Three Shows in Chicago

Reviewed by Carrie Cooper

Issue 3

Sometimes finding the great photo show is a bit of a treasure hunt. One clue leads to another, leads to another and before you know it, BAM! You’re standing in the midst of something unique, beautiful and powerful, possessing the ability to transcend language in a way that keeps you thinking about it and picturing it in your mind long after you’ve left the room.

With that in mind, I came across an ad in the Special Events section of the Chicago Reader -“Unscene Chicago Work by emerging local photographers. Thu 8/28, 6-8pm, at W Hotel Chicago City Center, 172 W Adams, 312-332-1200,” Being somewhat new to the city I was unfamiliar with the location but lured by the promise of emerging photographers, I searched for the address online and set out on my bicycle to take in the show.

Tucked among the high rise buildings of downtown Chicago, just a stone’s throw from Union Station, I located my destination, deducing its entrance by the large red W perched over the awning. Gentlemen in khaki shorts and pale blue polos held wide the doors as I walked curiously into the dimly lit foyer. I was greeted by the sounds of electronic house music and cocktail waitresses serving neon colored martini drinks to smartly dressed patrons lounging on white leather sofas under dim, electric blue lights. I stood absorbing the scene for what seemed like years but was probably seconds as I became increasingly aware of my helmet head, the hair neatly plastered to my forehead with sweat. Not to be dissuaded, I approached a concierge (who by the look was definitely wondering to what purpose I’d wandered in) and inquired sweetly, ‘Excuse me, I read there was a photo show here.”  

Good things often come in unusual packages and of the five photographers exhibited as part of the Unscene Chicago show, works by artist Krystal Meisel caught my eye. Avoiding the temptation to represent the theme of “unscene” in a traditional, though certainly relevant, fashion (the lake, the fountains, Navy Pier), Meisel’s beautifully executed photographs of unlikely spaces seemed to draw the viewer’s attention away from the obvious and encourage contemplation of what is beneath the surface. On reading her bio, I discovered Ms. Meisel currently teaches photography at Hyde Park Art Center and has work on exhibit there as part of a group show.

In fact, two group photo exhibitions are currently on display at HPAC and are more than worth the visit to the city’s south side neighborhood. Assembled by Karen Irvine, curator of the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago, Glow features photographs by artists presently on faculty at HPAC. In this exhibition, each photographer draws on the basic photographic principles of light to express its effects, both literally and figuratively, on the viewer.

Meisel’s Shadow Studies, for example use light, shadow and fabric to abstract the nude female figure, reducing it to black and white compositions of shape and line. The model’s contortions are frozen in an elaborate dance meant to convey the power contained within the body. In some cases only the most subtle hints of the figure remain, such as a toe or a wisp of hair, as if to indicate strength beyond the body itself.  

In contrast, photographs by Adam Ekberg strike a more literary tone. A ring of condensation left by a glass on a bedside table, a circle of smoke hovering over an abandoned cup of coffee, a red balloon floating mid-air in an empty room; like the last few pages of a really great novel, Ekberg captures moments that seem suspended after the climax but before the end.  Or the inhale seemingly in anticipation of a word.

As one thing leads to another, leads to another, an exhibition of a completely different nature is on display in the Art Center’s main gallery. Presented in cooperation with GASP/Gallery Artist Studio Projects, Are We There Yet? examines one’s sense of place within the contexts of geographical, political, and psychological landscapes.

Having been born in Vietnam and moved to the United States at the age of three, the photographs of Howard Henry Chen express a dual sense of home and an effort to connect with a multi-cultural identity.  Chen does not emphasize the images of war and post war so prevalent in depictions of Vietnam. Instead his stunning, highly saturated color photographs show a place of rich history and global culture. One such image depicts a couple reading at a picnic table surrounded by leftovers from the war. We know from the caption they are sitting in what is now called The War Remnants Museum.

Oscar Palacio’s photographs take a look at the contrast between the elaborate history surrounding national monuments and the often mundane experience of actually visiting them. These large scale images of Plymouth Rock behind its protective cage and the Hoover Dam from a parking structure are almost laughable in comparison to the magnitude of the events they are meant to represent.

The deconstructed photographs of Curtis Mann have to be described as electric. By using a chemical process to remove much of the visual information from appropriated photographs, Mann all but erases any sense of place, leaving behind traces of the original images to create landscapes of a poignant and contemplative nature.

Dawoud Bey, curator of Are We There Yet? talks about the wanderlust seemingly inherent in the make-up of the average American. The ability to pick up and go has always been seen as something of a birthright, one not necessarily shared by peoples in other parts of the world. Hard economic times, rising gas prices and heightened security measures inhibiting our ability to move at will begin to level the experiences of limited mobility in the quest for place.  The works in this exhibition call into question the notion of where “there” actually is, whether it be a physical location, a cultural understanding or a state of mind.
Or the W Hotel Chicago City Center…
Or the Hyde Park Art Center…

Glow is on view at HPAC in galleries two and five through October 12, 2008.  Are We There Yet? will be up in the main gallery until September 28, 2008.