at Yello, through March 12

Val Valgardson

at Beret International, through April 3

David Hodges

at the Chicago Cultural Center, through March 28

By Fred Camper

Curator Francesco Bonami jetted across continents to assemble a survey of art at the dawn of the new millennium for the exhibit “Unfinished History,” now at the Museum of Contemporary Art. And though he writes in his catalog essay of our present cultural confusion, the show’s underlying assumption is that these works can help us understand our past and present. Much of the art addresses big issues, though not always successfully: the relationships between technology and the individual, past and present urban life, geography and politics.

But some artists consciously eschew great statements, and the best such artists make this part of their theme, attempting to return viewers to a direct relationship with the world. Despite its self-important title, “Resurrection”–an exhibit at Yello of 45 works by three artists–exemplifies this modest approach: these artists are grouped together because all of them use ordinary, sometimes discarded materials. Curator Olga Stefan’s statement, like Bonami’s, does refer to the new millennium, but I didn’t find much millennial thinking in this art. And she looked in her own backyard for “Resurrection”: these three Chicagoans exhibited together in a juried show at Around the Coyote last year.

If Bonami’s “Unfinished History” evidences a rapidly industrializing world in which air travel is cheap due in part to cheap oil, “Resurrection” is a show concerned with what Stefan calls an “overindustrialized society” producing an excess of manufactured goods. Like the curator, these artists have stayed close to home in creating their work, in part out of materials found on Chicago streets. And rather than using high-tech video projection or hiring skilled craftsmen, as many of the “Unfinished History” artists did, these three make fairly simple, low-tech assemblages themselves.

What strikes one first here is not the works’ cultural commentary or overall concept, as in most of “Unfinished History,” but rather the artists’ genuine affection for the junk metal, dried foodstuffs, and other common materials they use. The thin, upward-looking figure poised at the top of a pile of debris in David Cook’s King of the Heap is slightly kitschy and pretentious, but its contrast with the twigs, twisted metal, old floodlights, and other junk is charming. Still, it’s got a hint of a big statement, which places Cook’s work closer than Marci Rubin’s and Maire Kennedy’s to that by the “Unfinished History” artists.

Rubin coats cotton and food with latex to produce poetic, ambiguous images of organic materials threatened by decay. We see blobs of cotton, bread, or a huge assemblage of dried grapes “preserved” by a process that also seems to embalm and separate them from the living present. In Number 2 (Dissection) two latex-covered pieces of cotton are laid out in two aluminum pans; pins stuck in the sides of the cotton make each lump look a bit like the soft underbelly of an animal, exposed and ready for autopsy. The five pieces in the “Cucinare” series mostly show different foodstuffs (bread, potato chunks) in different containers (a basket, a pan), suggesting the artist as obsessive collector, a documenter of the consumables in her own life. In a large, freestanding untitled piece, a boxlike metal frame contains numerous cotton blobs covered with latex, suggesting creepy dried fruits or vegetables. But any vision of bounty is undercut by the latex’s artificial brown.

Rubin’s work never suggests the generalizations common among the “Unfinished History” pieces–one of the most pretentious is Maurizio Cattelan’s stuffed horse hung from the ceiling, portentously titled Novecento (Twentieth Century). The scale of Rubin’s works–even the large pieces mostly just repeat many small parts–the eccentricity of her shapes, the minimal modifications she’s made to the materials, and her pieces’ apparently personal nature imply that, while this may be one person’s view of the connection between organic matter, time, and death, she’s not offering any universal truth.

But the most modest of these three artists is Maire Kennedy, whose works have a winning simplicity. Her “message” is simply that we should look anew at such ordinary materials as hair and feathers and knitting needles. Simple but artful presentations, often using boxes or pans as frames, focus attention on each substance’s unique sensuality. Kennedy describes the materials in Worn as “fuzz in bundt cake pan.” In Mating several black chessmen (though, curiously, not the king) stand in a black frying pan. In another artist’s hands, such an unusual juxtaposition might be taken as some surrealist statement, but the simplicity of Kennedy’s assemblages and her gently humorous, punning titles suggest playfulness rather than pretension.

Like Rubin’s, Kennedy’s framing devices make us reflect on the way artists in general select and arrange their raw materials. Even her unframed pieces–such as the cluster of knitting needles in Panic, which almost converge at their points–are organized to concentrate their energy. Though Kennedy’s work was conceived without reference to “Unfinished History,” it offers a kind of answer to that show: stop trying to understand the whole world as a grand narrative and rediscover the act of looking itself.

Val Valgardson’s three installations at Beret International treat the idea of framing, particularly how we frame nature, explicitly. As the World Turns consists of two planters placed end to end with three immature hedges growing in each. Running on tracks outside the boxes and parallel to them is a large mechanical hedge trimmer, a metal frame with blades to shear the top, front, and back of the hedges. Valgardson writes that a timer causes the trimmer to switch on every 22 hours, creating “a perfectly shaped rectangular hedge.” A little greenhouse with a peaked roof provides a shelter for the trimmer when the piece is installed outdoors, as intended.

The elaborately clunky As the World Turns parodies the suburban quest for nature perfectly trimmed and contained. This is even more evident in Valgardson’s One Life to Live, in which a tiny plant is surrounded on four sides by a frame with moving metal bars that brush against it, preventing it from growing too far outward. In his statement, Valgardson (who lives in De Kalb) writes that he’s been drawing on “the suburban landscape to create metaphors that prod questions about…the environments we create.” Taking his titles from daytime soaps is another way of reminding us how artificial the worlds we make for ourselves are.

While David Hodges’s tiny untitled paintings and drawings on vellum at the Chicago Cultural Center don’t address nature the way Kennedy’s and Valgardson’s pieces do, he does undercut overly grand ideas of the artist’s role. If Valgardson jokes about our ambitions to order the world, and Kennedy’s more modest works free rather than imprison their materials, Hodges offers a view of the artist as someone who tells little stories–strange, mysterious tales–while adding a bit of color to the world. Here, on a single wall, most of Hodges’s tiny color paintings are juxtaposed with black-and-white, often less detailed sketches of the same scene.

Hodges, a Chicagoan, also makes more finished-looking paintings, and while some of these may be sketches for such works, the whole wall is meant to stand alone as an installation. Typically, seeing pencil sketches alongside a color painting reveals the understructure of the artist’s finished work, but here one notices the way sharp lines and harsh shadows in graphite are greatly softened in the color paintings. A man lying nude on a couch is starkly shaded in the pencil sketches, but his skin tones blend smoothly in the painting. In general Hodges’s colors are subdued, somewhat desaturated, as if underlaid with gray. They’re also slightly uneven, with a supple sensuousness like that of human skin.

The color adds a tactility not present in the black-and-white sketches: a scene merely outlined in pencil suddenly comes to life in the color paintings. One image, of two older men watching TV in a kitchen, juxtaposes these two modes: the lower portion, including the men, is made up of uncolored outlines, but the color in the upper part of the background heightens one’s sense of color’s power–the subtly varying cream of the refrigerator is particularly seductive.

Hodges told me that he’s more interested in his subject matter than in the pictures’ small size, but their smallness does make the artist’s role seem more modest. Rather than filling one’s field of vision, these pictures require the viewer to come to them, making him an active participant; Hodges’s mysterious scenes also encourage the viewer to imagine the stories behind them. Are the two men in the kitchen brothers, friends, or longtime lovers? Hodges offered another possibility, that these figures might be different versions of the same person–perhaps, I would add, versions of himself.

The apparent humility of Hodges’s small paintings, paralleling the subversion of grand ambitions in Kennedy’s and Valgardson’s work, is also supported by some of his subjects. One image labeled “Dictator” shows a nude man with a potbelly shouting into a microphone; his unimpressive physique made me wish that other leaders had had to campaign in their birthday suits. In another image a young girl appears to be bringing a basket of fruit to an older man; behind them is a porch with large columns, and in the distance a city skyline. The simple activity renders the hints at architectural grandeur a bit absurd.

There’s a strong homoerotic element in Hodges’s stories. A shirtless young man stands next to an older man, viewing some jars of honey at a fair. In one image a deliveryman carries a large parcel wrapped in pink ribbon; in the painting next to it, the parcel is unwrapped and the deliveryman is nude. I wondered if there was some wish fulfillment here–the painter not only brings color and life to the world but has the power to undress whomever he chooses–but Hodges told me that he painted the nude image first.

Four images show a young African-American man nude on a bed in a hotel room. In the first three, an older black man, also nude, plays a trumpet for him; in the last, the older man has been replaced by a hotel maid. Whatever drama these four pictures suggest, the way the dark green walls are echoed by tinges of green in the men’s skin is part of what makes Hodges’s small works powerful: together with the miniature scale, the understated colors prevent the drama from seeming more significant than it is. We don’t see the loss of a great love or the pathos of tricking or anger at another’s failure to appreciate one’s music but a tiny moment in time, a particular human situation that cannot be generalized. We’re all creatures of such particularities, trapped in our own clothes or skins or kitchens, feeling passions that are often less significant than they seem.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Number 2 (Dissection)” by Marci Rubin; “As the World Turns” by Val Valgardson; Drawing and Painting by David Hodges/ all photos by Steve Matteo.