The Reader‘s archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we’ll dig through and bring up some finds.
One of the charms of reading the Reader, back in the Golden Age of classified ads when editorial space was not at such a premium and writers had more freedom to write about oddities they happened to find, was getting to meet Chicago artists who were unlikely to become famous or even earn a living in their chosen fields but who continued to create and dream anyway. Such a person was Joe Rode, a sculptor who, in December, 2000, was having his first exhibition since the 1970s, when he’d owned his own gallery. The Reader‘s art critic, Fred Camper, commemorated the occasion by writing a profile.
The reason for the long hiatus, Camper wrote, was that after Rode’s gallery had gone under, he’d had to take a day job as a CTA bus driver. Then one day, Rode happened to be walking around his neighborhood when he saw a little gallery on Paulina near Lincoln that was showing assemblage art similar to his own. He spoke to the gallery owner and voila! an exhibit of three dozen of his works.
The piece concentrates as much on Rode’s art as it does on his life story, which is not extraordinary but which is entertaining anyway.
By 1967 the draft had caught up with him. Inducted into the army and assigned to communications training in New Jersey, he did his best to fail the course. “It was hard to do,” he says. “Day after day you would get the same test, and you kept going, ‘Dang! I’d better change that answer or I’m going to pass this thing.’ This was a time when the military itself lost control. They had so many draftees that didn’t want to be there, and it was very hard to control those people. More than once we went to New York for three days and they never missed us. But what were they going to do—throw me out?”
In 1975, Rode, with the financial support of his wife, Nancy, rented a space across the street from Wrigley Field for $100 a month and opened up “Z Poor Polish Art Museum.” (It is astonishing to think that such a thing could have once existed in Wrigleyville.) In the two years it was open, he sold exactly zero pieces of art. Rising rents forced him to the CTA. He eventually sold two pieces, he told Camper, but he missed them so much, he stopped exhibiting.
Rode was not a great artist. Camper’s response to the show is critical, but also generous:
Rode’s comeback show at Jettsett spans three decades of his career; even by the standards of outsider art it’s extremely raw, and Rode’s love of excess would make some of the “Hairy Who” artists of the 60s seem mild by comparison. Yet his pieces are usually held together by some basic unifying principles: an underlying symmetry, a balance, a pattern of forms echoing each other. They’re also carefully considered.
But Joe Rode was finally exhibiting again. And doesn’t a Chicago life deserve to be celebrated, too?