It’s always nice to see successful art that is also instantly approachable, and Chicago sculptor Michael T. Rea makes the kind of art. If you’ve been to the last two NEXT fairs at the Merchandise Mart, you’ve probably seen some of his work; and if not, then certainly at Western Exhibition’s The Power of Selection, part 1. Rea’s big wooden sculptures, built from memory and reflecting a kit-basher’s eye for detail and bong emplacements, are sort of hard to miss. I caught up with the artist this week to trade some words, all of which you can read below. The bold and slanty ones are mine.
Can you tell me about yourself and your history in Chicago?
I was born and Raised in the South Suburbs of Chicago, Burbank, and Tinley Park. I Attended Northern Illinois University for Undergrad, and after graduation I moved to Buck Town. After about four years I Moved to Madison, WI to attend graduate school. Before moving to to Madison I had my first Chicago art show Unit B Gallery in Pilsen. During my stay in Madison I continued to show in Chicago at galleries like Butcher Shop /Dogmatic and the Co-Prosperity Sphere, and after grad school I spent a year in Milwaukee where I worked at MIAD before returning to Chicago. I have been back for a little over two years and currently reside in lovely Humboldt Park, and my studio is in West Garfield Park.
I heard you started off in painting. How’d you get from that to working with sculpture and wood?
I did start working as painter – well, as art educator. I received an Art Education degree from NIU, which was nice since the curriculum forces you to take classes in all disciplines. I focused on painting, but defiantly dabbled in sculpture. While in undergraduate Matt Irie and I formed a performance group called the Ohio Gang. After graduation I faced the dilemma of trying to build stretchers with out a real space and or equipment. I remember Paul Erschen letting me into his space to build my last large painting.
Somewhere in this struggle to build a support structure, I lost interest in building two dimensional images and began to obsess about what was behind a painting. So in a way I simply turned the canvas around and rebuilt my practice from there. I took what I had learned from the Ohio Gang and stretcher construction and started to build the rock performance I Yell Because I Care, which was a mixture of wood constructions and a performance piece. After that I decided to just keep going. As of late I have been painting a little to see how that informs the objects I build.
A lot of your work seems to have been inspired by a certain genre of American film-making, the big over the top blockbuster adventures, like Star Wars, Ghostbusters, or Indiana Jones. What’s your relationship with that content, or how are you using it?
A lot of my work does revolve around American film, 1975 to the present in particular. I think this began with watching a lot of movies as a child, which carried over into my adult life. When I would see a film as a child you were never sure if you were ever going to see it again. The first movie I saw on cable was Alien, and the first film my family ever rented was Trading Places, and we would spend dinner discussing the films we watched. My parents were rather liberal about what my brother and I got to see as children. As we got older I began to discover how the stories depicted were based on novels, biblical stories and parables, and remakes of films from when my parents were children. It was sort of a quest to see where an idea originated and evolved in each adaptation.
In my work today I enjoy the way I can use an index of films as a way to build footnotes into my work, using multi-dimensional characters, plots, and histories that live outside of the work, and which the audience must bring with them to understand it. I have been a big fan of Quentin Tarantino for years and really respect how he can build a film which can be read at so many levels. The artwork I make attempts to offer both fast and slow reads.
What kind of pieces are you putting up for your show this weekend at ebersmoore?
For the show at ebersmoore, I’ll be installing a few new sculptures and drawings. The largest piece is a large Howitzer-style gun titled Benita, which will start in the main gallery and penetrate through the living quarters at the gallery. In the second space I’ll have two medium sized sculptures and drawings.