The Spring Chicken Show
at Better Weimaraner, through April 25
at Chicago Project Room, through May 12
at InsideArt, through April 25
By Fred Camper
One-liner art is now common--and commonly decried. But there are some successful art exhibits that look like one-liners at first: based on an artist's authentic choice rather than a cynically calculated bid for attention, they work even better when there's real craft in the details, resonating subtly between eyeball and brain. Melynda Gierard's carefully folded and mounted Post-it notes--over 60,000 of them--work on a purely visual level. Charles Goldman's intricate installation of scrap wood effectively engages the mind and eye.
Both shows have an obsessive, slightly nutty quality, but "The Spring Chicken Show" is positively goofy. Pairing Tamara Staples's 14 color photographs of chickens with Melissa Schubeck's five sculptural installations of chickens might have been just an attention-getting device, but the show reveals integrity and makes a weird kind of sense. The two artists proposed a joint exhibition to Better Weimaraner after they'd met by chance at a neighborhood hangout, when Schubeck overheard Staples discussing her chicken photos.
Staples's photographs, while not quite as obsessive as thousands of little pieces of paper or wood, have a strangely focused intensity. Mostly she photographs her chickens--show birds bred for appearance--against monochromatic backdrops, her sharply detailed prints displaying every feather clearly. Her subjects take a variety of poses--some face us directly, while in Red Pyle Old English the bird's wings are blurred as if moving--but are most often shot in profile, which offers the fullest view of their markings. In fact her lighting and blank backgrounds intensify the markings, which vary from densely mottled black and white to bursts of reddish brown. Taken together, they provide a wonderful inventory of visual patterns, as if one could see in the feathers of these birds a good portion of the history of design.
John James Audubon placed a similar emphasis on feathered detail in his famous inventory paintings, collected in The Birds of America. But he drew from birds he'd killed, which was how he kept them still enough to record them. Each of Staples's chickens is very much alive, exhibiting slightly off-center details--the head of Silver Spangled Hamburg is turned slightly toward us--that make it clear we're witnessing mere moments in its existence. (In fact, some breeders complained that Staples didn't follow long-established standards for the way a show chicken should be posed, often unnaturally still.)
Born in Balti-more in 1964, Staples moved to Chicago ten years ago, shortly after earning a photography BFA. Supporting herself mostly by working for commercial photographers, she's taken several different directions in her own work. She began photographing chickens in 1995, sort of an assignment she gave herself: "I needed to practice going on locations, and I wanted to shoot medium- to large-format and use strobes with live subject matter." An uncle in Georgia told her where to look; Staples ended up seeking out the subculture of hobbyists from Wisconsin to Georgia who breed the birds. Professing no special interest in them, she notes that people seem to like her photos because they associate the humble chicken with simplicity.
Melissa Schubeck doesn't know why she started doing her porcelain chickens a few years ago. Born in Michigan in 1968, she grew up near Toledo on the Maumee River, which she thinks gave her "a greater appreciation for nature" but no special connection to chickens. A painter in college, she cites the absurdity of both Jeff Koons and Doris Day movies as some of her influences; she took up ceramics only after moving to Chicago in 1991.
Shubeck's five installations here pair ceramic chickens with terra-cotta sculptures of planets. In Sittin', a lone chicken sits atop a ringed pink planet; planets hover on strings above many white chickens in Lost in Space. The planets' colors are rich and luminously sensual; influenced by her training as a painter, Schubeck applied multiple layers of glaze. While the planets may suggest Saturn or Jupiter, most are hard to identify with our solar system.
Taken together, the installations suggest a wonderfully absurd meaning. In Global Warming, a single white chicken sits atop a mound of brightly colored planets; in Gone Fishing, the planets are mostly stacked within a high cylindrical cage, and the chicken sits atop it. In the show's cosmic joke, the humble chicken--emblem of simplicity--becomes master of the universe, the lord of creation, under whom the earth itself is merely an egg. Indeed, Schubeck reimagines the cock of the walk as female. Both she and Staples can be seen as harboring a sub-rosa feminism, though they never lose their humor, that ennobles the lowly chicken--perhaps the mother of us all, coming before even the planet-eggs.
Charles Goldman may not be a feminist, but his Scrap Wood, 1996-98 is not the macho, closed, aggressive, self-assured installation it might seem at first. While it takes up a large portion of one end of the Chicago Project Room, most of the gallery remains empty. And while the arrangement of his thousands of pieces of scrap wood to some extent makes the piece off-limits to the viewer, who can't walk through it, it also has an improvisational, playful ephemerality that suggests defiance of the rectilinear formalism it appears to echo.
The scraps were generated by Goldman's work on his own sculptures and by his work as a carpenter. A New Yorker who was born in San Francisco in 1966 and got his MFA in 1996 from the University of Illinois at Chicago, he drove the scraps to Chicago in 18 boxes, which are stacked on the floor as part of the exhibit. In his view, the actual work is the boxed wood, and an individual installation is just a particular manifestation. Each is geared to the space; Goldman told me that in this one he's responding to the rectilinearity of both the gallery and Chicago.
The scraps are mostly small, sometimes only an inch or less wide. There are a few cylinders, and even fewer wedges and curved pieces. Goldman has stacked them carefully, like a child building with blocks, using planks to make bridges, connecting all the pieces so that an elfin wood walker might reach every part without touching the floor. Since we can guess that nothing is glued or nailed, the installation has a provisional feel--it's so impermanent it can be altered by an unsteady foot. And this seems to have happened: a few wood scraps are no longer linked to the main work.
The right angles weren't made with a T square, and everything is a tad off. Goldman has also included a few diagonals. So what seems at first like interminable repetition--the obsessive stacking of little wooden blocks--soon reveals a remarkable variety. Each piece of wood seems to be a slightly different shape, and cross sections reveal everything from the wood's natural grain to the layering of composites. The installation is like a gigantic city in miniature, with varied architectural styles but everything connected: the angled planks even suggest upper-level walkways between buildings. The connections between the parts also caused me to think of the piece as a giant plant: the inexactly repeating forms recall the regenerating shapes of nature, and some of the scraps climb the walls, vinelike, up to two windowsills.
Scrap Wood, 1996-98 seems to invite our participation, the planks simulating imagined walks, even as its tight, focused construction, small size, and fragility deny the viewer entry. But though any human participant would quickly destroy the piece, its humble materials--like the "simple" chicken--do suggest a little narrative about how one can create a world, if only for a moment, out of scrap.
There's a history of art made out of junk and scraps going back at least as far as Picasso's collages. Yet the humble Post-it note is arguably even less a suitable medium for high art than Goldman's bits of wood. Born in Honolulu in 1966 and a resident of Ketchikan, Alaska, for most of the past 17 years, Melynda Gierard is a recent School of the Art Institute BFA graduate. She began working with Post-it notes for an assignment, "to use a found object to talk about memory." The memory she called upon was of the knitting and crocheting she and her mother did; the repeating patterns of her installation obviously relate to such repetitious work, and as Gierard pointed out, the Post-its' identical sizes resemble the uniformity of stitches. Her present installation, The Sampler, consists of 40 foot-wide panels eight feet high, mounted to blend seamlessly into three wide "walls"; a separate panel, framed and matted under glass, shows how an individual work might be hung. Interestingly, the work loses much under glass: the folded notes in the large installations, creating multiple tiny shadows, give the piece a delicacy and fragility that are lost when the notes are embalmed in a box.
The Post-its for this piece were all donated by 3M; Gierard says part of the reason she chose these manufactured items was because of the company's policy of allowing "employees to spend 15 percent of their time on their own ideas"--which is in fact how an employee first came up with Post-it notes. Since the piece took 320 hours to create, it would have taken a year to complete if done in the artist's "spare time." In fact, part of its power comes from the viewer's understanding of the artist's investment. Though such large, repetitive works can be seen as documenting a performance or a fully engaged life, this piece's elegance and musicality prevent it from remaining only that.
Gierard most commonly organizes the notes in columns; a single pattern of folding, which in turn creates a particular geometry, often extends the whole height of the panel and several inches in width. But sometimes Gierard alternates several folding patterns along a column; other times she ends one pattern a third of the way down and takes up another, or causes a pattern to suddenly curve off to the right or left. Some sections with multiple tiny folds produce relief effects heightened by shadows, and in others the Post-it notes are folded flat, creating patterns like tiled walls.
I liked the way repeated alternating folds became almost musical in Gierard's work. Unlike Goldman's wood scraps, Gierard's notes are all perfectly rectilinear; her piece feels more determined than his despite her unconventional materials. She's chosen to use the yellow Post-its, a color more industrial than painterly, that struck me at first as a combination of fluorescent lighting and sickly jaundice. What redeems this yellow--which may work fine as an eye grabber on a memo but has a very different effect in a gallery--is the tension between it and the varied effects created by Gierard's subtle folds. Like Staples and Schubeck with their chickens and Goldman with his scrap wood, she transforms her humble materials, reasserting the power of art to reshape the world's givens--even the industrial glow of Post-its--into something else.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Red Pyle Old English" by Tamara Staples; "The Sampler" (detail) by Melynda Gierard photo by James Prinz;.