South Side artist breaks down walls to build neighborhood sociability, inspire conversation
by Lauren Hansen
May 27, 2009
John Preus is turning the Hyde Park/Woodlawn neighborhood into his personal gallery space, one house at a time. His is a gallery of construction – exteriors, interiors and furniture –residing in a 18-block radius on Chicago’s South Side.
“I’m often working with friends, people I know, people in the neighborhood, almost exclusively,” he said. “I’ve found it an interesting way of building community.”
Under the label of artist, Preus constructs spaces of interaction. They range from a porch on South Harper Avenue and East 57th Street to a café two blocks south, from the refurbished interior of a one-time-candy-store-turned-residence at 69th Street and Dorchester Avenue to an outdoor space built into the front lawn of a home on East 54th Place.
“I’m attracted to places where the boundary between outside and inside is really thin,” he said, “and you can pass back and forth really easily without much trouble.”
Preus, 37, began his artistic career on a much smaller scale. He studied painting and drawing at Gustavus Adolphus College, a liberal arts school in Saint Peter, Minn. Later Preus attempted to develop his painting at the Art Institute of Chicago but quickly became disillusioned with the medium’s isolation.
“I think I have this sort of personality where I need to be out in the world,” he said. “Painting isn’t passive, but socially speaking, you kind of retire to your studio. The way people interact with the painting, it’s an internal thing.”
Preus left the Art Institute to pursue his graduate degree at the University of Chicago, where he took advantage of the school’s trademark emphasis on interdisciplinary study. His three years there culminated in a senior thesis in 1993 that combined sculpture, installation and video laced with humor.
“The final project was sort of an explosion,” he said.
Despite the creative depths he found in multi media art, Preus saw his future going in two paths: carpentry or teaching. But then an encounter with Austrian art collaborative changed his perspective.
The University of Chicago invited WochenKausur to come to Chicago for a residency in 2006. The group, which conducts artistic “social intervention,” was struck by the city’s abutting poverty and waste. They used discarded materials to build furniture for homeless shelters and soup kitchens. Though Preus worked with them only briefly, he saw a correlation between WochenKausur’s work and his own.
“That project gave me a way to imagine the work that I do – as a carpenter and as a woodworker – as art,” he said.
The WochenKausur project also birthed the Material Exchange, a collaborative art group Preus co-founded that re-imagines discarded or found materials. The group became a natural extension of Preus’s work that dealt with the idea of originality.
“We did projects where things would be put to different uses and forced into divergent dialogues,” he said. “It’s a way to talk about how identity is not this fixed, solid thing but stretches into the world.”
The installation, “The Way Things Drag Their Futures Around” (2008), illustrated the group’s mission perfectly, said Alta Buden, one Material Exchange’s four members. They laid a fallen tree on its side in a gallery. They built a tree house and placed the small structure on its side as well, but oriented to the floor.
“It became this whole thing,” she said, “about intentionality and purpose and what things are made to go where.”
Because Material Exchange uses raw materials, construction tends to be their medium. Preus guides the group and Buden, a painter, through the sometimes experimental process.
“He’s taught me a lot of how to handle materials and the possibility they have,” she said.
Through experimentation Preus creates his constructional art. Ten years ago Preus built his first porch (“It was a very bad porch”). The trial and error he’s encountered since are all a part of the process.
“I get kind of excited,” he said, “to try new stuff that I don’t know how to do.”
Preus tackles these unknown paths and materials instinctually, said Shannon Stratton, director and curator of threewalls, a non-profit, West Loop gallery. In 2008 Preus redesigned the gallery’s reading room and let the materials – old doors, wooden-slatted screens and scraps donated by Stratton’s landlord – guide him.
“It was like he worked with these materials in this really intuitive way,” she said.
The end result – an entrance made of bookshelves, seemingly floating trellises and a swing – is nothing like a traditional commercial gallery. Stepping through the double wooden doors, you enter a topsy-turvy Alice in Wonderland world. There are door frames on the ceilings and a staircase leading to nowhere.
“We wanted to create a space that when you came in, it challenged your perception of what a contemporary art gallery looks like,” Stratton said. “This was something different. People would ask questions, and it would be more of a social space.”
Such are the ingredients for a Preus original: sociability, community and the unexpected. Using his artist label to skirt restrictive building codes, Preus’s constructions break down walls, opens thing up a little, invites air in and circulates conversation.
“I’m using my designation as an artist as a way to cheat in all these other areas,” he said. “With the end just being a healthier better quality of life.”