What If a Curator's Agenda Doesn't Match the Artist's?

I've been doing these previews for six and a half years. Some trips to galleries are just better that others. I love it when an artist I admire breaks new ground and pushes their work into braver, stronger, more exciting territory. And I love it when I'm afraid that I'm going to uncover mediocrity and instead find visual eloquence.

Vera Klement is a senior citizen with the energy of a teenager. Most artists decades younger are reprising greatest hits. Vera just keeps growing. She is an underrated giant, genius and beautiful talent. Her work reads like scores of music, which is to say that her pieces are not monolithic compositions but fragments, visual notes, dichotomies and balances. This particular body of works on paper which opens at Printworks tonight is called American Sublime which references American art from the early to late 1800's when painters fueled our 'manifest destiny' of westward expansion. Images glorified the landscape and the beauty and downplayed the slaughter of Native Americans. Klement is among other significant artists who are examining issues of and in America's past and bring new understanding to how we got where we are.

Paul Nudd is an archetypal Chicago artist. My contention is that Chicago has always been a blue-collar city that respects hard work and downplays pomposity. That's Nudd. Though outsiders think of Chicago as clean, we all know our river is gross, our schools uncomfortable and that coal plants regurgitate within our City limits. Is Nudd not the poster child for an honest Chicago? Wonderful, beautiful, hardworking, dirty and ugly. And what a good choice to present Rachel NIffenegger's glorious, grotesque, putrid blobs simultaneously in the Western Exhibitions show that opens tonight.

I don't remember Kendall Carter's previous show at Monique Meloche, but I won't forget this one. This show kicks ass. Sophisticated, intelligent, grunt basic, purposeful and beautiful with an agenda of using non-painterly materials in a painterly way, Carter looks into his own Blackness -- in the eyes of other people's unconscious expectations. Yup, he does all that and still keeps the work light and very fun. The opening is Saturday.

It must be tough for female artists to address the objectification of women in their art and yet not push viewers and collectors too far away with a cranky diatribe. Paula Henderson does this beautifully in another exhibit that opens tonight -- at Linda Warren. Henderson repurposes images of too tall, too thin models into mandalaesque compositions that undermine our expectations and encourage us to cast off our old, tired ethics.

I'm impressed with Alderman Exhibitions, a nascent gallery, and it's young, enthusiastic and professional director Ellen Alderman whose objective of growing, exposing and unifying art and artists in Chicago resonates nicely with my own. Young, Chicago artist Thomas Roach begins his creative process of finding content by an odd, laborious exercise of borrowing scads of clipped magazine pages from the Chicago Public Library's archives. Like a folder full of images of hands. He'll assemble and balance them in a grid. Focusing on a detailed portion of one he'll use it as subject matter for an exquisitely created pencil drawing, that is so tight as to appear photographic. The process is slightly absurd. The result is rather beautiful.

It bothered me less when I had a gallery, but as a writer and viewer it is difficult for me to get a lot of group shows into a comfortable context. Especially when there is a curator who needs to lay their thematic point of view on the exhibition and the artists therein who may have no agreement whatsoever with the context into which their work is placed.

I'm not saying this is the case in either of these two group exhibits I saw. At Rhona Hoffman the title of the show provides a clue -- as well as being the genesis of the exhibit: Never Let Me Go. Okay, think about that for a second. Given the title, what could the show be about? I looked at a few pieces and decided the show was about mortality and America's unacceptance of death, but clearly there were pieces in the show that didn't fit my erroneous assumption. So I looked at the press release and read that there were significant works by seven artist who, by making 'figure' inextricable from 'ground' (and vice versa), engender the extraordinary and withstand alienation. I have no idea if these seven significant artists are comfortable being in this show, and I wonder if they are comfortable having their work grouped into this category.

At Zolla/Lieberman is another group exhibit, titled Cinematic Bodies. This time I went straight to the announcement card that states the curator's intent where the selected works reflect my fascination with certain contemporary, figurative artworks... that appear to engage with aspects of 'the cinematic.' Yeah, much of the work feels cinematic, but a lot doesn't. For me, the bigger questions are, why is this trend of curators thinking they're artists not over yet? Why don't curators recall that their job is to enhance art and artists and not to use them as raw material for their own agenda?

Artists must take responsibility for their own careers or they can get manhandled, misconstrued, miscomprehended and misrepresented. Again, I am not saying these particular curators in the foregoing exhibitions have done this, but I've seen it happen too often and perhaps you can tell it is a pet peeve of mine.

Enough for now. There's some wonderful art on view. Even I crossed the threshold into a new venue. More often than not it is rewarding and provocative. Try it.

Thanks very much,
Paul Klein