Art vs. Commerce: I. Nudes in the Bank

Let’s go to the scoreboard. After last week’s hectic action in Chicago, the results are: Commerce 2, Art 0.

First the rout at the LaSalle Bank Building, 135 S. LaSalle. Hopes ran high as painter Blair Gauntt and sculptor Michael Sippel set up shop Monday in the corridor outside Faber’s cafeteria. A day later they were out on their ear.

Here’s the play-by-play. Last summer the building launched a cultural initiative. Artists who don’t show in galleries would be invited to exhibit in a dozen large glassed-in cases that line the lower-level arcade. Advantage to the building: a certain toniness plus conspicuous support of culture. Advantage to the artists: a chance to catch the eye of 1,300 tenants, many of them moneyed lawyers and brokers.

Christine Petersen, account executive for the firm that manages the LaSalle Bank Building, asked her friend Sippel if he wanted a crack at this opportunity. Sure, he said, and asked if he could share the arcade with his friend Gauntt.

They came in with slides of their work. Sippel builds little wooden houses out of two-by-fours and puts small figures inside that are made of roofing nails and have plaster skulls or heads on them. The outsides are marked in hieroglyphs of Sippel’s invention. Gauntt paints in a menacing new-expressionist manner; the late Francis Bacon was a major influence, Goya another.

A committee of the building’s managers reviewed the slides, and then Petersen told Gauntt and Sippel to go ahead. Gauntt was so excited by the monumental cases along the arcade walls that he decided to paint all new canvases to fill them. His head swam with ideas.

Petersen is sure she told Gauntt no nudes. “Nudes are not what we deem appropriate,” she says. Gauntt remembers Petersen warning him, “Nothing political and nothing sexually exploitative.”

Sexual exploitation was the farthest thing from Gauntt’s mind. Except as a theme. Afterward, Gauntt would interpret one of his new paintings for us, Rape of Medusa–“which never, of course, happened, but I was just thinking in terms of the whole act of rape on an evil victim. It still doesn’t justify it.”

And he would point to the bulging codpiece on the one-eyed brown gnome at the center of the triptych Swingers Swingers Swingers as a fierce reflection on where American men pack their brains.

In style and mood the paintings Gauntt hung, still wet, in the cases of the LaSalle Bank Building looked very much like the paintings in the slides that had passed inspection a few weeks earlier, except that if one looked closely enough, here a breast and there a penis were now discernible. Gauntt and Sippel had expected someone from management to pass final judgment on the works before they went up. But no one was waiting to meet them but a handyman.

The next day Gauntt returned to the arcade to drop off his price list. An associate of Petersen’s named Laura Giampietro led him into a conference room.

“I said, ‘Is this bad?”‘ Gauntt remembers. “She said, ‘Actually, yes. We’ve had several calls from tenants, and we’ll have to ask you to remove all your artwork.’ And she claimed they’d told us no nudes.”

What about Sippel’s little houses? he asked. Those too. “I said, ‘You’re kidding! They say they’re satanic, right?’ She said, ‘Right.’ And it was just this private alphabet he made up back in college!”

Christine Petersen told us the office of the building received six phone calls, and “several times” people stopped to complain to the concierge and security guard in the lobby. That may not strike you as overwhelming repudiation, but it was enough for management. They didn’t even wait for the artists to remove their works. They opened the cases and turned Gauntt’s paintings so they faced the wall.

“It’s a conservative building,” said Petersen.

David Andrews and his wife own the Chicago Blue Print Company, which occupies space along the arcade. “I’m surprised they went up, and once up I’m surprised they came down so immediately,” Andrews told us. “Admittedly, one of art’s functions is to turn us all upside down and apparently it did.”

What did you think? we asked him.

“I thought they were truly ugly. I think there may have been some talent there, but they were grotesque nudes,” Andrews said. “I think they may have been out of his dreams, and I wouldn’t have hung them anywhere.”

And the little houses?

“I personally didn’t feel they were done very well, but one of them had some little tiny skulls on a shelf and on a shelf below was a little white ceramic fertility figure. There was a very large belly and two very large breasts. I think they were grotesque, nightmarish. But satanic is nonsense.

“I didn’t complain,” Andrews went on, “and none of the people I know complained. But when you have a 70-year-old broker walking down the hall to get his lunch you have to expect some reaction–and they got it. I don’t think it’s at all like the paintings at the Art Institute that aldermen raged in on and desecrated. That was a proper venue for anything they wanted to put up.”

Gauntt told us, “I really feel censored or something.” Sippel said, “Originally I thought it was kind of humorous. Here’s the taboo, censored, banned artwork. All right, I’ll come get it down, I don’t give a shit.”

Sippel kept his nonchalance aloft until he drove in to pick up his things. Park it over there, said the boys on the loading dock. When Sippel came back with his little wooden houses it turned out the cops had just come along and towed his car to the pound.

II. Body Parts in the Trib

The week’s other contest pitted the Chicago Tribune against the Halsted Theatre Centre. Jennifer Lister’s acclaimed one-woman show Female Parts has moved into the theater, which wanted to promote it using the same art that made the Female Parts poster one of the hottest commodities of the 1990 Edinburgh drama festival. It’s The Rape, a 1934 painting by Magritte of a woman whose face is her torso, her eyes being her breasts, her nose her navel, and her mouth her etcetera.

The Tribune wouldn’t accept the ad.

“We don’t show nudity,” says Tribune spokesman Jeff Bierig.

Theater manager Doug Hartzell’s response was to issue a press release. It claimed the theater’s ad campaign “was stymied today when the Chicago Tribune, bowing to possible complaints from its conservative readership, censored a classic painting . . . ”

The Halsted Theatre Centre and the Tribune entered delicate negotiations over modifying the ad. These nearly foundered in the wake of the theater’s press advisory–the newspaper’s new attitude, Hartzell told us, was that “since the media had been bothering the Tribune all day long, they weren’t going to run the ad at all.”

But unlike the collision of values on LaSalle Street, this grim struggle between the forces of light and darkness ended in compromise. Last week’s Friday section of the Tribune carried the Magritte painting, albeit with two black strips crossing it horizontally high and low.

“It looks like a Mr. Potato Head,” Hartzell grumbled.

Fire and Flood

We’re afraid the Great Chicago Flood of 1992 just got put into perspective. Fire is more photogenic than water, and water buried in tunnels and subbasements far from hovering press helicopters isn’t photogenic at all. In Chicago no one died or was maimed, local incompetence couldn’t compare to Daryl Gates’s, and our racial angle consisted mostly of speculation that Mayor Daley wanted to give Ben Reyes a pass.

But what truly set Los Angeles above and beyond was its nihilism. Our flood raised paltry concerns that the nation’s urban infrastructure is falling apart. Their riot pushed the button dread: black people going crazy, looting and burning their own neighborhoods and killing any whites who happened by.

Even though Field’s and Carson’s shut down for days on end, and smaller Loop merchants lost millions of dollars in business, we heard nobody say the Great Chicago Flood violated America. But over an aerial view of smoldering Koreatown, a TV announcer spoke of the torching of the “American dream.” A news story about a South Korean delegation being dispatched to LA to seek reparations quoted the speaker of Korea’s parliament as saying “Damage was more than physical, but the collapse of the American dream.”

Just a few weeks ago our national dream was healthy enough to be invoked by President Bush. Paying tribute to ailing Sam Walton, Bush gave the founder of the Wal-Mart chain the Presidential Medal of Freedom and called him “an American original who embodied the entrepreneurial spirit and epitomized the American dream.”

When Walton died in April, the Chicago Tribune acknowledged certain truths: “Some Main Street stores were overrun by the giant who had gobbled up acres of cornfields outside of town. Most overlooked the destructive nature of Walton’s brand of capitalism, however, to get lower prices and greater selection.”

It is one thing to be overrun by nihilists and quite another to be overrun by progress. But there was a time–back before unemployment in the most ravaged section of LA rose to 50 percent and the last local factory moved to Mexico in the 80s–when all those mom and pop businesses obliterated by either rioters or Sam Walton would have been what a president spoke of when he spoke of the American dream.

Today, to stand for what’s best about America it helps to be a self-made multibillionaire.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.