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Clar Monaco's untitled oil painting is part of the Art Institute’s 78th Exhibition by Artists of Chicago and Vicinity.

1980 Chicago Show is one of the best

Sunday, Sun-Times, December 7, 1980
Art / Franz Schulze


OF ALL THE regular events in the Chicago art world, none is a more surefire attention grabber than the Art Institute's Chicago Show, and none has proportionately less consequence.


It is a little like the senior prom. You wouldn't miss it for the world, or if you did, you couldn't resist wanting to know what transpires there. But your life would not be touched by it very deeply, or for long. True enough, an artist occasionally surfaces in the Chicago Show—make that rarely—who may go on to the golden day when he won the Logan Medal or the Palmer Prize and a gallery dealer asked to see what the tidy and competent—like that of File-mon Santiago, Ray Yoshida, Gary Laatsch and Susan M. Julien—the prevailing mood is bizarre, more than faintly surreal, sometimes mean, frequently sardonic. Often what reads like a private joke is made public, not without traces of hostility' toward anyone—that would mean most of us—not privy to it. The abstractions too are marked by quirky forms (Barbara Rossi, Thomas Denlinger) laden with associational suggestions, or by rude drawing and 'spastic com-positions (Lisa Allen, Susan Doremus) that seek to free themselves from implications of formal elegance.


ALL OF THIS HAS A familiar ring. It sounds as if the old Chicago drive toward imagery drawn from the objects that rarely—who may go on to the golden day when he won the Logan Medal or the Miner Prize. and a gallery dealer asked to see what the artist was doing in his studio. But it is the judgment the dealer formed on his visit—and subsequently—that matters, not the prize that prompted the visit in the first place. The list of past award winners who never amounted to 'ranch is almost as long as the roster of established and successful artists who were rejected by Chicago Show juries.


Everyone knows this, or ought to. Yet everyone shoals up for the event year after year, scrutinizes it, debates it and cares about it with keen if fleeting passion. It 'is, after all, the most publicized, gathering of the clan, the best known Midwestern salon, the major local cross-sectional, and it is mounted on the biggest stage in town, the Art institute, where it has been a fixture since 1897.


THE FACT SHEET AFFIRMS that this 78th version of the Exhibition' of Artists of Chicago and Vicinity was put together in orthodox fashion. All artists within a 130-mile radius of the Art Institute were eligible to submit work to a jury composed of three experienced professionals, Robert Murdock, director of the Grand Rapids Art Museum; Patterson Sims, curator at New York's Whitney Museum and Roberta Smith; senior editor or the magazine Art in America, who spent two working days winnowing 1,700 entries to 55 paintings and sculptures by as- many artists.


Twenty-one objects were tagged for Prizes totaling $14,200. Fully 10 of these were for $1,000 each, a fact that reminds us why artists of all ages, ranks and reputations are eager to try their' ruck with the Airy: The Chicago Show is not only an event; it is a well-endowed event.

AS TO THE 1980, edition's quality; it IS bright and lively, one of the best, surely one of the, most discussible Chicago Shows in recent years: It is a corporate confirmation of a development manifested in the large all-Chicago exhibition that appeared last summer at Natty Pier.

A new local generation is making waves. Abstraction is not much in evidence among them, nor is the lean, cool, sophisticated look, achieved in large formats, that was so strong a factor in Chicago art during the middle to late-1970s.


Preferences now tend toward image, moreover of a garish, cheerfully ratty sort, often primitivistically drawn. Typical of these qualities that stand for a sensibility more nearly punk than funk, are the paintings of Phyllis Bramson, Clar Monaco and Hollis Sigler. These works are figurative and fantastic, done with a conscious, affected naiveté that only underscores the element of irony.  Even in work that is not purposely awkward in rendering but rather


ALL OF THIS HAS A familiar ring. It sounds as if the old Chicago drive toward imagery drawn from the obscure corners and zany inclinations of the unconscious mind is again, if not to say still, very active. Institute curator, James Speyer acknowledges as much in his catalog forward, but he' suggests that "Chicago-type" art is no longer so peculiar to this city.


Rather, art everywhere is taking on qualities (“wit, humor and fantasy") that have long been favored here. "These attitudes," he writes, "show themselves far afield, whether in New York, London or the Venice Biennale."


At the exhibition's opening, the observation was widespread that the show did indeed bear that lurching old Chicago look. Several viewers, however, wondered whether the ju-rors had stacked the deck, had per-haps selected imagistic art at the expense of comparably gotx1 abstract painting and sculpture.

"NOT TRUE," said juror Roberta Smith. "We chose what looked strongest among what we saw, and frankly, the abstractions we saw, 'were not all that good for the most part. Neither were most of the 1,700 entries. We were surprised by how good the show appeared once we had assembled it. It seemed to us as if it was a piece, as if it had. been organized by a curator."


Then, consonantally with Speyer's sentiments, she added, "Abstraction, you know, is having a rough time of it across the country„, This show looks more national than strictly local." Maybe so. But this writer cannot remember having seen—in New York, London, Venice or anywhere else during the last half decade—any large salon shows that are so intensely inward in their expressive preoccupations, so private, so surly and hunkered-down, as the ones that appear regularly in Chicago. Art nationally may indeed be moving toward idiosyncratic forms and images, but Chicago's way, with these components remains a noticeable degree apart. Apartness is its mark and has been, for much of the past three or four decades. Alienation continues to be a discernible attribute, even a source of artistic inspiration, among a striking number of the area's painters and sculptors.


I AM NOT SELLING this observation so much as making it and wondering at its historic tenacity. Indeed, I rather wish another attitudinal feature would make itself felt locally, if only for variety.  In any case, the final and most fascinating thing about the 78th Chicago Show—otherwise a passing thing and quickly forgotten—is that it says something about long-lasting qualities in Chicago art that are worth arguing.

© Clar Monaco 1977-2016 / All rights reserved.

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