at Around the Coyote Gallery

A lot of art today is being made in response to the gaudy late-modernist heroism of the 1980s, represented by people like David Salle, Julian Schnabel, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The idea behind the current low-key approach is that it’s better to be charismatically pathetic than to run the risk of looking cluelessly pretentious. “Macerate” at the Around the Coyote space illustrates the benefits of this potentially disastrous reaction. Addressing the theme of adolescence, this exhibit by 15 artists suggests both the comfortably half-assed, backward-looking conformity of much contemporary art and its gloriously undirected energy and wide-open, approachable take on sticky issues of self-consciousness.

Curated by Currency Exchange (Nicole Sorg and Liz Rosenfeld), “Macerate” is largely a showcase for the kind of half-ironic, half-straightforward youth-nostalgic “rocker” art that’s become increasingly common in Chicago’s independent galleries over the past five years. Really, the theme of rocker art is always adolescence–white suburban adolescence, that is–and its commodified symbols of belonging and alienation. An almost self-aware parody of atavistic identity art a la Adrian Piper and Cindy Sherman, rocker art replaces propaganda with nonthreatening, digestible imagery. Familiar as its subjects are, though, the variety of media in “Macerate” and its overall lighthearted energy keep it from feeling stale.

Several pieces dealing directly with popular music suggest that something operatic and grandly affirming in our collective inner child is somehow being stifled. Frank Ebert in his untitled works uses accomplished drawing and painting techniques not to be illustrational or photorealistic but to comment on the endearingly juvenile fetishization of such techniques. In a romantic oil painting reminiscent of J.M.W. Turner, he depicts a voguing Cyndi Lauper dwarfed by a plume of what might be a gulf war oil-field blaze. And in a pencil drawing suggesting a New Yorker cartoon, he shows a long-haired guitarist hitting a power chord beneath a stone arch being demolished by a jackhammer operator. In Sara Ferguson’s As Big as Missy Elliott, an electric fan inflates a pink flowered muumuu repeatedly emblazoned with the title phrase, evoking the star’s long-bygone days of flaunting her “big ass.” In Andy Roche’s Use Your Illusion II, three monitors display video documentation of an electric guitar performance by a man with a blanket over his head and no pants. The monitors manage to claustrophobically contain the tiny windowless room in which he wanders, strumming his instrument.

Ghosts of performances haunt many pieces as well. Noelle Mason’s mutant hoop skirt, What I Wore After the Bomb: Invisible Hermaphrodite, is made of olive green tent material covered with fake slime (nylon stockings and casting resin), while a collection of fabric pods attached to it with strings sprawls throughout the gallery; a video of the performance is part of the installation. This womb/tent/dress has a sci-fi dimension reminiscent of H.R. Giger and Gremlins. Like Ebert’s pieces, Mason’s What I Wore is justified by its surface finish and brio, its juxtaposition of scrappy and slick, rather than formal invention or cerebral intent.

“Macerate” has its share of the sort of trippy mandalas marketed by Day-Glo art factories like Paper Rad and Dearraindrop. James Tsang and Math Bass–the duo Marriage–gave a performance on opening night that included lush animated videos of collaged magical imagery. All that remains of it now are some totemic artifacts–a cute model of a coyote and a golden cane, the latter alluding to the piece’s nominal theme of disability. But what’s important is the pagan energy associated with growing up and inventing a system of meaning in an anarchic world of overrepresentation. Kathy Grayson’s large, Op-esque painting T-Rex is a simulated Photoshop version of what might once have been a snapshot of two young children in front of a tyrannosaur skeleton. With the media mimicry typical of this school of art, Grayson imitates a photo altered by a low-fi paint program in which the shapes are traced and then replaced by a bitmap pattern fill. Nearly all the forms are comprised of clashing rhythmic fields of black-and-white shapes, except for the children’s arms and faces and one rainbow, the trademark of this style. In a similar attempt at groovy hypnosis, William O’Brian has rainbows swimming over period snapshots in his attractive video piece, A Silent Descent. In contrast to these instances of distanced nostalgia is Jim Trainor’s 16-millimeter animation The Antrozous, a lovely loop of zoological morphs he created when he was an actual high school student in the actual 1970s.

After operating for more than a year as Up the Stairs Gallery, this space was recently renamed Around the Coyote–and in fact it’s always been affiliated with ATC. A modest little venue that shows good stuff, it’s nevertheless associated with the irrepressible crap market that is the twice-a-year festival. The differences between the festival and the eponymous gallery illuminate the gulf between Chicago’s many bumbling collectors, art faculty, and curators on one hand and, on the other, its frustrated hordes of young artists waiting for our town to catch up with prevailing critical and formal concerns. Many of these artists face the adolescent dilemma that if consumers, art school instructors, and curators in River North or older nonprofit spaces actually like or “get” their work, it probably sucks. Just look at the art these institutional tastemakers buy, make, or assemble for shows: obsessed with “good” design, boring, and square.

At the opening, a beer-clutching art lover used stepping on a sculpture as an excuse for starting up a conversation–I almost wondered if he was doing a performance. He said he’d seen a lot of the art at the ATC festivals and found it much more “mature” than this show, which he thought “disappointing.” But when he said he’d give it a B-minus, I knew rocker art was in trouble–not for being homogeneous but for being a little too ingratiating. Guys like this should be giving shows like this an F.

When: Through July 1: Thu-Sat noon-6 PM

Where: Around the Coyote, 1935-1/2 W. North

Price: Free

Info: 773-342-6777

More: Closing night, July 1, features a performance and film and video screenings.