2003 Essay | Artists on the Map

2003 Essay | Artists on the Map

Artists on the Map

By Gregory Knight


Alejandro Romero
Las Dos Fritos, 2001
acrylic on canvas

What does it mean for an artist to be “on the map”? Is this a status of having “arrived” at a certain level of achievement or recognition, or is it more about being a “player” in the greater art community worldwide, and less about having arrived? Artists chosen for Artists on the Map at SOFA CHICAGO each hold a key place in both this city as well as beyond it. Conceived to augment and coincide with Chicago Artists’ Month, celebrated annually in October, this project raises the critical issue of place in today’s global art world.

This selective exhibition presents fourteen prominent artists who hail from, once lived in, or have made lasting contributions to Chicago—a city having one of the most dynamic art scenes in the United States. There is both history and fashion intertwined here, and art produced in Chicago is arguably on an equal level with that being made in any of dozens of other art centers in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. Boasting great museums, universities and art schools, galleries, and community arts centers, Chicagoans only bemoan the lack of a concomitant quantity and quality of art criticism to better reflect this vibrant scene. In the increasingly globalized world that we now inhabit, being defined by a predominant stylistic school or a particular geographic locale is generally considered undesirable by artists themselves. Being pigeonholed as a Chicago artist is far less advantageous for many practitioners than being considered a Chicago-based artist—or, ideally, just an artist. Period. In this scenario, the map that we may speak of becomes more conceptual than geographic. As was so evident from labels at this year’s Venice Biennale, an increasingly high number of artists now claim at least two places of residence/work, be that Glasgow and Berlin, New York and Tokyo, or Los Angeles and Verona. The international dialogue that now fully connects the continents and the great cultural centers of the world has completely helped to redefine the visual arts as a global phenomenon.

Richard Rezac
Untitled (02-03), 2002
cast bronze, unique
18.25 x 14 x 1.5

Earlier in the last century, a Chicago—Paris or Chicago—Rome axis existed, but this primarily meant study or short-term residencies abroad, bringing culture back home in the end. It also extended to Mexico, California and the American Southwest, and Maine as alternative and less urban environments in which to work. Today, an artist based in Chicago—perhaps for teaching or personal choice—may not have gallery representation here at all, instead showing regularly in New York, Los Angeles and Europe while still enjoying success at home. In this regard, I could cite Dan Peterman and Inigo Manglano-Ovalle, among several other current examples, who enjoy international success from this home base.

Artists also choose to move around for numerous reasons. What still is commonplace is movement between Chicago and New York or L.A. Yet, this migration works both ways as Chicago has become home to such rising stars as Kerry James Marshall and Dawoud Bey. Indeed, Chicago does not let go easily of Leon Golub, an artist who left this city in the mid- 1950s, because of both historical and stylistic affinities in his work. While Martin Puryear worked and taught at The University of Illinois at Chicago for twelve years, he is still associated with this city long after leaving—through civic pride in his lasting contributions to public art, as well as through his gallery here and the many collections that contain his works. Both older and now quite young artists grapple with their commitment to work in Chicago, while still wishing to place themselves in the larger visual arts context around the world.


Ed Paschke
Gordette, 2002
oil on linen
24 x 36

In the case of both older and younger generations, the majority of these artists in Artists on the Map have come here from some other place—even from abroad—to ultimately stay and make Chicago central to their practice. Ruth Duckworth and Vera Klement both are immigrants from Europe, each arriving in Chicago after first establishing careers there or elsewhere. Others, such as Ed Paschke, Richard Hunt and James Valerio hail from Chicago and yet have reputations that extend far and wide. The Zhou Brothers, Michiko Itatani and Alejandro Romero, are all examples of success stories from other countries of birth, now based in Chicago, yet equally successful abroad and in their native counties.

This year marks thirty years for many arts organizations and support mechanisms that were born in that fertile era of the early 1970s. 1973 has become one of several benchmarks of expansion and maturation of Chicago’s art community and one, I believe, that deserves further research and discussion as a pivotal time to all that followed. So much has developed since then in the way of expanded gallery districts, multiple art schools, and world-class institutions, that we can easily lose sight of the deep roots of our arts community, and curtail our efforts to put all things today in their proper historical perspective. The final show this past August of Artemisia Gallery—just short of its thirtieth anniversary—struck a sad note in the community. It also marked the turning of another page in Chicago’s evolution, now that all of the original “alternative” spaces, but for the non-profit collective Artists, Residents of Chicago (ARC), have joined the ranks of history. Several of the artists included in this exhibition, in fact, were instrumental in the early stages of Chicago’s alternative culture, c.1973, yet they continue to contribute mightily today.

Of these fourteen well-established artists, only five are Chicago natives. Nine others, like myself, are part of a large number of transplanted players from other regions of the U.S. or from abroad. The vast majority, however, are associated through their own education or current teaching with The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which has been pivotal to the arts in this city for well over a century. The University of Illinois at Chicago is also strongly represented by faculty now associated with a smaller, yet top-notch art school. Likewise, both the University of Chicago and Northwestern University are well represented by current or retired faculty of great distinction.

Robert Lostutter
Paphiopedilum, 2002
29 x 36

What really is impossible to do here, happily, is to divide this rich selection of Chicago based painters and sculptors into figurative and abstract camps, as several of these artists have moved back and forth between these seemingly opposed styles over the course of their long careers. That said, there is a strong polarity between the absolute realism of James Valerio, and the abstraction that dominates Ruth Duckworth’s overall career, with innumerable variations represented between the two, especially artists focusing our attention on the human figure in vivid forms of wacky variation and identity. Photography and its great historical tradition at the Illinois Institute of Technology stands aside from this group and could easily be a topic for another exhibition or essay in its own right.

Although pride of place backs up such efforts as this exhibition and artists’ promotion by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, SOFA, and the Union League Club of Chicago, there are many justifiable reasons to celebrate the strength of the visual arts in our city. This is done constantly through mid-career and retrospective exhibitions of Chicago-based artists in our local institutions, and by the inclusion of our more celebrated artists at international biennials—such is the case with Helen Mirra and Kerry James Marshall, whose works are presently on view in Venice. Indeed, in 1973, Don Baum—artist, curator and educator for over five decades—laid solid groundwork for Chicago’s current generation of curators working internationally by his introduction of the Chicago Imagists at the XII Bienal de Sao Paulo, in Brazil. Now, somewhat routinely, Chicago-based visual artists pop up in many important foreign galleries and biennials, not to mention their regular exposure in the U.S. from coast to coast. So, Artists on the Map does seem to be an apt theme and cause for celebration at this year’s 10th anniversary of SOFA CHICAGO, which brings the world of art and collectors together in Chicago.

The co-curators, Thea Burger and Kim Coventry, and I wish to thank these artists for their enthusiastic participation: Phyllis Bramson, Ruth Duckworth, Julia Fish, Richard Hunt, Michiko Itatani, Vera Klement, Ellen Lanyon, Robert Lostutter, Martyl, Ed Paschke, Richard Rezac, Alejandro Romero, James Valerio, and Ray Yoshida.

Gregory G. Knight is the Director of Visual Arts Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs

Published in conjunction with the special exhibit Artists on the Map presented at SOFA CHICAGO 2003 by the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs.

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