Mike Cramer: 3Reel/3Real

at ATC Space, through December 9

By Erin Hogan

One step in the door of Mike Cramer’s exhibition at the ATC Space and you’re already caught in his web. Cramer’s name is barely to be seen. Instead the space is filled with portraits in oil on tile by Ross Hogan, acrylics on paper and canvas by Duncan Best, and lyrically abstract mixed-media constructions by William Lenox Haynes. Ross Hogan is a local artist, a Chicagoan who likes to roam the streets looking for the human-interest story behind the old woman with the tripod cane or the accordion player with the Underdog cap. His portraits are empathetic and finely done, bright and vivid. Best is a British plumber from Manchester, a soccer hooligan who takes “found” work–thrift-store paintings or plumbing diagrams–and retools them by overpainting words or cartoonish images on their surfaces. Haynes, originally from Detroit, is a gay New Yorker whose abstract color-field paintings, most of them on wooden boards and panels, are broad expanses of pigment with rich, old photographs embedded in them.

Hogan, Best, and Haynes are inventions of Cramer’s imagination. For each persona he has prepared a sketchy exhibition history, critical apparatus, and distinct personality based on popular stereotypes of “the artist.” Cramer has also produced an ersatz documentary with about ten minutes on each of the artists, complete with interviews, critical commentary, “slice of life” footage, and shots of himself as each of the artists at work. The documentary, directed by Kim Clark (and showing at 8 PM on November 10, 11, and 17 and December 1 and 8), is crucial to understanding Cramer’s masquerade. Without it, the gallery viewer gets only a two-dimensional perspective on the work. The video frames Cramer’s project as one intimately involved with questions of artistic identity as well as artistic originality.

Hogan, for example, is a painter of pleasant portraits, but the documentary, which bills him with tongue in cheek as “your friendly neighborhood artist,” reveals him to be one of the most unpleasant characters you are likely to meet in Wicker Park these days, contemptuous of the critic/gallery system and openly hostile to anyone curious about his work (with special aggression reserved for his ex-girlfriends). He’s capable of empathy only with strangers.

Best is a lovable and artistically illiterate character, who himself was “found” as an artist just as his work originates in the found painting or diagram. Drinking Newcastles with his mates, his artistic credo is “happiness through sound plumbing,” and he doesn’t appear to be kidding. A “critic” in the documentary approvingly calls him “untainted by any sense of art history”–an “insider’s outsider.” Best is far more interested in the fate of the Manchester United football club and in the source of his next beer than anything else.

And Haynes? He’s caught in a vaguely dysfunctional relationship that veers from bitchy despair to cloying affirmation as the documentary records him preparing to unveil his newest works during a dinner party at his well-appointed apartment. When the moment arrives he reveals two horizontal paintings on long planks running across interior columns in the dining room. “Is it a fence?” a guest gently asks.

In Cramer’s world, her comment is as insightful as anything else. The exhibition is very clever, but its conception is in some ways more stimulating than its execution. He’s playing with the two sides of the coin that has always been flipped in the history of modern art, one of which is the ideal of a pure artist, an artist who produces work out of a primary emotional wellspring and who presumably has something significant to communicate. But while many 20th-century artists were fulfilling this role and pouring their souls onto canvas, jesters like Marcel Duchamp hooted from the wings, ready to ridicule their efforts. Duchamp, as just one example, created a female alter ego (Rrose Sélavy), famously tried to exhibit a urinal, and pretended to abandon art in favor of chess. Later, Andy Warhol put his name on work that wasn’t really his production, calling his studio the Factory and ripping subjects straight from advertisements and consumer packaging. In this exhibition Cramer is having his cake and eating it too, flipping that coin over and over again, forcing viewers to wonder who and what they’re really looking at. As a painter, Cramer has an undeniable technical facility, and the Ross Hogan portraits–which are expressive and energetic rather than merely descriptive or perfunctory–are there to prove it. But within the project as a whole, his skill is almost beside the point. It’s as if he offers the portraits as insurance against the idea that the whole enterprise is a complicated lark. Which it is, of course, but with just enough technical grounding to suggest that for all his poses he has an artistic sensibility that you wish were a bit more evident.

Cramer’s work is humorous, but that doesn’t diminish the assertive way he pokes at contemporary art and criticism, the idea of artistic style, and cliches about artistic identity. Even now, writing this, I wonder if these words will wind up in Cramer’s next mockumentary, spoken by one of his black-turtleneck-wearing “curators.” (And the fact that I’m wearing a black turtleneck myself isn’t lost on me.) But at the same time, Cramer’s work is a good gauge of what you the viewer really want out of art.

If you leave the gallery wishing for more of Mike Cramer, then you may still believe in art as some sort of earnest personal expression. Similarly, if you leave thinking the project hits the mark, you’re probably more sympathetic to the other approach, one that makes contemporary conceptual work like Cramer’s so satisfying–the head of Duchamp appearing on the back of the hand as the coin is flipped over and over–even if it’s a satisfaction tinged with a sense of unease about your own complicity as a viewer in his universe.

At the end of the credits of his film, the statement “Except for the real people, the characters in this film are fictitious” appears. In essence, Cramer (as each of the artists), the critics and collectors, and the people enlisted as scripted parts in his dramedy aren’t the “real people,” both an obvious and complicated proposition: obvious because Cramer’s fiction is apparent and complicated because it ultimately leads you to examine your investment in art and artists being “real.” Do you care who the real Mike Cramer is? Are Hogan, Best, and Haynes less real than their creator, or are they more real because they’ve got the wall labels, the signatures, the documentary, the personalities? Cramer’s questions may be bluntly put, but that doesn’t make them any less sophisticated.