larger, sadder sky that surrounds Formigoni's trees. Perhaps he'll be even less likely to appreciate the unpredictable changes in Armpit's totems. These twisting, turning, ever-changing forms deny not only the lives of quiet possessiveness suggested by the town-home ad but also the relatively fixed worldview of many a great artist. Here the viewer is constantly required to make sense of new shapes, new materials, new directions. With their loose forms, halfway between sculpture and junk, these totems can only encourage more creative viewings of actual junk, viewings that are certainly likely to occur in the vicinity of 1400 S. Wabash.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mickey Costello.

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