Chicago’s Best Visual Art of 2014 (The Beast is mentioned)

 Chicago’s best visual art in 2014

Lori Waxman

CHICAGO TRIBUNE

DECEMBER 12, 2014, 1:09 PM

T his has been a year of bittersweet goodbyes, as some of the brightest curators in Chicago have left for Toronto, Philadelphia, Kassel, Germany, and beyond. 2015 will fill those Lucite platform shoes with who­

knows­who, but in the meantime, here’s what we do know:

What to do in the face of tragedy, struggle and injustice: Two hard­hitting shows had sage advice. “The Left Front: Radical Art in the ‘Red Decade,’ 1929­1940,” at the Block Museum, gave the historical background to Occupy Wall Street, exhibiting the relentless watercolors and lithographs that prefigured today’s smartphone cameras and social media. At the National Veterans Art Museum, “Surrealism & War” proposed tried­and­true avant­garde tactics as a means for dealing with the surreal nature of war.

Sometimes poignant, edgy art ends up in the most modest of places: The Experimental Sound Studio, located in a nondescript shop on an industrial strip in Edgewater, mostly serves as a recording, presenting and archival facility for music. It also has a gallery, which this year exhibited three intense, sincere and unexpected projects: Charlemagne Palestine’s stuffed animal and toy piano graveyard; the feminist collective Future Force Geo Speculators’ products for sci­fi domesticity; and Public Collectors’ memorial to Malachi Ritscher, a documentarian of the local music scene who self­immolated in protest of the Iraq War.

Sometimes poignant, edgy art ends up in the most overblown of places: Mana Contemporary, the monolithic venture capitalizing on Chicago’s arts community by housing it in a fancied­up warehouse in Pilsen, put on a profoundly sensitive display of Milton Resnick’s late works. Resnick outlived many of his more famous abstract expressionism contemporaries, and he kept on painting, until haunted figures and insistent X’s arose out of his guttural, mottled layers of oil.

Mediocre exhibitions can have brilliant moments: The Museum of Contemporary Photography’s group show about the material world’s enigmatic nature had two: First was the uncanny hanging of Joachim Koester’s placid pictures of Charles Manson’s desert hideout next to Matthew Brandt’s “Gray’s Lake, ID 7,” an immense photograph that looks like documentation of a bloodbath but is actually just a record of the chemical processes that occurred when it was soaked in the eponymous lake. Second was the exhibition title, “Phantoms in the Dirt,” a tangibly intangible phrase coined by organizer Karsten Lund, one of the city’s more poetically inclined young curators. (Runner­up on the title front was “Szalon,” a word invented by curator Monika Szewczyk to crown her ebullient ensemble of a show at the Logan Center.)

2/2/2015 Best visual art of the year in Chicago – Chicago Tribune

Many notables lectured in town this year, including the outgoing and incoming directors of Documenta, but the gutsiest statement was surely made by Roberta Smith, The New York Times art critic, at the end of her spring talk at the Art Institute of Chicago. After arguing that visual literacy ought to be taught in this country alongside alphabetical literacy, Smith addressed the heaps of art students in the audience. Only become an artist if you absolutely must, she said, adding that art school is an extraordinary education, not to be limited to the fraction of artists who will be lucky enough to make a career of it.

This was the Year of Social Practice at Chicago’s institutions, from the Loop to Hyde Park and all the way out to Little Village, and it was good. Standouts included John Preus’ audacious walk­in bull at the Hyde Park Art Center; “Risk: Empathy, Art and Social Practice” at the Glass Curtain Gallery; Laurie Jo Reynolds’ newly created position as assistant professor of public arts, social justice and culture at the University of Illinois at Chicago; and the debut of “96 Acres,” which uses art to scale the walls of the Cook County Jail.

Despite critic Ken Johnson’s appalling put­down of artist Michelle Grabner as a soccer mom — maybe she is, maybe she isn’t, but so what — 2014 was also the year that the art world, at least in Chicago, let in the tots. Shows like “Home Truths” at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, “Division of Labor” at the Glass Curtain Gallery, and Selina Trepp’s show at Document revealed what some of us have known for years: parenthood and childhood have an aesthetic edge all their own.

Lori Waxman is a Tribune special contributor and instructor at the School of the Art Institute.

ctc­arts@tribpub.com

Twitter @chitribent

Copyright © 2015, Chicago Tribune

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