“David Bowie Is”
9/23-1/4/15, Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, 312-280-2660, mcachicago.org, $25.
One of the most anticipated events of the fall arts season is the MCA’s “David Bowie Is,” in which the museum surveys the work of Bowie, an obscure, forgotten artist of minor import. We spoke with the exhibit’s cocurator, Victoria Broackes, head of exhibitions for the Department of Theatre & Performance at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, about the background of “David Bowie Is” and what Chicagoans can plan on seeing at the MCA. —Tal Rosenberg
Why did you choose the MCA over other American museums?
Because we conceived it in an art and design museum, we were particularly keen that it would go to museums of art and design. Although it is sound and vision, it also looks at the cultural context of his works. I probably shouldn’t say this, but when we opened it first in London, we only had one museum in the entire world signed up to take it. That was in São Paolo, and that’s quite unusual for an exhibition at the VMA. It’s sort of a sign of the fact that nobody knew quite what to expect and whether it was going to be a hit, either critically or with the public. You know, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that it was going to be a hit. It was, and a few museums kind of got in touch very, very quickly, and the MCA was one of those.
How will the presentation at the MCA differ from what was on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum? What can Chicagoans expect to see at the exhibit?
On the whole, the objects are the same. There’s a slight emphasis on chronology at the MCA. I think Michael Darling, the curator there, felt that it was necessary that it have a little bit more explanation. As for the second question, well, it is a sort of panoply of wonderful objects from the Bowie archives, including costumes, photographs, set designs, drawings, art, lyrics—but set in a wide cultural context along with Andy Warhol and Kabuki theater and German expressionism, things that actually explain where Bowie gets his ideas from. We had long wanted to do an exhibition about David Bowie, but we didn’t know if the material existed, and we didn’t know that there was this fabulous archive. We were introduced to his management and discovered that.
So you were just approached by chance?
Yeah. I mean, we were talking to other people in the music business, and you know, it’s genuinely true to say that Bowie was on the top of a very short list of people we would cover in a single-subject exhibition.
In the New York Review of Books, Ian Buruma wrote, “Artists and filmmakers have often created interesting results by refining popular culture into high art. Bowie did the opposite: he would, as he once explained in an interview, plunder high art and take it down to the street; that was his brand of rock-and-roll theater.” Could you see how putting on an art exhibition about David Bowie might have the reverse effect: It takes the high art that Bowie takes down to the street and brings it back to the high-art world?
Well, I think that’s very interesting. I mean, on the one hand, when Bowie says he brings high art down to the street level, what it really is is that he’s bringing these quite esoteric ideas to an enormous public. So I think that’s the great thing about Bowie: he’s not constrained by expectations or what sort of people or what sort of art form should contain what sort of ideas. This is for everyone. We’re not saying hey, come and see this super-duper high-art museum. This is for all of us, and you’re all welcome here.
“Warhol, Reed, and Bowie”
Don’t want to deal with the mobs at the MCA’s big Bowie exhibit? A quieter show featuring the Thin White Duke is happening on the northwest side. In “Warhol, Reed, and Bowie,” Jefferson Park’s Ed Paschke Art Center is displaying select shots of that trinity of enigmatic pop figures from the massive catalog of Zelig-like photographer Steve Schapiro, a New York native who after a quarter century in Los Angeles moved to Chicago seven years ago.
The consummate fly on the wall, Schapiro always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. Having been a photojournalist for Life magazine in the 60s, he captured Robert Kennedy campaigning in California, Martin Luther King Jr. demonstrating in Selma, Muhammad Ali shadowboxing in his living room, Truman Capote lying in bed. He holed up with Warhol and the Velvet Underground at a dilapidated LA castle during the Exploding Plastic Inevitable tour; several of those shots are featured in the EPAC show.
During the Hollywood renaissance of the late 60s and 70s, Schapiro became a hired gun for studios’ promotional arms; he was the set photographer for such classic films as Midnight Cowboy, The Godfather, and Taxi Driver. The candid between-scenes moments he captured would become some of the most iconic images of the last 60 years.
While on the set of Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, Schapiro snapped a shot of Bowie smoking a cigarette that Rolling Stone put on the cover of its February 1976 issue; another pic became Bowie’s Station to Station album cover. Both of those pieces are on view at the EPAC, as are famous images of Bowie holding a Buster Keaton book from 1975 (the resemblance is uncanny) and another of the rocker leaning over the handlebars of a motorcycle, like some sleazy 70s update of Brando in The Wild One.
“My session with Bowie started at four in the afternoon and ended at four in the morning,” the 80-year-old recalls of the ’76 shoot that produced the latter photo. “He’d come out of the dressing room in all these incredible outfits, and after a few minutes he’d say, ‘I have to go make an adjustment,’ and he’d come back wearing something wildly different. He is a true chameleon.” —Jake Malooley
9/13-11/15, Ed Paschke Art Center, 5415 W. Higgins, 312-533-4911, edpaschke.org.
“Michael L. Abramson: Pulse of the Night”
9/2-12/19, Columbia College Library, 624 S. Michigan, 312-369-8177, mocp.org, free
None of the 36 black-and-white photos that make up Michael Abramson’s first solo show in Chicago come with captions or any identifying information—if you weren’t “the woman on the right” or a regular at south-side clubs such as Pepper’s House or Perv’s House in the mid-70s, chances are these images will be a total mystery. Abramson, who passed away at 62 in 2011, didn’t even name his photographs.
The absence of a backstory makes it easier to get lost in Abramson’s lively images. “We wanted ones that showed the energy of the nightclubs,” says Abramson’s longtime partner, Midge Wilson, who helped curate “Pulse of the Night.” The energy is there; it’s in Abramson’s unconventional framing, which occasionally sits at a slight angle that accentuates the spontaneity of many moments he captures; it’s in the crumpled cigarette packs, half-drunken glasses of booze, and worn-down furniture that fills the background of some shots; and it’s in the intimate shots of clubgoers relaxing on benches or getting lost in a song on the dance floor.
Abramson printed all but two of the photos back in the 70s—Numero Group published most of them in 2009’s Light: On the South Side, which packaged a hardbound book of Abramson’s work along with a double-LP compilation of blues tunes that filled south-side jukeboxes during that time. Six of the photos weren’t included in Light: On the South Side, and according to cocurator and archivist Kristin Basta, they’ve never been seen publicly either.
“Pulse of the Night” is spread throughout the second floor of Columbia College Chicago’s library. It’s an unusual space for a gallery show, but it’s kind of fitting; Abramson documented people as they lived, and rather than quarantining his work in a gallery this show is on display in a building that’s an integral part of college life. —Leor Galil
“Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to Photographic Masters”
11/7-1/31/15: Catherine Edelman Gallery, 300 W. Superior, 312-266-2350, edelmangallery.com.
Sandro Miller first shot John Malkovich 17 years ago, and the actor remains one of the photographer’s favorite subjects/collaborators. “He’s a genius, a chameleon,” Miller says. “He’s willing to go places other actors of his status wouldn’t think of going. He’ll let me do anything with him.” When Miller decided he wanted to pay homage to the photographers who influenced him as an artist by re-creating some of their most famous shots in painstaking detail, there was no question who he would use as a model. In the resulting exhibit, opening at Catherine Edelman Gallery, Malkovich appears as more than 30 characters, including Truman Capote, John Lennon, and Marilyn Monroe (thrice). “If you see John in a little dress like Diane Arbus’s twins,” Miller says, “you wouldn’t believe it.” After Chicago, the show moves on to New York and Paris; there will also be a companion book and a documentary from local filmmakers Jon Siskel (Gene’s nephew) and Greg Jacobs. —Aimee Levitt
“Michael Schmelling: Your Blues”
10/16-12/21, 600 S. Michigan, 312-663-5554, mocp.org.
Michael Schmelling doesn’t typically insert himself into his work. Though the photographer exhibits in galleries and museums, he has a journalistic approach, capturing his subjects—which have included the likes of Lorde and Earl Sweatshirt—with a sense of objectivity. But when the River Forest native returned to Chicago after more than two decades to document the city’s music scene, he consulted with himself. Or, rather, with the person he was in 1991, when he left for college. “I really wanted to figure out what I’d be doing if I’d stayed—if I was 17 or 18, what shows I’d be going to,” he says. “It was going back and getting back into things that were interesting to me then, getting back into that head space.”
Last year, Schmelling began traveling here from his current home in LA. He caught acts in the basements of DIY venues like Animal Kingdom and shot while Jimmy Whispers writhed around the Hideout stage at the Summer in Pain Fest. He wrapped up the yearlong project in late July after attending Pitchfork, and in October he’ll display 60 to 80 images at the Museum of Contemporary Photography.
Before the museum commissioned the project, Schmelling spent a year infiltrating Atlanta’s music scene, and subsequently released a book called Atlanta: Hip-Hop and the South. The photos in that series betray common conceptions about blinged-out, big-money Dirty South rap; one of the most striking images depicts a makeshift recording booth, egg-carton foam sloppily affixed to the walls of a closet that’s empty except for a microphone. Schmelling sent the book to MCP curator Karen Irvine, and the two decided the photographer should similarly record Chicago’s music scene.
Reintroducing himself, Schmelling didn’t have a point of entry—a particular band or venue. He says one of the first performances he attended was at, of all places, ChiTown Futbol, a Pilsen soccer facility. “You go to one place, you see a flyer for another show, you get connected,” he says. Plugged-in Chicagoans—among them Reader music writer Leor Galil and musician/author Tim Kinsella, who wrote an essay to accompany the exhibit—helped direct him when he literally lost his way (DIY venue addresses aren’t commonly known). Schmelling avoided focusing on one genre to the exclusion of others, as he did with the Atlanta book; its name notwithstanding, this is not an exhibit about the city’s blues pedigree.
“But the history of Chicago music was always on my mind,” he says. “I hope it’s there in the show.” —Gwynedd Stuart
Through 11/30. Bench locations available at moniquemeloche.com.
For four years, Monique Meloche has tried to rent the ad space on the bus-stop bench that sits in front of her Division Street gallery on the southwest edge of Wicker Park. “It’s always occupied by this real estate agent,” she says. “We inquired, and he flat out said no.” Unbowed, Meloche decided earlier this year to widen her scope. With funding from the local chamber of commerce, the gallerist rented six benches in Bucktown and Wicker Park, envisioning them as an extension of her exhibition space, a few more surfaces to be curated. On September 1, the gallery debuted its first Off the Wall show, “Bench Marks,” a series of photographic works by Hank Willis Thomas. That one of his pet subjects is the portrayal of African-Americans in advertising made the 38-year-old New York artist a shrewd choice to subvert a space traditionally used to persuade commuters to consume rather than to consider. “Advertising is this amazingly powerful, ubiquitous language,” Thomas said recently over the phone. “I’m interested in using it to talk about the market of ideas rather than to market a product.” In a couple of the pieces plucked from past series, Thomas alters vintage ads that appeared in magazines like Ebony and Jet, removing the product and brand logos to spotlight the image of blackness being sold in tandem. In The Cotton Bowl, a Thomas original that has the sheen of a sports drink ad, a lineman on a football field crouches down, mirrored by a slave bending over in a field of cotton. The work is presented free of explanation or context. “It’s going to cause some sort of dialogue: ‘What is this? Advertising?’ It could piss people off,” Meloche says. “But I wanted something provocative. Once you put something like this out there, you have to be willing to face those conversations and those confrontations.” —Jake Malooley
Correction: This article has been amended to reflect that Jimmy Whispers played the Hideout stage at the Summer in Pain Fest.