THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Nathan Worcester
To appreciate “Infinite Games 50/50,” an exhibition at Open House Contemporary curated by local artist and woodworker John Preus, it helps if you know the controversial history of Chicago Public Schools under Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
The first “50” is the number of public schools that Emanuel’s Board of Education closed in 2013 due to declining enrollment and poor test scores. In addition to leaving memories, the closings left physical artifacts: the desks, chairs, cabinets, and other items that untold thousands of CPS students and staff had used.
Enter Preus and the second “50.” When Preus learned that many of those items were available, he acted, moving six semi-loads of furniture from the shuttered schools into storage. In the years since, those items have formed the basis for much of his own work. Now, with “Infinite Games 50/50,” he has invited 50 other artists and designers to play with those same materials.
Though it’s easy to place the word “raw” before the word “materials,” it’s hard to describe the specific materials that Preus rescued as “raw,” even in emotional terms. They have had too many lives, including several years sequestered in a warehouse. They have served the usual narrow range of institutional functions, stiffening spines and mass-producing good citizens as defined by politicians and educators.
More interesting, though not surprising to anyone who can remember being even mildly rebellious as a kid, the objects’ users have left traces of themselves behind. For example, the graffiti “Rafael Sucks” and “Rahm Blows” were found on pieces of the salvaged CPS furniture. The “Rafael Sucks” table even formed the basis for a stereo-equipped writing table that Preus himself designed (Rafael Sucks, adaptation of Le Bloc). The exhibition’s participants have proven that the personal and institutional history of these objects has not yet ended.
John Preus, Rafael Sucks, adaptation of Le Bloc
For some adults still processing the events of 2013, negative memories of the schools as institutions may have been softened by nostalgia, or perhaps by sympathy for teachers on the school-to-pension pipeline. Thus, in one interpretation, straightforward nostalgia pervades Jim Duignan’s Portable Fast Pitch.
The piece consists of a drawing board marked with lines of tape. On his website, Duignan describes it as the reflection of his childhood knack for drawing fast-pitch strike zones on school walls and other flat surfaces. Although Portable Fast Pitch might invite nostalgia, it can also invite the viewer to pick up the nearest ball and hurl it at the school’s window. There are, after all, many ways to go back to the drawing board.
The exhibition also includes many feats of aesthetically-enriched engineering, which is unsurprising given the industrial forms to which the salvaged furniture lends itself. Tadd Cowen’s Legs that go all the way up falls into this category. Though the punny title teeters on the edge of trite, it succeeds as an art object. Rising above their earthly station, the CPS-grade hairpin table legs suddenly evoke the skyscrapers and Skyway so beloved by Chicago’s booster-type locals, I among them. Barbara Koenen’s A Thousand Points of Light, a paint-splattered, perforated desk chair lit from behind to evoke George H.W. Bush’s famous (or infamous) ode to volunteerism, is another amusing contribution in this vein.
While many participants tinkered with the configuration or appearance of materials, others foregrounded context in their engagement with the show’s themes. The exhibition features several prints of work by Alberto Aguilar, whose transitory, eerily symmetrical objets d’art gain meaning because of the viewer’s familiarity with the furniture’s history. At what future point would the chair and desk represented in Left Behind (Iowa Rest Stop) recede into the weeds that surround them?
Alberto Aguilar, Left Behind (Iowa Rest Stop)
In somewhat the same way, Louis Mallozzi’s Spot operates on the basis of its geographical and cultural coordinates. The viewer peers through a telescope, which reveals an altered chair atop a nearby building. This could be perceived as cleverness for its own sake. It could also be perceived as a short-form psychobiography of the viewer, who is praised for ignoring the beeping, buzzing distractions of city life to briefly focus on several thousand students who lost the communities where many felt safest.
Some of the most interesting works blur the line between art and design, occupying a conceptual space in which cleverness is generally a virtue. Preus’s own contributions are on this continuum. While the Rafael Sucks desk has retained the original writing table’s function within a radically transformed context, his less design-oriented Prussian Blue series makes use of actual school blueprints. Brilliantly enough, these are framed by CPS wood from the closed schools that were first conceptualized by those blueprints.
John Preus, Prussian Blue
Misha Kahn’s The Loner, a grandfather clock resembling a Tim Burton prop that sprouted a few tumors, is another intriguing entry in this camp. Perhaps the most playful (though not unserious) work in the exhibition comes from the composer and instrument designer, Walter Kitundu. With his CPS Xylophone and the bass-like Sound Footing, Kitundu has overlaid new and unexpected functions on materials that could have ended up in a landfill.
The exhibition occupies three floors of Open House Contemporary which is an Air BnB residence. The works fit quite organically within this alternative art setting as though they are part of the venue’s original design.
Open House Contemporary, 740 N. Ogden Ave.,
Chicago, IL, 60642.
Call (773) 294-4284 to inquire on viewing hours.
September 14, 2017–March 16, 2018.
Nathan Worcester is a writer living in Chicago. He holds a B.A. from the University of Chicago. He once unintentionally filled his car with fast food wrappers, but none of them were salvageable.