arts & culture Capturing Community by Meaghan Murphy
(Courtesy of Renaissance Society)
Dawoud Bey pictures people at the Renaissance Society DAWOUD BEY’S PORTRAITS HAVE A HABIT OF STARING YOU DOWN. YOU GET sucked in, ensnared by the subject’s eyes and attitude. “Charita, 2002,” like many of Bey’s portraits featured in the Renaissance Society’s Picturing People, hits you full on. Direct and unapologetic from the blaze in her eyes to the tilt of her hip to the cheetah-print slippers on her feet, Charita makes you feel like you’ve just met her. But of course you haven’t. It’s just Bey’s style. From Harlem and Chicago to his artist residency at Phillips Andover Academy, Dawoud Bey has captured people with his lens. He is a portrait artist in the classical sense of the word. Taking cues from the likes of Rembrandt, he captures drama and experience with what he calls the “humanist impulse” of photography. A Chicago-based artist these days, Bey’s work is currently featured both in “Harlem, U.S.A.” at the Art Institute of Chicago and in “Picturing People” at the Renaissance Society. On Sunday May 13th, Bey spoke about his life and work to a packed lecture hall at the University of Chicago. He cited Coltrane as his “ epiphany moment as an artist” and Hendrix as his “radical reinvention.” He talked about his first encounter with photography’s narrative power at a 1969 Met exhibit, “Harlem on My Mind.” The exhibit was a collection of photography, film, and records that sought to tell the story of 20th century African American life. He was so inspired by the exhibit’s powerful narratives at the age of sixteen that he bought a camera, took to the Harlem street photography beat, and opened his first exhibition in 1979. Bey strives to create work that engages in a dialogue with the viewer. Whether he is documenting a place as iconic as Harlem, or a face as boundlessly relevant as Charita’s, he is sparking thought, igniting a conversation through the frontal gaze. Still, he concedes that referring to his early work as “the Harlem photos” does have “a kind of weight to it.” Though these portraits capture so much more than the subject’s race, class, and neighborhood, they can still be distilled down to a title like “Harlem, U.S.A.” Bey started his ongoing project, Strangers/Community, as an inquiry into the notion of community, a word he says “gets thrown around a lot.” He sought a way “to visualize a community” and “who speaks for whom.” A project that began in Atlanta at Emory University and has since travelled to Hyde Park, this series poses two strangers who are part of the same community side-by-side. The Hyde Park portraits feature a diverse range of subjects photographed in University of Chicago locations like Mansueto Library and Ida Noyes Hall. But there’s something almost sterile about the Hyde Park photos. They’re a portrait of the University community, not the surrounding neighborhood, and they feel corporate. The settings of Booth and Mansueto cast the subjects in a washed out light, and positioned on a stage of linear metallic forms. One of the most striking portraits in the series is titled “Paula Beigelson and Shirley Sims. Emory University, Atlanta, 2010.” A young white woman with grey-blue eyes and pearl earrings sits next to an older black woman in the kind of blue collared shirt you might associate with custodial staff. They sit in a room full of whitewashed pews arranged in two long rows, which appears to be in either a church or some kind of University hall. This portrait is distinctly Southern with bright white pews gleaming in rows behind them, and green lush light flooding in through a wide open window. But Bey tells you these things in the title. This is Georgia, this is Emory. He invites you to make an assumption about the subjects. You’re given hints at who they are in their clothing and body language and facial expressions and the very space that they occupy. These are strangers, part of the same community. Unlike Bey’s Harlem photos and other street photographs, “Strangers/Community” poses the question of how “we”—subject, photographer, and viewer alike—imagine our communities and our nation. They examine how strangers, linked by their membership to a geographic community, interact with each other, with their setting, and with the photographer: but ultimately, they pose a question to the viewer himself.
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Fresh Cuts A “MEDLEY” of collages at the Chicago Urban Art Society by Julia Silverman IT’S A QUIET EVENING AT THE CHICAGO URBAN ART SOCIETY (CUAS). A SMALL group huddles in one corner of a large light-filled gallery, anticipating a story slam to take place later that night. The song “Kryptonite” echoes softly in the background, as a few visitors break from the crowd to pace along the gallery’s perimeter, examining collages of varying shapes, sizes, and media. These collages, created by thirteen artists from Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Moscow, and beyond comprise the show “MEDLEY,” CUAS’s debut show in their new Cermak space. “This show is meant to set the tone both for my voice as a curator and for the space as a whole,” explains Peter Kepha, CUAS co-founder, curator, and featured collagist. Kepha explains that he was trained as an oil painter and initially planned to become a medical illustrator, but switched to collage because he could not fathom the thought of drawing corpses for the rest of his life. Despite his casual tone and checkered high-tops, Kepha’s eyes reveal an intensity that gives away his passion for creating, showcasing, and collecting. “I already bought two pieces from this show,” he confesses, The collages that comprise “MEDLEY,” rendered in bright colors, dynamic and graphic cutouts, reflective foil, and in one case, a three-dimensional surface that literally jumps out at the viewer, could not contrast more with the mellow mood of the gallery space. “People view [collage] as something so simple, when it’s actually really difficult,” says Kepha. “You have so many images fighting with themselves…how do you make them play nice?” In fact, the sizeable and diverse collection of collages feels immediately overwhelming. Kepha admits, “Collage can sometimes all run together…it’s hard to differentiate.” The wide range, from the fantastical, pristine digital collages of Belgian artist Oleg Borodin, to the illusionistic painted “layers” of acrylic paint in Jessica Bell’s work, highlights the versatility of collage, and its potential sophistication. Some of the artists, like New York based Matt Shaw, seem to address formal and medium-specific issues. One of Shaw’s pieces includes a ripped black and white photographic print of a woman’s face. Her eyes seem to roll back into her head as she stares upward, the top of the image ripped off to reveal blurred dots in primary colors like those seen on printed images. Other artists abandon the “formalism” route entirely. Kepha’s collages, for example, display a cheeky, nostalgic playfulness. One piece, in the shape of a skateboard, uses Styrofoam pieces to make photographs of wheels hover against the background of the board’s underside. In the piece, Kepha incorporates a print of the dollar bill, old comic strips, and glittering baseball stickers. Yet, the board displays a calculated composition and meticulous execution indicative of an adult creator. He juxtaposes, for example, the dollar bill with a selection of cutout words arranged to read “The original 1,” at once skeptical of mass media culture and wholly immersed in it. Later in the evening, Kepha, with his sister and CUAS co-founder Lauren Pacheco, carries a small desk out of the main gallery into a small side room to clear a “stage” for the later story slam. “Glamorous gallery life for you,” he remarks jokingly. But to call CUAS just a gallery is misleading. The not-for-profit space maintains local ties and continues to support art production in the Chicago community. Kepha, for example, explains that he hopes one day to create a large collage mural project in a Chicago community. “We’re cultivating younger kids,” he says, “We’re trying to show that Chicago is still a productive place for art. They don’t have to come here for school and then move out.” One exhibited artist, Emily Haasch, is an SAIC sophomore and former CUAS intern. Her graphic black and white series of wrestlers hang alongside the work of other local Chicago artists such as Ruben Aguirre and Chad Kouri. At the same time, by bringing contemporary art into Chicago from all over the world, Kepha creates a space where Chicagoans can see great works of collage in their home city. “We’re trying to constantly push further,” explains Kepha. “I’m trying to switch things up, keep things fresh.” Chicago Urban Art Society, 600 W. Cermak Rd. May 11-June 16. Thursday-Friday, 6-9pm; Saturday, 1-6pm. Free. (773)951-8101. chicagourbanartsociety.com