For the better part of the 20th century the Art Institute hosted “Chicago and Vicinity,” an annual exhibition that focused on art made by artists living in the city. The museum discontinued the series in the mid-1980s, but Shane Campbell Gallery has now revived it in the 8,550-square-foot space of its new South Loop location. In this edition of “Chicago and Vicinity,” 91 separate works produced by 50 artists currently residing in Chicago are sporadically arranged around the gallery. Some pieces spill out into the hallway, while others are tucked into Campbell’s large adjoining office.
The original “Chicago and Vicinity” was a series that forced the Art Institute to look around at its surroundings rather than at the rest of the world. Yet other cities tend to assess the Chicago art scene with a limited scope, whether it’s lumping everyone into a single group or failing to look past big-name artists like Kerry James Marshall or Tony Tasset. The purpose of Shane Campbell’s “Chicago and Vicinity” is to expand the outsider’s perception of “Chicago artists” by focusing on figures outside of typically prescribed go-to groups like the Imagists.
“From my experience, New York, or any other center outside of Chicago, wants to author Chicago in very specific ways,” says Campbell. “Lately it has been the dominance of the Imagists, which is fine, but it does force artists after the Imagists to be measured against them on some level. More recently it has been Theaster Gates as the spokesperson for Chicago. I am not trying to take him down, but there is a lot more here that needs to be seen.”
Theaster Gates isn’t included in the exhibition, but there are Imagists on display: a collage by Gladys Nilsson, a drawing by Karl Wirsum, and an oil painting by Philip Hanson (one of the first works seen when entering the gallery). These established artists are presented alongside young and emerging figures like SAIC grad student CD Wu, whose captivating neon pieces bookend the intergenerational show. The oldest participant, 90-year-old Thomas Kapsalis, contributes the acrylic painting Stripes, a relatively small canvas found at the back of the space.
Kapsalis was also featured in the 1956, 1960, and 1969 “Chicago and Vicinity” shows. Painter Margot Berman is another artist in the current show who was included in previous editions of the Art Institute’s exhibitions (1977 and 1980). The 80-year-old painter’s Madame X, a 34 x 28-inch acrylic portrait on canvas, manages to stand out in the chaotic show, despite being placed next to David Leggett‘s massive 80 x 80 painting Dragon Breath: Black Love and Smoke Signals.
The opening on Saturday, March 5, was packed with local artists, and the conversation between attendees generally focused on whether or not this exhibition established a cohesive Chicago style. “I find one of the strengths of living in Chicago, or being an artist here, is that there isn’t a house style,” said Campbell. “It doesn’t feel like there is a lot of pressure to conform, in terms of your aesthetic, so the idea was to try and bring in as much of a range of work as I could.”
This lack of homogeneity is perhaps partly due to Chicago’s history of supportive apartment galleries and alternative spaces, which showcase work regardless of an artist’s chosen material or perceived market success. Such work thrives in this edition of “Chicago and Vicinity,” with artists such as Jesse Malmed, codirector of automobile gallery Trunk Show, and his work Sketch, a collection of index cards on a bulletin board. Another example is Kelly Lloyd, who contributes my favorite item, which might be easily missed: a tiny rack of fake business cards placed directly on the front desk of the gallery. Lloyd also includes a series of gift-basket sculptures—literally gift baskets wrapped in plastic—which contain the items outlined in their titles: Things I “Borrowed” and Will Most Likely Never Return and Everything In & On My Nightstand.
Even though “Chicago and Vicinity” showcases the work of 50 artists, it remains a minuscule snapshot of the Chicago art world, one subjective roundup of its current state. During the summer of last year, photographer Jason Lazarus sent out a call for Chicago artists, asking them to pose for a giant group portrait on the front stoop of the Museum of Contemporary Art. According to this picture, there are at least 600 more people whose art could be incorporated in “Chicago and Vicinity,” and even that hypothetical show wouldn’t present a comprehensive account of the local scene. “Chicago and Vicinity” is merely a fraction of what’s happening in Chicago right now, but it’s an encouraging exhibition that would work even better with several more editions and perspectives. v