On Exhibit: architecture by amateurs | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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On Exhibit: architecture by amateurs



You have no doubt heard of Sunday painters, but "Sunday architects"? The very concept conjures nightmarish visions of catastrophic building-code violations and a rush of complicated lawsuits. If the unschooled can dabble in architecture, then why not license amateur neurosurgeons and nuclear physicists too?

Despite its apparent inconsistency with general notions of good sense, "Sunday architect" is the term Randy Johnson uses in referring to the creators of the works in "The Birdhouse Show" opening this weekend at Navy Pier as part of the Chicago International New Art Forms Exposition.

Johnson, a sculptor and graphic designer, has gathered 80-odd examples of these avian edifices, all of which were made by artists who lack formal artistic training--variously called intuitive, outsider, or folk artists. Elitist factions of the academic and commercial art establishments may look derisively on unschooled artists, but this show actively glorifies the work of the amateur.

Recognition of the outsider spirit is particularly strong in Chicago, where the Imagist painters of the postwar era borrowed heavily from the works of untrained artists. This sensibility helps explain the elevation of such figures as Aldo Piacenza and John Urbaszewski from obscurity to something approaching local heroism.

Piacenza, who left Modena, Italy, after World War I and settled in Highwood, Illinois, was a madly prolific carpenter hobbyist whose work eventually found its way into several of Chicago's most complete collections of contemporary art. His intricate and elaborate birdhouses, inspired by the buildings of his native Tuscany, are probably the most visually striking objects in the current show. Urbaszewski, who has worked most of his life in his family's mortuary business, has been featured on Wild Chicago and recently had a one-person show mounted by the Chicago Athenaeum. He is as famous for his offbeat constructions as he is for his eccentric persona: he occasionally signs his work "John Urbaszewski, Architect," and operates a museum of his own work out of his home.

Piacenza and Urbaszewski may be well-known outsider artists, but much intuitive art is avidly collected despite the fact that those who produce it often remain anonymous. Anonymous works and works by identified artists are both part of "The Birdhouse Show." Because, as Randy Johnson points out, the lenders of more than half the birdhouses in this show do not know who created them, the collectors--and the motivation behind their urge to collect--often become as important as the works themselves.

Art collectors are, generally, a somewhat compulsive lot. If 1 of something is good, 2 of them are better, 10 are wonderful, and 40 approach nirvana. Collectors of folk art are even more compulsive. Visiting Carol Cross's Old Town cottage, for example, suggests a trip inside Santa's workshop in the high season. Toylike objects cover almost every surface, and dozens of birdhouses--some of which will appear in the show--hang from the ceiling beams. She says, "My house always seemed to look like a playhouse, so it made sense to collect little houses inside."

Cross began collecting birdhouses during a trip to the Kane County Flea Market about 15 years ago. She finds most of her pieces at such markets, and has an anecdote for each purchase. She is particularly fond of a story about finding a lithography stone for one page of a 1920s Joseph Dodson mail-order catalog for birdhouses. Later that same day she found one of the illustrated birdhouses at the same flea market.

Cross says her first birdhouse cost $48: "I thought it was a lot of money for a birdhouse, but I bought it anyway." Still, that price can seem cheap as interest in folk art has increased. Aldo Piacenza's works now sell at auction in the mid-four-figure range, often many times more than what his Imagist friends paid for them in the 1960s. Susann Craig, another collector who loaned several pieces to the show, says "It's a little scary to realize that you could buy a car with something you paid $100 for 15 years ago."

"Outsider art is highly touted at the moment," says Craig, a collector who is also on the board of In'tuit, the Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, which is sponsoring the show. "It's become so "in' that prices are skyrocketing, putting it out of reach for many of us who have been collecting it for years." This seems an all-too-familiar plaint of collectors everywhere. She says, "It's fun to have something to look for that nobody else knows about." She is hesitant to say what she collects now, but hints that if Metropolitan Home runs a feature on items made of Popsicle sticks, she'll give up.

Carl Hammer, the area's leading dealer in outsider and folk art, thinks the interest in birdhouses continues to grow, but that it couldn't have less to do with birds. What's significant, he says, "is the form of the expression itself. It's the image of home, a three-dimensional object that's a metaphor for a symbol of America." Hammer thinks collectors find the pieces as compelling for their personal nature as for their craftsmanship. Collectors, he says, admire how outsider artists use what are essentially yard ornaments "to push the concept of who they are to the outside world" in a simple, nonthreatening medium that anyone can assimilate.

The exhibition, for which Johnson, Bryan Schuetze, John Colson, and David J. Wildfield have created an accompanying large-scale bird sculpture, opens tonight at Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand, and runs through the weekend. Admission is $10, $7 for students and seniors. Next Friday the show will be installed at 1800 N. Clybourn for a monthlong run. Call 527-0243 for information.

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

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