Last year, Wicker Park gallery Johalla Projects organized a show titled 50 Aldermen, 50 Artists. The show was as direct as its title suggested: fifty artists each selected or were assigned one of Chicago’s city aldermen to use as the subject of a portrait. Artists were determined by an open call – entry fee, first fifty are in – and results were predictably varied; they included everything from straightforward works like Krystal Meisel‘s photo of Frank Olivio, to Lucas Blair Simpson‘s smart, well-timed portrait of Walter Burnett, to Shawn Sargent‘s – well, uh, this.
The show was, by most standards, a huge success. Attendees packed the apartment gallery at the opening, the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Tribune, and the Chicago wing of the New York Times all provided heavy coverage. Pieces sold (though artists were surprised to find a gallery commission on top of an entry fee), artists were exposed in the good way and the show even traveled to the Chicago Photography Center. The results were so good, in fact, that a second and related show was put together in December, this one celebrating and memorializing the retiring Mayor Richard Daley through the work of twenty six artists.
After seeing the response to 50 Aldermen Project, I was sure that its curators would use the attention and media track record to push a stronger critique in The Daley Show, especially as the artists were selected by the exhibition’s directors rather than by open bid. The set up was ideal – an independent space, independent curators, and for content, a second-generation mayor who dominated Chicago’s politics, good and bad, for two decades. The material was there, the resources were there, and there was nothing preventing interesting critique or comment on the city’s political center. However, for whatever reason – perhaps the prevalence of designers and illustrators – The Daley Show was a generally fun and toothless exhibition, with the most challenging piece a satirical “vote Daley or not at all” campaign poster. You can see all the photos here.
The Daley Show didn’t get quite the coverage as the 50 Aldermen Project, but the coverage it did get surprised me by its easy acceptance of this exhibition’s middle-sauceness. I have some complaints, but they aren’t with the content of the show. Like anyone else, artists are entitled to their opinions and there isn’t any reason why a political show can’t be upbeat if the artists are. And the art wasn’t objectively bad either, there were some nice portraits and clever pieces.
My issue is with how weirdly conservative these shows were as exhibitions, both in work and curation.
I thought the whole reason for going independent – for moving the furniture into the kitchen, painting your apartment’s walls white, stealing track lights from the Sullivan Galleries storeroom – was to exhibit work, facilitate exhibitions, and express ideas that wouldn’t be practical or possible anywhere else. I like to see things work out and these two shows definitely did, but I hope they don’t represent a softball trend in Chicago’s DIY art scene. The most memorable show I saw in a Chicago alternative space involved a basement and a significant amount of fire. I would rather see more of that than more of this, because that can only happen off the gallery grid, but these kinds of shows can happen anywhere.