Gitte Villesen/Ingar Dragset and Michael Elmgreen

at University of Illinois at Chicago Gallery 400, through July 24

Christian Schmidt-Rasmussen

at Ten in One, through August 1


at Tough, through August 1

By Fred Camper

Increasingly in recent years exhibition names seem meaningless and even craven attention-getting devices; “Bicycle Thieves”–the title for 11 exhibits by young Scandinavians, mostly from Copenhagen, now on view in Chicago and Milwaukee–is yet another example. The curators suggest that the name “hints at the mobile, hit-and-run-like character of the project…and the unmotorized transportation culture that abounds in Denmark.” The only reference to transportation I saw, however, was in a video about a man in love with his car. So why not “Grand Theft Auto?” Presumably because stealing a bicycle, even in “unmotorized” Denmark, sounds cute, whereas everyone knows that car thieves are evil.

Not surprisingly the quality of the art varies widely. Typically mediocre is Jens Haaning’s not very original collection of found objects at TBA. Typically hideous is the collaborative effort in graffitilike spray paint at the Chicago Project Room, aptly named Caught in the Act: Sorry We Fucked Up Your Gallery. At any rate, the metaphors of bicycle stealing and hit-and-run accidents seem inappropriate to all the work, and especially to the good art on view.

David Robbins in his essay in the exhibition booklet not only makes a stab at describing contemporary Scandinavian art but tries to relate it to the midwest, which he sees as a kind of between-the-coasts geographic and social analogue. He finds in Scandinavian art an “objectivity” that’s “supple, funny, alive, playful” and connects it to the “literalism…understatement…and deadpan” of Scandinavian comedy. I see a different thread running through much of the art on view, however, one common among younger artists but particularly focused here: an antiestablishment, antiauthoritarian, antimonumentalist celebration of quirky individual human lives. In the best of “Bicycle Thieves,” intentionally unoriginal forms create small, local, provisional meanings.

At Gallery 400 Gitte Villesen’s two videos, Who Gets the Food? and Willy Goes for a Drive, focus on an elderly acquaintance of hers. In one video Willy describes how two cats steal food off his window ledge, while in the other he talks about his car in human terms: “Did you see how happy it was when it was going for a ride?” Both are presented in the flat, artless style of home videos. “I’m interested in finding answers in the models people have for their way of coping with life,” Villesen has written–and there is an appealing humanism to her focus on Willy’s mundane interests. But I wondered whether this humanism might have been better served by a little more careful editing and choice of imagery. Must the celebration of the mundane be itself mundane?

Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset’s installation Powerless Structure at the same gallery shows that something that looks ordinary can be quite complex conceptually. Six white canvases are hung from the ceiling in the middle of the room, each with one or two round holes in it. An adjacent wall contains more circular holes. In an obvious challenge to geometrical abstraction from Malevich to minimalism, this piece represents the idea of a perfect form–here a circle–by its absence. Instead of art that asserts itself, here we have art that defines itself through excision. The canvases are also lit so that several overlapping shadows of the viewer’s head appear on some of them–a witty reference to portraiture, though here the artist’s permanent forms are replaced with transitory silhouettes.

The cutouts, resembling peepholes, also suggest a certain voyeurism, enhanced by two pairs of men’s pants lying crumpled on the floor behind a post, as if removed in a hurry. Moreover, most of the canvas holes are at crotch level–these are also “glory holes,” usually made in rest room stalls by gay men for anonymous sex. Elmgreen and Dragset seem to mock the idea that geometrical forms reveal an underlying ideal order: forms here are to be put to use by the insertion of a penis.

Christian Schmidt-Rasmussen at Ten in One puts his materials to more conventional use but adopts a similarly mocking attitude: these seven acrylic-on-canvas paintings seem intentionally bad. They have no rhythm, the colors lack vibrancy and depth, and the subjects are sophomoric. Schmidt-Rasmussen seems to be borrowing from folk art, children’s books, thrift-shop art–everything but the mainstream Western aesthetic tradition. His forms look like copies of copies. Animals and vegetables–ducks, eggs, cucumbers–are accompanied by hand-lettered texts on panels that offer warped, trippy versions of nursery rhymes, often with a faint sociopolitical edge. In Because the Spoon Wanted the Egg to Leave Its Shell…, an apple, a spoon, and an egg with a face sit on a green shoreline. Their happy, cartoony colors are undercut by the cracks at the top of the egg, which seem to be bleeding; the egg looks unhappy. The text informs us that “the egg was extremely sad and wanted to commit suicide because the spoon wanted the egg to leave its shell. The spoon showed no compassion and told the egg to pull it self together. The apple had maintained its optimism, and it sang autumn will never come, no, no, no, autumn will never come.” A distant snowman visible on top of the water seems to say not only that autumn will come, however, but that winter is on its way too.

Fairy tales are frightening parables in which death is all too real, and Schmidt-Rasmussen hints at death in his scenario despite the painting’s cheerful colors. His other pictures offer similarly dystopic visions: their subjects seem to yearn for Edenic completeness, a lost world in which autumn never comes. Or, like the egg in another painting, they want to fly up among the stars and transcend it all: in the four-panel The Story About the Egg, a teddy bear lays an egg that in the adjacent panel seems to have been fried, the yolk and white painted to resemble Saturn and its rings. But we know that fried eggs, like cracked ones, are ready to be eaten.

The social dimension of Schmidt-Rasmussen’s project is most apparent in Once Upon a Time There Was a Farmer Who Had a Duck…Its long text describes how a farmer becomes enraged at a duck for laughing at his frustration while filling out tax forms and decapitates it. The headless duck, blood flowing from its neck stump, sits dead center while various animals, each shedding a tear, surround it. This “peaceable kingdom” has been rent asunder by human rage at bureaucracy; one critic argues that in general Schmidt-Rasmussen is protesting Denmark’s social system.

Schmidt-Rasmussen’s paintings are engaging for the same reason they’re problematic: one doesn’t quite know how to take them. They’re clearly visions of a world gone wrong, but is their kitschy style the result of the artist’s modest abilities or an intentional comment on Western culture? These provocative surfaces yield no easy answers, though it’s apparent that the decapitated duck is less the representation of a real duck than it is a painting of another duck image, perhaps a decoy or an illustration from a children’s book. Yet the bloody stump is vivid enough to prevent one from dismissing the picture as mere pomo irony. Something is at risk here, but it’s not clear what.

The four-person design collective N55, four of whose works are at Tough, presents a utopian alternative to Schmidt-Rasmussen’s dystopias. Their clear, elegant designs for a chair, a table, a bathtub, and a hydroponic garden create objects on a human scale–intended to accommodate themselves to the body rather than dwarfing it and to play an eco-friendly role in our industrial society.

In its booklet “Art and Reality” (available in the gallery), N55 argues that art must exist in relation to individual persons, that the “concentrations of power” in our culture “do not always respect the rights of persons,” and that we must therefore “seek to organize the smallest concentrations of power possible.” In their worldview “ethics become decisive for aesthetics.” Dynamic Chair, for example, is an elegant stool, supported by a sparse steel frame, whose triangular seat is designed to pivot according to the user’s posture. “It is possible for the user to roll the hips while sitting down, as if sitting on a ball,” N55 write in a booklet about the object. In fact it does seem to accommodate various sitting positions while encouraging one to keep one’s back straight. Though originally there were three such chairs on view, now there are only two: unfortunately N55’s gentle, spare design–employing “few and light components with a low degree of manufacturing”–couldn’t stand up to treatment by an obnoxious overweight visitor who “tested” it by bouncing up and down.

All of N55’s objects recall the clean, simple forms of early modernism–of works from the Bauhaus, for example. But there’s a crucial difference. Designs by Mies and his colleagues bear little direct relationship to the human body; instead they partake of an idealism in which it’s assumed that the innate perfection of forms will improve the quality of human life. Indeed, a long utopian tradition in architecture holds that whatever forms appeal to the architect, from Prairie school homes to buildings based on imaginary rotating cubes, will somehow make all our lives better. In other words, when Frank Lloyd Wright insisted his clients rid themselves of the unauthorized furnishings they added to his homes, he was doing them a favor. Or maybe he was simply insisting they conform to his will. The latter seems more likely considering the assertive geometry of Wright’s designs–just compare one of his chairs to N55’s. By contrast each of N55’s objects seems intended to accommodate individual users.

Hygiene System is a toilet and bathing apparatus made up of three identical nearly cubic modules: one for the water supply, another to sit in while bathing, and a third with a biodegradable bag that collects urine and feces for any one of several eco-friendly recycling methods, outlined in the booklet on this object. The unassertive simplicity of these forms is elegant in itself, yet they seem to ask for completion by a human presence. Whereas a Wright interior benefits by the absence of human figures, which at any rate won’t be dressed in clothing that matches the furniture, Hygiene System would undoubtedly look even better with a bather.

The 66 sprouting bean plants rising from little patches of moss in the three wall-mounted long black tubes of Home Hydroponic Unit not only look just fine by themselves, they also form a wonderful contrast to Tough’s dank, dark basement space. Lit by utilitarian plant lights, Home Hydroponic Unit has attracted a welcome fly or two. An even more welcome image is that of the beans being harvested and eaten–put to a truly human use.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Willy Goes for A Drive” by Gitte Villesen; “Once Upon a Time There Was a Farmer Who Had a Duck…” By Christian Schmidt-Rasmussen.