This exhibition explores notions of labor and effort through the work of nine Chicago-based artists. Chicago can hardly be thought of as a “soft” city when compared to its coastal counterparts; as the poet Carl Sandburg wrote, it is a “city of big shoulders”, a distinctly blue-collar metropolis, a heartland of the working man and woman. If for this reason alone, Chicago is a fitting setting to explore art’s relationship to work, labor and effort.
The Works presents a variety of Chicagoan approaches to this discourse: Marissa Lee Benedict & David Rueter, Theaster Gates, and Dan Peterman contextualize their multidisciplinary practices within a wider scope of research and activism, reflecting first and foremost on artistic production as a vehicle for ecological and social reflection. Other artists in the exhibition explore art-making and its inextricably ties to daily life, as in Michelle Grabner’s paper weavings, or Tony Lewis’ site-specific wall text – made specifically for this exhibition – based on selections from the classic Life’s Little Instruction Book, a compendium of advice. Lewis will also present a large-format, site-specific drawing made at a nearby basketball court for this exhibition, further tying his work to the bond between art and everyday life.
Matthew Metzger and Geof Oppenheimer investigate the connection between art-making, the body, and labor: Metzger’s new series of photorealist paintings of antique machete blades, examines the shoulder – not the head – as a corporeal epicenter of labor and abstraction. Oppenheimer, meanwhile, explores binaries of white collar and blue collar work in his “Embarrassing Sculpture”. Here, Brooks Brothers slacks, an emblem of the American white collar worker, pool around the ankles of a slick marble and steel sculpture, cumbersomely (and phallically) weighed down by a heavy leaf blower.
Finally, Zachary Cahill and William Pope L.’s multifarious, often confounding text-based paintings probe the intersections of language, consumerism, and social discourse. For this exhibition, Cahill will produce a new painting installed on the ceiling of the space, while Pope L. will exhibit a video, and a painting from a recent series that confronts meaning and language utilizing uncanny, socially-charged phrases (Gold people hang their children from their servants).
Ultimately, what binds the artists included in The Works are their interests in hybridized notions of artistic agency. By integrating teaching, community leadership, multidisciplinary research, and writing into their practices, they challenge the boundaries of art production as a purely studio-based pursuit. In this way, a uniquely Chicagoan approach emerges; one that is hands-on, sincere, and deeply invested in the intersections of art and life.
Furthermore, as a city with a profound industrial history whose identity continues to evolve through its shifting relationship to labor and capital, Brussels provides an apt European context for this unique portrait of Chicago and its artists.
The Works is curated by Dieter Roelstraete and Abigail Winograd in collaboration with Eléonore de Sadeleer. Dieter Roelstraete, formerly Manilow Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, is currently a member of the curatorial team of Documenta 14. Abigail Winograd is a writer, curator, and Ph.D. candidate based in Chicago. Eléonore de Sadeleer is the director of the CAB.
Matthew Metzger received his MFA from the University of Chicago in 2009 and attended the Skowhegan school of sculpture and painting. His meticulously rendered photorealist paintings of antique machete blades, painted on square canvases using the selfsame blade to determine the horizon line and the size of the panel, reflect the artist’s interest in the relationship between abstraction and labor. This quandary stems from Metzger’s consideration of painting’s physical (i.e. bodily) source, a question promp- ted by the artist’s reading of a statement made by the art historian Michael Fried in the 1965 essay Three American Painters, in which Fried identified the wrist as the corporeal locus of painting. This led Metzger to consider the location of Abstract Expressionism (“ac- tion painting”) in the shoulder, aligning this type of gestural painting with a specific kind of labor as well with protest, conjuring the image of an indignantly raised fist.
In Metzger’s thinking, the Machete is the only blade that signifies a labor that is inherently connected to the shoulder. Paradoxically, Metzger’s painting practice, defined by rigor, dis- cipline and monastic attention to detail, is primarily a “wrist” type of work—and labor. A cerebral approach to be sure, and Metzger has consequently remarked that “perhaps now the location of both labor and expression is to be found in the head instead.”
Geof Oppenheimer is an artist and teacher in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Chicago. He confronts political, social, and artistic binaries as fascism versus democracy, detention versus agency, and finish fetish versus analogue artisanship through a variety of artistic strategies including film, photography and a sculptural practice concerned with seemingly traditional questions of weight, volume, figuration and autonomy. His work is an ambiguous ode to labor and the laborer. Oppenheimer’s portrait of the unknown worker combines the hallmarks of blue-collar labor (heavy machinery) with the tools of the artist (marble) and the sartorial trappings of the finance industry (the suit hugging the statue’s ankles), with the artist presumably synthesizing both worlds. Oppenheimer imagines a downtrodden laborer, defeated and exposed; equal measure Marxist indictment and Freudian analysis, Oppenheimer’s statue acknowledges the increasingly precarious position of male-identified labor in the twenty-first century.
Dan Peterman is a longtime resident of Chicago and influential teacher in the city’s thriving art community. Dan Peterman is a pioneer of socially oriented art practice informed by environmental concerns. He began working with plastic in the 1980s. Peterman discovered a recycling company based on the South Side of Chicago engaged in early experiments with reusing plastics. He ended up acquiring the company’s reject production — tons of recycled plastic deformed by shrinkage. Through a laborious process of manual treatment, Peterman transformed that refuse into thousands of individual bones. These objects become the building blocks of site-specific installations.
More recently, Peterman has started to use the same material to create «paintings». Using industrial byproducts to paint pictures evocative of a seemingly people-less natural world, he draws attention to the less than harmonious coexistence of industry and nature, work and leisure.
William Pope L. has been making multi-disciplinary works since the 1970s, and has exhibited internationally, including New York, London, Los Angeles, Vienna, Montreal, Berlin, Zurich, Brussels and Tokyo. This is the first time Pope.L has decided to show Syllogism as a stand-alone video work. As a logical figure, a syllogism is a form of deductive reasoning where a conclusion is drawn from two given statements, one major and one minor, both assumed to be true. The artist has spoken about the work in terms of an irresolvable friction between the sense of language and the non-sense of the body. A comparable tension between performance and work, moreover, once again highlighting the chasm that gapes between the body and language, also characterizes the artist’s verbose painterly practice.
Tony Lewis made a recent series of highly physical, quasi-performative drawings. — a type of three-dimensional picture-making that engages the whole working body—departs from an artist statement, based on found quotations, that confronts and describes the past, present, and future of race relations in the United States (the mantra starts with a frequently half-legible “people of color”). Working in the tradition of other visual artists who analyze language and its consequences, or utilize words to gain a sculptural effect—think of Lawrence Weiner and Robert Barry, Jenny Holzer and Glenn Ligon, Barbara Kruger and William Pope.L—Lewis’s writings acquires a decidedly materialist cast in the laborious process of the artist’s everyday battle with graphite and paper (a thick layer of lead dust covers every square inch of Lewis’ studio floor).
Michelle Grabner is an artist, curator, writer and professor in painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. Grabner began making paper weavings in the 1990s when one day her son brought a similar specimen of his own making home from school. The hand-made, craft-based and minimal series directly engage the Bauhaus theories of weaving as well as the educational theories of Friedrich Fröbel, the German educational theorist who pioneered the concept of the Kindergarten.
Grabner’s decision to embrace pedagogical practices and methods traditionally associated with women’s work (a recent survey show was programmatically titled “I Work From Home” critically engages contemporary notions of art’s various others (craft, manufacture, skill and questions the romantic prenotion of the artist’s life.
Theaster Gates was trained in both urban studies and ceramics. This Chicago-based artist has developed an expanded critical practice that includes urban development, object making, and performance. His work is heavily invested in the ongoing civil rights struggle in the United States. Gates’ unique brand of interdisciplinary social critique, articulated primarily in projects rooted in Chicago’s historically black South Side, examines the historical, economic, and political realities of African-American life, often pushing the boundaries of what might traditionally be considered art.
Zachary Cahill is an interdisciplinary artist who experiments with installations and paintings. Since 2011 he has organized several projects under the banner of the USSA 2012—the title is an amalgamation of USA and USSR—an imaginary state or community that Cahill uses as a vehicle to investigate the relationship of institutions to the social and emotional life of individuals and society as a whole.
The USSA project as a whole has long been engaged with notions of propaganda, and with this work the artist intentionally mimics the missionary zeal and pedagogical intent of art created for (and by) the Catholic Church. Borrowing heavily from the language of Christian iconography.
MARISSA LEE BENEDICT & DAVID RUETER
Marissa Lee Benedict is a sculptor, researcher, writer, explorer, teacher and avid amateur of many fields and disciplines.
David Allan Rueter is a visual artist, programmer, and educator. His creative practice makes use of a range of new technologies including custom software, custom electronics, computer-assisted manufacturing and a variety of traditional media, including sculpture, photography, film, and performance.
Marissa Lee Benedict and David Rueter employ an aesthetic reminiscent of avant-garde film and socially conscious video’s of the 1970s, the artists filmed themselves dressed as laborers, laying fiber optic cable across the United States, all the way from a beach in faraway San Diego to their hometown of Chicago. Benedict and Rueter’s stoic travelogue reveals the physical infrastructure of the digital networks that undergird the virtual realities of contemporary life.