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Not Just Pretty

Benjamin Chickadel's decorative art has ideas.

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Benjamin Chickadel

at Contemporary Art Workshop

Craft techniques have never been completely absent from fine art. But the influential Arts and Crafts movement, first prominent in the 1880s in England and the United States, may have been the last time anyone really bothered to come up with what could be called a "theory" of handicraft. British artisan William Morris held what appeared to be, given the unstoppable tide of technology, an increasingly nostalgic belief in the dignity of labor. Always conscious of the role of economic class, he had prophetic things to say about the rift between the "fine" and "decorative" arts. Addressing the Trades' Guild of Learning in London in 1877 he said: "The lesser ones [decorative arts] become trivial, mechanical, unintelligent, incapable of resisting the changes pressed upon them by fashion or dishonesty; while the greater [fine arts]...become nothing but dull adjuncts to unmeaning pomp, or ingenious toys for a few rich and idle men." A look at the vapidity of most high modernist abstraction on one hand and, on the other, its reflection in the utterly banal vanity crafts displayed at venues like SOFA Chicago proves his point. With low-cost consumer technology ever more available, we now have something of a renaissance in do-it-yourself art forms, from Web pages to zines to DVDs. But it's not easy to address issues of technique, economics, and history in drag-and-click media.

Benjamin Chickadel's solo exhibit at the Contemporary Art Workshop can be read as having a lot to say about these problems, or it can simply be admired with slack-jawed awe. The show consists of two series: three wall pieces and three small freestanding sculptures. The hanging works amount to large-scale line drawings with all the paper outside the lines cut away (by hand, of course), leaving an ethereal web draped between pushpins and echoed in undulating shadows on the wall. The title of Craftsman Home, a two-point perspective drawing of a house in cutout black lines four feet high and five across, refers to homes built from plans in the magazine The Craftsman, published by architect and American exponent of the Arts and Crafts movement Gustav Stickley in the early 1900s. Craftsman homes, commissioned by middle-class families of refined taste and executed by skilled tradesmen, emphasized such features as exposed structural elements--so there's a subtle irony in Chickadel's classically straight contours drooping impotently. The irony is rather less subtle in H2, a vivisected depiction of the butt-ugly suburban assault vehicle of the same name, rendered in a cutout yellow line drawing and again in elegant perspective. The dimensions of Chickadel's Hummer are identical to those of Craftsman Home.

Completing the trinity of hollowed-out, drooping geometric wall structures is Satellite, a golden drawing of the heavenly telecommunications icon that dissolves into the squares and triangles of its delicate panels and appendages. Chickadel is as deft conceptually as he is technically. An expensive suburban home and an expensive suburban vehicle might go together somewhat too neatly, but the addition of the satellite creates a question. One might think that the Hummer and the satellite are related in their appropriation of military hardware for commerce, or that the house and satellite are the terminal ends of an invisible infotainment beam. However you slice it, Chickadel's scheme juxtaposes mirages that suggest numerous connections between taste and technology.

The sculptures--Gazebo Ball 1, Gazebo Ball 2, and Gazebo Ball 3--are even funnier and perhaps even more breathtaking. Designed in Illustrator but constructed by hand, each is essentially a symmetrical quartzlike shape created from cut and folded white card stock. Joined in the middle, the radiating points of all the crystals are identical six-sided miniature models of gazebos, each about four inches from base to apex. In the core of each "ball," hexagons (the footprint of the gazebos) alternate with another geometric shape: a triangle in Gazebo Ball 1, which sprouts 4 gazebos; squares in Gazebo Ball 2, which emits 8 gazebos; and pentagons in Gazebo Ball 3, which boasts 20 gazebos. Chickadel is systematically imposing the frivolity of paper craft and dollhouse-scale gingerbread garden structures on Buckminster Fuller's geodesic sphere, the symbol of mid-century utopian rationalism. In yet another superimposition, Chickadel's clean, cold paper structures sit on stately suede-topped oak pedestals reminiscent of the Craftsman style. The pedestals, also confidently executed by Chickadel, cleverly tweak both the distinctions between high and decorative art and the minimalist "breakthrough" of making the pedestal into the sculpture. Again, the irony is neither obscure nor obvious. The objects' combination of simplicity and precision also characterizes the points they make.

There's nothing terribly unique about Chickadel's "decorative art." His ability to blend familiar images and ideas is seemingly another facet of his winning, nonfussy approach to delicate baroque forms. Compared to Chickadel's solid, elegant postmodernism, art by comparable crowd-pleasing obsessive-compulsive types like Tom Friedman (carved a portrait on an aspirin, attached a perfect spiral of pubes to a bar of soap) and Wim Delvoye (made decorative tiles from photos of feces, put rusty pipes on neoclassical pilasters) seem glib, overeager, and ahistorical. Chickadel's light touch also keeps his art free from the snares of pedantry and pretension and the temptation to gratuitously bewilder and provoke, a la cut-paper artist Kara Walker.

When I first saw Chickadel's work in 2002 at a Bodybuilder & Sportsman group show, he was swimming along with the current of wilderness art, making delicate cutout paper bears and pine trees. While that work shared its theme with a lot of other art, it also exemplified the innocence, strangeness, and attention to surface that distinguish the best work of the neopastoral artists, most of whom make drawings rather than sculpture. Now that Chickadel is addressing the famously deconstructed culture side of the nature/culture dichotomy, he's found an intelligent way to put his own artistic process in its economic and historical contexts. At the same time he's made work that, like all great decorative art, nearly any viewer can reflect on and admire.

When: Through 2/22: Tue-Fri 12:30-5:30 PM

Where: Contemporary Art Workshop, 542 W. Grant

Info: 773-472-4004

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