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On the south side, art tackles a problem

Not far from Navy Pier, another expo beckons (and this one's free).

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Art collectors in town for Expo Chicago this weekend have an opportunity to see something they won't find anywhere else on the international art-fair circuit. The South Side Community Art Center—the only surviving center of more than a hundred launched by the Works Progress Administration—has mounted a uniquely Chicago show. "Maleness to Manhood: Reclamation of the Young Black Man" is an artistic response to the street violence that's been the city's most recent claim to fame.

Displayed in SSCAC's landmark home, an 1893 brownstone with a Bauhaus interior, it features the work of 44 black male artists, most of them local, all with ties to Chicago. Since each artist contributed a single work, it's a richly varied tapestry, packed with pieces that have the muscle of a mission beyond their own making. And although most of the artwork is for sale, it's not about the selling.

SSCAC executive director Heather Robinson says the center had been planning a retrospective for six black male artists for more than a year. "But as the summer approached and the crisis in the neighborhoods got to be overwhelming, the call changed. We said, 'We would like to curate a show where you all are responding to the crisis of the young black man.' And that's when we got this tremendous response. Everyone said, 'Yes! How can we be involved?'"

It's an unusual mix, with the work of recognized artists like Dawoud Bey and Hebru Brantley hung next to relative unknowns, and mature artists like Sherman Beck (who'll have a solo show at SSCAC in November) rubbing elbows with emerging artists like Stephen Flemister. The Beck piece in this show, Contemplation, is an amalgam of the south-side front-stoop neighborhoods of the artist's youth that conjures up the blues and the dreams that were in the air then. Flemister's piece is a larger-than-life bust, an "everyman" that looks like it was carved from a dense block of wood—until you walk around to the back, where the skull's gaping and you can see that it's folded cardboard.

The range of styles includes everything from the realism of Gerald Griffin's large oil Facing the Rising Sun, which invokes Martin Luther King Jr.'s march from Selma to Montgomery, to the conceptualism of Faheem Majeed's Free Jesse Jr., which consists of a sign on a stick leaning against a wall, upside down.

Cocurator Raymond Thomas contributed a collage of his own to the show. Just Us, he says, is "about the generational atrocities and the realities of black manhood, from Trayvon Martin to Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Emmett Till. How it's consumed us, and how we have to fight that on a daily basis. When you look at the justice system, the courtrooms, and the cemeteries, they're filled with just us, meaning young black men. When you think about the president going to bomb Syria—this has been a war all summer. We should think about using our resources here at home to stop these atrocities."

The most iconic work in the show may be the one self-taught artist Mark Richardson created for it, a piece that he says is very different from his more typically decorative work. His acrylic Male to Manhood: Code of Silence is a response to the violence all over the city, but predominantly, he says, on the south side, where he grew up at a time when there was still an "Officer Friendly" and the code of silence among both public and police "wasn't pervasive as it is now." There's a kid in a hoodie at the center of his vibrant, explosive canvas, flanked by crime-ridden street life on one side and a forbiddingly inaccessible ideal of education as a way out on the other. This kid is desperate.

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