Interview with Nicky Ni
By Daniel Salamanca

LITHIUM is a Chicago-based gallery in favor of thought-provoking audiovisual art that includes duration as a dimension and unfolds over time.

1932 S Halsted, Suite 200 Chicago, IL 60608 | 773-998-1712
Gallery Hours:Saturday 1-6 p.m., and by appointment

1. Can you tell me a little bit about the founders and team behind the space? Has it changed or evolved? And also, what’s the story behind the beautiful name that you chose? 

In October 2017, three alumni and one graduate student from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) formed an anonymous collective that started a gallery space called LITHIUM. Located in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, LITHIUM is dedicated to providing a gallery setting for time-based art. The mission is to promote thought-provoking audiovisual art that includes duration as a dimension and unfolds over time.

The managerial team has changed and evolved over time: a few left and we’ve welcomed a new temporary member as well. The anonymity has dissolved a little bit though we never really officially announce who’s behind LITHIUM.

The name “LITHIUM” is more than an appropriation of Nirvana’s song of the same title – which apparently all co-founders enjoy immensely – and has several symbolic meanings. One interpretation of the name is that it comes from the “lithium batteries,” which power the electronic devices we use. The other refers to a type of psychiatric medication that includes lithium salts as an ingredient. Lithium salts is frequently used as a stabilizer for emotional instability and bipolar disorder; we intend the projects of LITHIUM to be a “stabilizer” for unstable media such as time-based art.

2. Why do you think that a time-based art gallery was necessary in Chicago art scene, back in October 2017 and today?  

Historically, the term “time-based art” was coined by British artist David Hall in the late 1960s, amidst an international artistic landscape where video was beginning to be widely applied in artmaking. In the decades that followed, time-based art usually described any technology-based art ranging from expanded cinema, videos, to kinetic installations that involve light and sound. The emergence of the Internet coupled with the postmodern environment in the early 1990s displayed an interdisciplinary tendency in the art world, and medium-specificity was no longer an issue for contemporary artists. However, though the cross-disciplinary approach to art-making is certainly exciting, it does create an unbalanced situation for exhibiting certain contemporary art. Artworks that are deemed too difficult technically to show can easily be curtailed due to lack of equipment support; ephemeral art such as multi-media installations and live performances also encounter great obstacles finding a dedicated collectorship and patronage.

Though Chicago has a prominent scene of underground cinemas and independent theaters, there is a lack of space in the entire city that explores the possibilities between the black-box cinema and the white-cube gallery. What the city needs is a grey space that welcomes artists of various time-based practices to experiment and to present their work in unconventional ways. Therefore, while acknowledging and encouraging interdisciplinarity, LITHIUM sees itself becoming a dedicated platform that attempts to breaks this “black-and-white” dichotomy. Additionally, we intentionally define time-based art more openly, which yields beyond technology-based art and can refer to video, film, computer simulation, reading events and live performances, with a solid commitment to support art forms that share an intangible, unstable, or ephemeral nature.

3. What where your motivations and expectations back then and now? And what have been the people, artists and scene responses? How the space has changed during this period of time?

I don’t think our motivations have changed. It has been pretty clear since the very beginning and it is to support time-based arts. I think people’s positive responses to the gallery has something to do with this fact that we’ve been very upfront about what we do and what we support. However, we do always adjust our expectations of every show as part of the curatorial decisions: what’s possible and what’s beyond our reach. What we can provide in terms of financial compensation and equipment have been quite limited due to our very small budget, so the main aspect that we can focus on and be creative about is installation. The space remains more or less the same given that we can’t build and rebuild drywalls for every show; however, we can be creative about the placement of the work and how we program each exhibition or exhibitions series. It is actually more exciting when you have quite a set of parameters that you have to work against.

4. Can you describe the programming, in terms of planning, scheduling, choosing projects and artists to be exhibited? Both from a practical point of view but also conceptually?

We strive to either bring older work that has never been exhibited in Chicago to the city or premiere new work by Chicago-based artists. Either way, it is to showcase new perspectives and to not repeat what has been done already. Back then when we had a bigger team, choosing artists was a team decision, meaning that every artist we choose has to be approved by each member on the team. Gradually as the team becomes smaller and as we get more and more proposals—from both artists and curators from the SAIC community, how we plan for future projects grows to be more organic, meaning by recommendations from people around us.

From my own stand point, I’d love to spend more time on curation and researching new artists outside of the SAIC community (but off the record, that’s just something that you could achieve only when it is a full-time job, not when it is a project that runs parallel to your graduate studies J). With that said, I would always have studio visits or conversations with interested artists/curators before deciding whether to offer the space to them or not. Conceptually, I prefer projects that are malleable, ones that are like water and can fit into different containers. The infrastructure of LITHIUM is by no means ideal so I especially appreciate artists who would be willing to work around what the space can offer.

5. Does the space partnership with other institutions in the city, in the neighborhood (Pilsen)? How is that relationship? And also, if you had to name spaces that share similar visions and interests as Lithium, what would those be?

Very recently I was talking with directors from other artist-run spaces around Pilsen, such as Baby Blue, ACRE Projects, Ground Level Platform, Annas, and Prairie, and we were thinking about forming an unofficial “East Pilsen” art coalition. This May we did social-media cross-promotions and in the future, we will try to coordinate with our openings as well. The exhibition that you were part of was one of our collaboration with SAIC. There have also been projects (such as solo by Adela Goldbard) that was partially sponsored by SAIC grants.

I don’t think Chicago has a space that shares the mission of LITHIUM. Slightly similar ones are the VGA Gallery, D.A.D.S (aka Digital Art Demo Space), and what Aspect Ratio used to be some years ago. The Microscope Gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn is a good model but they have very different aesthetics.

6. How does the team balance the time between the School and the space?

Good question! It has been very difficult mainly for me because the rest of the original team have graduated already by the time we started the gallery. For me, I just use LITHIUM as my arts admin’s class project. For example, there’s this Management Studio III class where you should build your own exhibition/project, write a proposal and realize it. And I just used that to further develop LITHIUM (for which I wrote a business plan that project the fiscal year 18-19).

7. Who is in charge of the graphic design?

If you have to know, it’s all by Yan Zhou unless otherwise specified. He received his MFA in Visual Communication from SAIC in 2015 and has been working as a professional graphic designer and new media artist. Having him on the team also means that we are a very design-driven and design sensitive organization. Since last year, we try to also create more time-based publicity materials for our FB and Instagram accounts.

8. What is the best way to describe Lithium now and in the future, in terms of economic model? Can you give us some insights (challenges, lessons and discoveries) of this endeavor?

The lease for the space will expire by the end of June and the future of LITHIUM is still pending. I personally will continue to do it, also graduating at the moment, I probably will migrate it to an online platform or make it a nomadic project. The financial model for LITHIUM as how it is now is not sustainable at all (the entire budget comes from the co-founders’ pockets and some programming budgets come from school-wise grants) and we haven’t been doing any fundraising events due to not having a 501c3 status. I’m hoping to potentially get a fiscal sponsor in the future since I won’t be able to get any more school-wise grants. Maintaining a financially sustainable model is huge for any arts institutions and it’s much easier said than done.

9. To finish, and going back to the team and founders, does the project collide with each individual interests and plans? Or on the contrary does it blends harmonically?

It started off as a perfect team with each of the member having their particular interest and specialty that they can bring to the team. We have two dual MAs, one from Writing, one from FVNMA, and one from VisCom, so, we did have very diverse point of views. However, after the first year of operation, life changes and people find full-time jobs, and the team has dissolved a little bit due to that aspect.


ASMA is an artist duo composed by Hanya Beliá (México City) and Matias Armendaris (Ecuador). Although they are not based in Chicago anymore, they started there project here in the city in the past spring (2018) and keep coming back and forth between different places in Latin America (México City, Sao Paulo, Bogotá, Lima, Santiago) and Chicago. I was interested in interviewing them because of that nomadic experience that includes Chicago as a satellite but not necessarily as their main hub.

1. Can you tell me when does ASMA begun and why did you choose that name?

ASMA was officially born a year and four months ago, but before that we were collaborating informally for about two years. We both suffer from asthma and it was one of the first things we talked about when we met, it became one of our first things in common. Investigating the word “asma” we found that one of the first readings of “asthma” was a kind of paranormal event where the patient received a divine visit. This aligned with our interest in generating value from those first approaches to knowledge that come from individual experience and that are not governed by reason or logic necessarily.

2. You describe your practice as an active collaboration and also like the overlapping part of a Venn diagram? Can you talk about the challenges of combining two individual practices and how that mutates into a third being, a third space?

It is a hard thing to collaborate. A lot of the times in collaborations people hold onto their own individuality and it becomes a clear assignation of roles. We have made our core focus to explore how collaboration is a tool to play, expand beyond your individual limitations and lose control. To be able to generate this third space, something new between the two, we believe that it is necessary that all our efforts are 50% and 50% in what we do. A lot of it is material experiments, we like that a lot and it makes everything easier in some way because it acquires a certain autonomy, in the end it is something that we would never have thought of doing in our individual practices. Within this active collaboration we have payed attention at the interrelations of everything and how things change each other; in this way through our work we enact this same interrelation, within the works, materials, ourselves, feelings, ideas, spaces, and people.

3. You use to define your collective work with one word: Love. Can you expand that idea? And maybe articulate on how love might change, evolve, disappear, grow, expand, explode and so on.

As we are romantic partners, when we started ASMA our process was very raw. We did a lot of exploration and play and it was mainly a search without much clarity, and what drove that search was our love. Things haven’t changed much but our language around our interest have. In a very simplified form, love is a cohabitation of difference; in some way, it works much like the Venn diagram, the third space, the space in-between is a togetherness. We can explore this within and between us but through materials we push this understanding of interrelations, cohabitation, difference and hybridity.

4. One of the most beautiful things about your work is that the essence relies on very small gestures and almost invisible details that are related to the origin of the materials you use, or part of the process of making. Can you make a list, like a long label or an informative poem, so that the reader understands what I’m talking about?

We have played a lot with material specificity. We made some pieces where we moistened the raw clay with eye drops, we used gray hairs to make a brush, dried Jamaica flowers like gravel for a cement sculpture, and many other materials. Perhaps the best example of this is a piece of poetic composition that we made in Sao Paulo where basically the label is a classic sonnet that we wrote:

Mano grabada en placa de metal,
bolsa de té rellena de cristales,
dos esferas de barros tropicales,
tetera de cobre, flor oriental.
Trenza tejida con hilo dental,
placa de dientes postizos frontales,
semilla con dos colmillos iguales,
dibujo en azul de eclipse total;
frasquito de Givenchy con mercurio,
esmeralda con orilla pintada…
un sobre de sal para el buen augurio,
dije atado a una cadena dorada,
corazón de lámina de telurio,
vela de color rosa perfumada.

Hand engraved on metal plate,
tea bag filled with crystals,
two tropical clay spheres,
copper teapot, oriental flower.
Braid weaved with dental floss,
front false teeth plate,
seed with two equal fangs,
drawing in blue of a total eclipse;
Givenchy flask with mercury,
emerald with painted edge…
a sachet of salt for good omen,
locket tied to a golden chain,
tellurium plate heart,
scented pink candle.

5. What are the responses of the audience to those little secrets, or ghosts, embedded in the work?

Sometimes these little gestures can create a certain personal recognition in people where it can trigger individual narratives for different viewers. Some of these gestures are hidden and play more with the way in which it might or might not change the essence of the thing. Sometimes it can generate more interest or strangeness and sometimes it may confuse people, because these details spread the “meaning” of the work, people do not like that there is not such obvious clarity, but it allows for multiple interpretations.

6. Is ASMA a nomadic project? Can you tell us about the travels you have made and how they have influenced your practice?

Since the birth of ASMA we have been able to travel a lot, especially last year. This has definitely marked our practice and changed it because each place has offered us different experiences and materials. We have taken much advantage of our shared experience in each trip to incorporate it into our process. The central imaginary of ASMA is influenced by these multiple contexts and interrelations.

8. What is the future of ASMA? Where do you want to travel, what pieces you want to make, what kind of career you expect for the collective?

After traveling last year, we have spent a few months in Mexico and have taken the opportunity to reconnect with the city and produce a body of work as a result from that; related to the historic center and the lake that lays underneath. We are interested in generating more immersive spaces in the future. We are looking into some residences in Europe. This year we plan to be in Bogotá and Miami for art fairs and we are currently preparing two shows, one of them in Chicago at New Works in November.

9. To finish, if you had to choose a tarot card for ASMA which one would be and why? 

The mad man, the magician and the emperatriz if they all had a child.

Body + Camera 2019: The Un/Certain Body

On Sunday, Mana Contemporary staged their annual Body + Camera festival at the Chicago Cultural Center, where they screened a variety of short films based around the central theme of moving bodies in moving imagery. This years title was The Un/Certain Body, reflecting upon the incertitude of the human form as seen in the entries from their open call submissions process. The all day screenings were further broken down into smaller categories, with the Chicago leg (having previously been screened at their Jersey City and Miami locations) featuring several live presentations of work and artists talks. As I did not have a whole day to spend screening experimental films, I decided to attend the section entitled, Public Place, Private Worlds, featuring short films focusing on ‘…navigat[ing] private lives in public spaces and distort[ing] the physical form of everyday reality.’

Though not entirely billed as such, it came off largely as an experimental dance film screening, which wasn’t really what I had been anticipating. Perhaps I should have expected it, as the festival is put on in partnership with the Chicago Dancemakers Forum and Montom Arts, but they do describe the event as a ’dynamic forum celebrat[ing] the intersection between the moving body and the moving image, focusing on risk-taking and independent artists, and featuring contemporary experimental projects that stretch mediums to their edge.’ Though there were a few films that were more movement, less dance—Jillian Mayer’s Day Off 1; Erika Roux’s Psyche and Cupid; Xiaqing Zhu’s Mutual Measurement—the dance based works overwhelmed the others. Maybe because there were more of them, maybe because the section ended on a bunch of dance heavy features—maybe because the ones featuring dance appeared, in many ways, less straightforward, more ambiguous, and yet simultaneously, more narrative. Most of us experience movement as part of our everyday lives, even if we do not think about it for being what it is—it is always labeled as exercise, or transportation, walking. I would venture to guess that most do not think about how they actually move through space, as it relates to their body.

And yet, many of the films that employed dance as movement, tell stories of the common, the relatable, the ‘normal’ that is experienced daily, and turn it into something else, something which is somehow out of reach. Consider Camiel Zwart’s Platform 13: a beautiful, poetic, moving story involving a Japanese train conductor, a lady with too many suitcases, and the suggestion of time travel. Over a million people in Chicago alone use the the L train—granted, this is not the same experience as a Japanese train station, but I’m sure even their commute experience is nothing like the one suggested in the film. This piece was definitely the most well received, if I remember correctly, it was the only one to receive applause. Maybe I am wrong—perhaps people do not want to focus on the odd, out of place movements of average human bodies in unusual circumstances, whether they come from Mayer’s taping of a person experiencing VR, or Roux’s endless, minute adjusting and framing of hands, or Zhu’s insertion of her body into public, artificial structures around Chicago. We do however, as was mentioned before, all move: the navigation of space is an intensely personal negotiation, one informed by our past experiences and where we perceive our place to be in the world. Rather than focus on the odd, singular movements specific to one person, the employ of dance in these instances offers us a chance to view our daily, at times mundane, routines in a different light, to rethink what we think we already know. Certainly, by the time we have been transported from the modern day Japanese train station to a disused, crumbling one, and then once more to a neon hued, futuristic station via The Great Wave and our train conductor, we have ‘distorted the physical form of everyday reality.’

Trompe L’oeil or Primary Sources

In 2011, the Brooklyn based artist Anna Plesset did a trip to Europe. She visited different places in England, France, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland, trying to retrace the journey of his grandfather Marvin R. Plesset who recorded, on a 16 mm film, part of his experience as a division psychiatrist in the US Army, during WWII. Her encounter with the original film and then her own travel are the points of departure for her latest exhibition, Various Records, currently on view at Patron Gallery, from March 23 to May 4.  

At first sight, the show looks like a contemporary display of a personal, as well as historical archive. Near the entrance, to the right, there is a wood table with a surface that seems used and, on top of it, various vintage objects: the book Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl, 3 old Kodak boxes for photographic and cinematographic film, a VHS cassette, an instant picture, a micro SD Card and a blue notebook. This piece is called Primary Sources and was made from 2015 to 2018. Then in the center of this main space of the gallery, there is a freestanding room titled Travelogue (21st Century Room) made out of the same wood than the table and produced between 2013 and 2018. Inside, we can see another collection of mementos. Museum’s and train’s tickets, photographs, the page of a philosophy book, pieces of a paper note, etc, all of them attached with tiny pieces of tape. Suddenly, a minuscule trace of a brush in these elements reveals itself. The tape is not tape, the photographs are not real, the marks on the white surface are illusions, and so on with everything in the small, intimate room. Using trompe l’oeil painting the artist is tricking the spectator with incredibly precise and precious copies of all the elements of her memory puzzle. At that moment, the show starts to make much more sense and open multiple questions. Are the Primary Sources painted as well? Are they real sources or it is a kind of fiction? Does the use of painting add another layer of time into the work? Does illusion make something more real, more engaging, than the real document?

Well, while all these questions start popping up into your head, you continue through the show and find another table like the first one but this time supporting a map of her travel, and a projector that shows parts of the original film of her grandfather edited along her footage from her travel –Document of a Travelogue by Lt. Col. Marvin R. Plesset, Division Neuropsychiatrist (2013)–.  Once again, there is a play between the original source and the one produced by her. The same game of the painting but through a different medium. So, part of the puzzle is finally exposed. There are primary sources, documents and film excerpts from the 1940s but then, what you are seeing are exact painted replicas of that material. What the artist is doing is involving herself in those documents through the slow act of painting and, as a consequence, is engaging the viewer in those multiple times. The time of her grandfather’s journey, the time of the encounter of this archive, the time of her trip to Europe, the time of painting and finally, the present time of the exhibition. In other words, is like a dissection of what memory can be. According to the artist, in conversation with Orit Gat: “Institutions, books, and media construct our knowledge of history” and “the faith that holding onto the memory of how you learned something means really grasping the fact that stories are all constructs”.            

Unfortunately, after those instants of excitement and discovery, you continue to a second space of the gallery, expecting new clues, or new parts of the puzzle but, instead, the trick is poorly revealed. Two hyperreal pencil drawings of two of the mementos just seen in the standing room are replicated, and over explaining what you can discover slowly by your own. Like if a magician, after impressing his audience, decides to boorishly tell them how he did it. This is a poor decision whose only justification is the fact that the exhibition is happening in a commercial gallery and that those 2 drawings, as well as others in storage, might be easier to sell than the video, the room panels or the boxes and books replicas. But it definitely kills part of the beauty and delicate strings of thoughts that hold the show. This doesn’t happen with a small cabinet of ceramic objects, Obsolete Objects from the Golden Mile and the Golden Arrow (2014-2018) that once again trigger the questions on reality, documents, memory, archive and fiction.   

Note: the exhibitions at Patron gallery tend to resonate with the ones at Document Gallery. Both spaces seem to be pushing the boundaries of what is usually shown in other galleries of Chicago.   

Big Camera/Little Camera: Laurie Simmons at the MCA

Laurie Simmons’ retrospective, Big Camera/Little Camera, presents the artist’s work dealing with topics of consumerism, gender and gender roles, sexuality, and identity, from 1973 to the present. The exhibition moves from intimate silver gelatin photographs to large format saturated color prints, also exhibiting some of the props used to create the photographs. The organization of the exhibition is fairly straight forward and guides the uncertain viewer on. As you approach the exhibition there is a video with Simmons speaking about her work, wall text, and a clearly marked entrance and exit. As you enter the galleries, you move through Simmons series in chronological order, rather than thematically, giving the viewer a clear narrative of the progression of the artist, her interests, and the work. Accompanying the wall labels that have succinct descriptions of the series and individual works, there is larger wall text identifying each series.  The different series are clustered in groups on the wall and each series is visually cohesive leaving me wondering if the large wall text designating each group of works is necessary or if the curator should give the public more credit. Simmons also seems to grapple with the how much to tell the viewer, creating obvious one liners that are far from nuanced mixed in with deeper and more complex works. 

Closing the show, the last image next to the doorway is a large portrait of a dog, Penny (Harlequin), from the series Some New. While I am a fan of furry friends, the photograph seems disjunctive from the rest of the work in the show. The final room with works from Some New are made up of images of portraits where clothing or jewelry have been realistically painted on the bodies of different individuals and How We See, uncanny images of eyes painted onto closed eyelids. Some of the subjects include immediate family members and it is easy to assume that the dog is the artist’s, but I still find its presence perplexing and out of place with the rest of the series and exhibition.

While there are problematic moments in the show, such as works in the Kigurumi series, the exhibition is a successful representation of Simmons’ work and leaves a lasting impression. The different series contain humor, horror, and wonder, each complimenting the next. Including some of the miniature furniture props from the photographs and the model used for The Boxes (Ardis Vinklers), gives the viewer a sense of awe and a greater appreciation for the incredible transformation of spaces and objects in Simmons’ work. While each series uses different subjects, they are all tied together by a sense of the uncanny. Each photograph in the exhibition is slightly jarring, asking the viewer to look deeper at the work and contemplate the image. Having a retrospective of a female artist with feminist works is important and exciting, but also feels timely. Perhaps the celebrity of Laurie Simmons for a large exhibition is important to the city, and perhaps her daughter’s fame will help draw a younger crowd that the museum continues to struggle to engage, but it is possible that the curation of the show lets Chicago down by not giving the audience enough credit and having faith in the viewer.

Before Relevancy: Laurie Simmons at MCA

Occupying the top floor of the MCA, Laurie Simmons’ retrospective Big Camera, Little Camera is laid out in the typical, cyclical route which shows in that space follow. And while it may be a standard practice for the MCA, it is perhaps more fitting than it would ordinarily be. When you first approach the galleries, a short video plays of the artist talking about their practice, as way of introduction. This again, is typical for shows in this space, but two things stuck out: one, where Simmons states, ‘my subject has literally been the same from the first day in 1976 that I picked up a camera and shot a little sink in front of a piece of ivy wallpaper. I’m still shooting the same thing somehow.’ This statement points to the cyclical nature of her work–fittingly, as you exit the exhibit, you again approach the entrance, which echoes Simmons’ explanation of how she maintains her practice, and will return to certain methods. The second point that stood out was this: ‘The first pictures I made were about trying to reconstruct a memory and talk about the nature of artifice, talk about both the beauty, the light side and the dark side, of what I understood to be happening around me when I was a child.’

The main wall text viewers encounter as a prelude to the exhibition states, ‘Since the late 1970s,…Simmons has explored archetypal gender roles with her work. Turning a critical eye on tropes that dominated the postwar era of her upbringing, Simmons creates fictional scenes that mirror and unsettle the American dream of prosperity and feminine domesticity.’ While this is certainly an aspect of the work, through these explorations of gender and the American dream and the use of ‘props’ to ‘help define who we are,’ what Simmons is really exploring is the nature of constructed artifice. However, the curation of the wall text–both out front, and dotted throughout the duration of the galleries as anecdotal interjections–lean more towards issues of gender identity and fluidity, and the traditional constructed façades of femininity and masculinity. While it is unclear how much input Simmons had into these texts, it is clear that there is a certain push towards particular aspects of the work that more clearly address pressing, relevant issues of today, despite the fact that, as Simmons says, she has been making the same work since 1976. Museums do, after all, have a bottom line and struggle, as with all cultural institutions, to stay relevant. Gender, and particularly the achievements of women are highlighted: Sarah Charlesworth, Barbara Kruger, and Cindy Sherman are mentioned as ‘pioneers’ of the Pictures Generation alongside Simmons herself. When the constructed artifice Simmons is exploring is mentioned as such, it is alongside mentions of media, and reality– connections which have only been amplified in the digital age of the internet. In fact, in reading some of the texts, I couldn’t help but think of the MCA’s recent show, I Was Raised On The Internet, which was housed in the same space I was currently occupying.

And as with the I Was Raised…show, the themes and ideas feel less specifically relevant to a particular place, and more to the human population as a whole, although it does feel somewhat targeted towards younger generations, which I imagine the museum is trying to attract. But for Chicago, I think it always feels important to bring in bigger artists that can draw people in. And though Simmons may not conduct the same audience or name recognition of someone like Murakami, the visual draw of her images holds power in their accessibility.

“Laurie Simmons: Big Camera/Little Camera” at the MCA

As someone who was unfamiliar with Laurie Simmons’ work before visiting the museum, I found the exhibition to be quite accessible and left feeling like I had a firm grasp on her practice and her journey as an artist. The video at the entrance to the show was particularly helpful as it allowed the audience to hear from the artist directly. All too often, we dissociate the artist from the art, and it was nice that the curator had decided to include an element of the personal. After entering the exhibition, it was clear that the show had a linear footprint and was sectioned off by series. While it is refreshing to see shows that are not always chronological, I think it served this particular show well as I gained a deeper understanding of Simmons’ work and practice as I moved throughout the space. Her use of miniature dolls, ventriloquist dummies, and Japanese love dolls were employed to explore her fascination with gender roles and domestic spaces. While her type of doll and material execution morphed throughout her career, the topics she explored remained static. The chronological display forced a certain focus on form and media as it developed throughout her career. I do not think this hindered an assessment of her artwork but rather allowed for a thoughtful engagement with her multi-year portfolio. The audience is exposed to her full body of work and gains a more nuanced interpretation of her place in recent art history. Throughout her career, her work had a unique depth and breadth, yet all seemed to be part of the same conceptual pulse. The work itself is cohesive and unified and therefore it does not seem like a lot of curatorial heavy lifting was necessary. The didactics were effective but not overbearing. For example, wall text was succinct and informative yet allowed space for the viewer to engage with work on their own terms. The wall sized timeline was a kind gesture that filled the center atrium space yet seemed a bit unnecessary (was Simmons’ 2011 appearance on Gossip Girlreally a vital mention?). The vitrine with the tiny furniture assembled in rainbow order was a clever touch not because the viewer needed to see the props in order to understand the work but more so that it brought the aura of the living artist into the space. Personal details like this, as well as the “set boxes” and dollhouse (even though it is part of the MCA collection) humanized the otherwise “inhuman” show. Surprisingly, while “Big Camera/Little Camera” is a show of mostly photographs, the curators were able to achieve a visually interesting and aesthetically varied retrospective. Since the show was curated by the Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth, I am curious how much say the MCA actually had in the process. Did the MCA simply adjust the show to their physical space, or did they have any significant curatorial input? The show seemed like a perfect fit for the space! Overall, the exhibition is a great Chicago tribute to an artist who may be more well known in east coast art circles. Her work is deserving of the show and I think the MCA presented it clearly yet with enough space to allow audiences to draw their own conclusions on her work and its significance for spectators today. 

Self Transformation As Means of Fracturing Time

Enrico David is an artist that is currently based in London who is known for his works that range across various mediums; such as his use of drawing, textiles and sculpture. Through the course of his twenty-year practice, David has exhibited in multiple renew spaces, such as the New Museum, Tate Britain and the Venice Biennale. Enrico David: Gradations of Slow Release is the first major retrospective of this artist’s work to be ever presented in the United States. David offers an access point to the intimate relationship between himself and his art objects. Striking a balance between the sculptural and the figurative, Enrico David partakes in a conversation of what it means to deconstruct the body and its identity.

Enrico David: Gradations of Slow Release is located in the exhibition hall on the first floor of the MCA, featuring a large open space that is divided by four unconnected white walls where David’s works are grouped by materials and themes rather than chronologically. This was certainly a curatorial decision that wished to highlight David’s “intuitive process and the timeless nature of it”. What Enrico David’s practice presents is a diversified body of work that collaborate with each other to create a constantly shifting landscape that blurs any sense of orientation and specific trajectories.

The first time we are introduced to this shifting theme is through the introductory didactic label of the art show. The label elaborates on the resistances of Enrico David from being defined by any particular time or space by embracing the nontraditional materials that gives space and agency to the mutation and replication of human forms. The title, Gradation of Slow Release, takes its name from the 2015 sculpture that presents an anthropomorphic body that is being manipulated to become a stretched, standing sculpture. The work morphs itself between stages of humanity and objecthood, desperately trying to search for a sense of identity. The artworks in the show exist in an environment of distress, as they are constantly begging the viewer to guide them through a process of self-identification.

Furthermore, the objects exist in a timeless space that cannot offer them a sense of identity besides the thirst of the human condition that seeks meaning. While crossing the unstable space created by the show, we bump into extreme forms of corporeal bodies that shift between the grotesque and the sterile. The Objects become an iconography that leaves us experiencing the unknown, reminding us about the fragility of the physical and mental, while still reinforcing the importance and beauty of transformations. Allowing a timeless space for us to reflect about the limitations and expectations about our own identity.
Gradations of Slow Release showcases an alternative to the chronological retrospectives that we are used to and encourages the audience to question not only the existence of an art career as a linear journey, but also the existence of humanity as a series of events placed in a chronological order. Prioritizing the importance of personal explorations as a part of our identity and the acceptance of constant transformation as the defining quality of our humanity.  

Distressed figure walking into the contemporary

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago exhibited the show, “Enrico David: Gradations of Slow Release”. The show was an introduction of Enrico David’s work to the Chicago audience along with Chicago imagists show at the Art Institute of Chicago called, “Hairy Who?”. Both shows opened on the same week and one probably could find a connection there. The depiction of figure in Enrico David’s work has similar nuance to the depiction of figure in Chicago Imagists. James Yood, renowned Chicago art critic / historian once said that the depiction of distressed figure with spice of humor is a characteristic of Chicago Imagists. It is not so hard for one to figure out that the depiction of distressed figure is predominant in Enrico David’s practice. While Art Institute of Chicago was renouncing Chicago’s art history, MCA Chicago attempted to extend the dialogue by showing a European artist, whose practice carries similar visual concerns with Chicago Imagists, but in a very different context.       

The selection of Enrico David’s twenty years of work was curated in a way that viewer could follow the process of his practice. At the entrance of the exhibition space, there was a waist height sculpture on the left and large-scale figure painting on the right. It was a thoughtful introduction for the curation of the show, starting from image based work and ending with works that carries more of three dimensional concerns. Two works at the gate allowed the viewers to have a sense of Enrico’s practice in terms of broad usage of material and forms.

The exhibition space was largely divided into four spaces. The first space one enters displayed paintings and sculptures. The sculptures were relatively smaller than paintings, and the forms of sculptures were positioned in a way that the viewer could tell the images in paintings were informed by the sculptures. The second space was focused on hanging sculptures, the whole back-wall was left empty. The decision of leaving out the big portion of wall space emphasized the proprioception in a way that the viewer had to reposition oneself to the work in a way that was different from the first space. Third space displayed paintings and sculptures that are not directly related to on another. The last space seemed like his most recent body of work. The fusion between sculpture and functional object was happening. It became more of an attempt to find a relationship between images and objects in a direct and indirect way. The works at the last space were an assemblage of different stages if his practice, which allowed the viewers to exit with questions. The curation generated a narrative between painting and sculpture, starting from definitive relationship to complex relationship to enforced fusion, which seemed cohesive enough keep viewers on track. 

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago proposed interesting questions to Chicago audience through the show, Enrico David: Gradations of Slow Release. What does it mean that the depiction of distressed figure is widely used in different contexts? How did Imagists position themselves within the distressed figure? What does usage of distressed figure mean in contemporary dialogue? How are we positioning ourselves in distressed figures at the current moment?  

The Aesthetics of White Feminism, from Baby Boomers to Millennials

The first question that comes to mind after seeing Laurie Simmons retrospective Big Camera/Little Camera at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago is what does it mean to have a major exhibition in 2019 about baby boomer, white feminism?

Big Camera/Little Camera shows the progression of Simmons’s creative career from the 70s up until today. There are thematic threads that are present throughout the whole exhibition –femininity, domesticity, socially imposed gender roles and sexuality; and the exhibition reveals how the way in which Simmons has approached the themes through her art has changed drastically.

In her earlier photographs, such as the Early Black and White, Cowboys and Early Color Interiors, Simmons was critiquing how society imposes roles and gender from an early age through the toys that kids play with. This body of work, photographs of hand-made collaged settings inhabited by dolls, feels very honest. We see an adult playing with the toys of her childhood, rearranging them to create unusual scenes. The aesthetics of these photographs reveal who Simmons was at the time; a playful young American woman, concerned more with creating beautiful images than with making strong demands or critiques. The series Walking and Lying Objects shares similar qualities. Through a combination of Film Noir and surrealist aesthetics, these photographs are iconic and poetic in their own untranslatable nature. Walking and Lying Objects makes obvious comments on gender, roles and identity; however, the strength of the series is not in its politics, but in its visual appeal.

The exhibition shows how Simmons’s work evolved in a more or less predictable way, big dolls replace the little dolls, the settings become more complex and the dollhouses now have original miniature artwork inside them. As the productions’ execution increases and the critiques are more literal, the work looses its initial mystery and enchantment. A series like Two Boys, which shows idiotic, gawking teenagers in front of their laptops, has nothing poetic or mysterious; it’s nothing more but an illustration of a very shallow comment on life in the digital age. The series The Love Doll and Kigurumi, which show a bizarre touristy view on Japanese contemporary doll culture, are equally empty.

Towards the end of the show there’s a room with the portrait series How We See, which is especially interesting to compare the early DIY photographs. The hand-made and material qualities or the early photographs are completely lost in her latest work, replaced now by super produced, crisp digital images. The room is covered with big-scale, Cindy Sherman like, colorful portraits of mainly white women and a couple of women of color. Although the images are technically perfect and visually striking, it’s hard too see Laurie Simmons in these photographs. It’s not clear what’s the intention behind the advertising level production. Is Simmons using her models to state a contemporary critique? Is she trying to dignify them? Or is she hiding behind the faces of contemporary mainstream feminism?

It’s surprising that the How We See series can feel so impersonal even when Simmons used some of her family members as models. Lena and Grace Dunham photographs are in there, stealing the attention from the photographs themselves and reminding us of their own pop culture and social media narratives. Maybe that was Laurie Simmons’s intention with the series, to pass the lead to a new generation? Seeing Simmons’s children large portraits in the room has an imposing, royal-like quality: they now tell the story, they’re in charge. The sad part is that Grace and Lena’s feminism is highly questionable as well; it is also predominantly white, self-oriented and based on privilege. And yet, their pop feminism is indeed more interesting than their mother’s current lack of discourse.

Although Big Camera/Little Camera is an interesting show over all, presenting it as a major retrospective at the MCA is a definitely a big statement from the museum that we have to pay attention to. Having Laurie Simmons’s work in conversation with other female artists’ work would be less grandiose but way richer for a contemporary discussion on feminism. Why do we need more white grandiosity in our time?