EXPO Art Week kicked off on the South Side of Chicago with a series of after-hours events and performances earlier this week, taking place across a range of institutions. The week is a localized extension of the exhibition taking place at Navy Pier this weekend, which features hundreds of contemporary art pieces from around the globe.
At the Smart Museum of Art on Tuesday evening, April 11, dozens of spectators came out to sample an array of dark chocolates, colorful madeleines and beverages before viewing the new exhibition “Calling on the Past: Selections from the Collection,” which remains on display until early February of next year.
Jennifer Carty, the curator of the show, began the evening with a gallery tour. She highlighted first the pairing of Amir Fatah’s 2018 outré painting “Calling on the Past,” from which the show takes its name, with Hans Fechner’s subdued 19th-century portrait “Agnes Samson.” While the face of the main figure in the former painting is concealed beneath a technicolor patchwork of cloth, the bourgeoisie German woman depicted in the latter portrait is draped in a white silk dress with fur trim and stares back at the viewer with steely confidence.
She explained that by putting these two works from different eras and with contrasting aesthetic sensibilities in conversation, the viewer would be encouraged to look at the Smart’s collection “with fresh eyes” and make novel connections. What underpins the entire show is the idea, drawing from George Kubler’s 1962 book “The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things,” that artists across all time periods are engaged by a similar set of questions.
Museum staff stood scattered throughout the exhibit to converse with attendees in case the reasoning behind the groupings of artworks wasn’t immediately apparent. A massive, newly acquired painting by Ivy Haldeman depicting two anthropomorphic hot dogs with long eyelashes curled up in their soft white buns that hung next to a diminutive 18th-century Japanese portrait by Kitagawa Utamaro of a pale woman in dishabille smoothing her dark hair with a golden comb stumped me initially. But in dialogue with an affable staff member, we talked about the ways in which both paintings are intimate portrayals of an idealized — or surreal — femininity.
Josef Albers’ iconic painting “Homage to the Square” and Rasheed Araeen’s triptych “Art History, Brilliant White and Crossed” share a clear link in the use of the square as a visual grammar, although the concern of each artist seems to diverge. Whereas Albers’ work evinces the dynamism that emerges through the simple overlapping of solid greens and blues, Araeen’s self-portraits — fractured, erased, then crossed — are all black and white, deeply informed as they are by his political critiques of Eurocentrism in art history.
The evening wrapped up with a reading by poet and writer Audrey Petty and a performance by puppeteer Samuel J. Lewis II, who was accompanied by the experimental musician Hunter Diamond on an array of percussion instruments and the saxophone.
Petty, currently a fellow at the nonprofit journalism outlet the Invisible Institute and a member of the Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project, shared a short prose piece called “In Search of My Father’s Kitchens,” first published in The Southern Review in 2009. From vivid details of her father’s early life in Alabama, his work as a cook and his courtship of her mother on dates to the sole snack joint that served Black people in the rural county seat, to their meals out upon moving to Chicago, Petty carefully portrayed the contrasts between life in the Jim Crow South versus up North that might be lost in the past but not to memory.
The overhead lights dimmed for Lewis II’s performance as he lit a stage light to illuminate an upright scroll of paper on which was drawn a forest in charcoal. He spoke about how research into his own genealogy led to the discovery of his great-great grandfather Phil McBride’s bill of sale for $650, a single photograph, and then a news article in the Memphis Daily Appeal. Lewis II related the contents of the 1872 article while scrolling through illustrated scenes.
A train running down a track, a red petticoat waved in alarm, an abrupt halt just before coming to a tree trunk strewn over the rail line – these were the frames in the story of how McBride helped avert a train crash that would’ve caused a considerable loss of white life and property damage just years after he was freed from slavery. “Praiseworthy” the paper called McBride for his actions. After exhorting the audience to learn their own pasts so they can know the present and change the future, Lewis II declaimed, his voice ringing with pride, “Extra, extra, read all about it. Praiseworthy.” Like a paper boy, Lewis II harped on those words over and over and, with his exit of the gallery stage left, brought the evening to a dramatic close.
Welcome to the discussion.
Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.