at the Chicago Cultural Center, through March 14, and the Illinois Art Gallery, through March 19

Just when the cold and a chilly economic climate start to make even the hardiest locals skeptical of sticking it out in Chicago, something comes along that warms the heart. For me this year it was “A Sequence of Forms,” an exhibit of 20 Illinois sculptors at the Chicago Cultural Center and the Illinois Art Gallery. Despite massive budget cuts at the Cultural Center and the state’s virtual suspension of funding for the Illinois Art Gallery, curator Edward Maldonado found the means to showcase early- and mid-career artists whose work evidences the continued vitality of the local art world.

More than that, “A Sequence of Forms” makes a convincing case that Illinois sculptors are currently helping to shape the direction of the genre. This shouldn’t be surprising, since the similar challenges of sculpture and architecture have historically made them sibling endeavors, and Chicago has long been a hospitable laboratory for many of architecture’s brasher experiments.

In the early 1980s sculpture and architecture everywhere began to take energetic new directions. But where architects looked to the decoration of the past to create a romantic new style–postmodernism–sculptors often turned to the present mundane world, tinkering with familiar objects and encouraging viewers to look at them in new ways. And like the architects, they also took humorous and critical looks back at earlier sculptural styles. As a result the definition of sculpture has expanded to include a wide range of objects difficult to characterize by material, process, or conceptual intent. Underlined by a sharp current of wit and often bearing explicit testimony to social and political concerns, contemporary sculpture is a field full of experimentation, humor, and eager new life. One look at “A Sequence of Forms” shows that contemporary Chicago sculpture is, too.

Many artists in the exhibition take the age-old source materials of nature for their starting points. Joan Livingstone’s enormous abstract felt-and-epoxy objects bear an uncanny resemblance to flowers and vegetable pods. Constructed out of industrial materials in gritty grays and creams and rendered hundreds of times larger then life, they turn viewers into Lilliputian observers of some mad scientist’s botanical experiments. Tom Czarnopys in one untitled (1991) work submerged a dead plant in a “soil” of glycerine and powdered rock; curly dead roots can be seen in the translucent block of material, a beautiful reminder of the impermanence of buildings and sculptures alike. Vincent Shine’s meticulously crafted models of fungi and small green plants so closely imitate the natural world that they seem to exalt it. But their very perfection hints that, like Livingstone’s bloated plants, these may be the product of a kind of mad scientist.

Eschewing “nature” altogether, many artists look to the constructed environment of buildings and commodities and nine-to-five work schedules–the world in which most of us live. Barbara Mosinski’s Jobs, Jobs, Jobs (1992), for example, features a functioning time clock whose ticks and whirs can be heard throughout the gallery. Each digit on the clock’s dial is labeled with the word “layoffs,” as if to dramatize the economy’s ever-shrinking pool of blue-collar wage jobs. Alongside the clock is a rack for time cards, whose slots are marked not with names but with photographs of the “real people” whose livelihoods are at stake in any employment crunch.

Other artists turn the historical clock back a bit, focusing their gaze on a fading industrial past. David Eckard’s steel, rubber, cloth, and wood constructions bear an uncanny resemblance to old farm implements, but their utility is ambiguous, perhaps sinister. Pointed edges, binding straps, and cagelike shapes give them a sadistic quality, as if grandpa’s barn had been pillaged by some looter in pursuit of unspeakable pleasures and pains. Tom McDonald’s massive untitled (1992) mixed-media object seems to take its inspiration from the supermachines of modern agriculture; over 20 feet long and equipped with old wheels, plow blades, and shiplike “sails” of discarded blankets and sleeping bags, it looks like a futile pauper’s imitation of one of John Deere’s latest designs.

Still other artists look to the recent artistic past with critical and satirical eyes. Jo Hormuth’s End Game (1992) is a series of nine Hydrostone cubes that from the looks of them might well have been cast directly from one of Donald Judd’s spare minimalist sculptures. Hormuth, however, personalizes each object quite unabashedly: each plaster block bears the imprint of a different human’s rear end. It’s as if each chair-height sculpture had served as the seat for an amenable butt when the plaster was wet. Such is Hormuth’s curtain call for the sacred anonymity of abstraction. Tony Tasset appropriates minimalist sleekness with equal cynicism. In Bubble Wrap (1991) Tasset takes the packaging of precious objects and turns it into precious art. The object resting on the floor is apparently encased in art wrapping material, as if waiting to be unpacked and hung. Then we realize that the packaging–cast in green glass–is in fact the artwork.

While the nearly 100 objects featured in “A Sequence of Forms” might be usefully described as addressing the terrains of nature, of the man-made environment, and of minimalism, the eloquence and intelligence of the work render these categories provisional. Shine’s cybernetic plants, often bearing such antiseptic titles as Cyperus Papyrus #3 and Pileus Reddish-Tan to Pale Tan, Flesh White, essentially parody the esoteric routines of the scientific laboratory–and their stunning naturalism merely serves that end. In contrast to the cynicism of Tasset and Hormuth are Thomas Skomski’s elegant metal, water, and sand constructions, which evidence the artist’s commitment to the minimalist dictum of stark simplicity while they eschew minimalist austerity for a sensuous, luxuriant warmth. Even in a gallery context, Charles Weisen’s Placed (1992) virtually refuses to be regarded as art at all: an expertly crafted wood and metal bin, it is currently serving as wastebasket for visitors’ candy wrappers and plastic cups.

It’s just this sort of street-shoe accessibility that makes “A Sequence of Forms” such an enjoyable and historically resonant show. Wary of the lofty, distancing label of “high culture” and weary of the ever more futile divisions between “art” and “commodity” in modern life, contemporary sculptors are opting for critical, well-crafted remakings of a familiar world. There are no grand artistic statements in “A Sequence of Forms” but a wealth of uncommonly thoughtful, surprisingly beautiful things.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs.