Four Chicago Galleries Explore the Art of Arranging

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CHICAGO — Arranging is a placing of something somewhere, in relation to other things. We do it all the time, but please don’t call it curation. Recently I was given an overstuffed bouquet of flowers, so I removed all the roses and put them in a separate vase. Much better for the roses, and much better for the sunflowers, dill blossoms, and chrysanthemums in the original bunch, which now had more space in which to be composed. 

The nonagenarian San Francisco designer Barbara Stauffacher Solomon is something of a genius at getting people to perceive the connections between this and that, in the way that might happen if an architect and a typographer went out dancing one night. The answer to that almost-joke is Exits Exist, her supergraphics installation at the Graham Foundation’s Madlener House. On the walls of the Prairie-style mansion’s elegant downstairs galleries, still decorated with original moldings and fireplaces, she’s painted thick curves, diagonals, lines, and blocks in black and the vermillion of those ubiquitous egress signs.

Installation view of Exits Exist: Barbara Stauffacher Solomon at the Graham Foundation, Chicago (photo by Nathan Keay)

The forms are just barely legible as the punny words of the show’s title, but silly wordsmithing is only a little bit the point. The real fun is noticing all the ways in which the shapes placed over here interact with the architectural features over there. Stretched across a wide doorway, the bottom curve of a giant S fits neatly between the doorframe, the baseboard, and the west wall, while its top sits precisely between the cornice and the east wall, having exited the top corner of the frame at a tidy 45-degree angle. In the middle are similarly angled lines on the back wall of the adjacent gallery (or perhaps a person, if she happens to be walking from one room into the other). Not far away, the letter “I” stands as tall as the room, wedged tight and skinny into a corner; next to it is a T, short and squat, a square topped by a thin horizontal line, mirroring the fireplace and mantle to its right. Don’t even get me started on the X’s and the E’s. 

Upstairs the typographic play continues, with the addition of stacked, blocky sculptures and hinged room dividers that beg to be repositioned again and again. That’s great and all, as is the stack of artist’s books on display in the bookshop — the artist’s experimental autobiography makes for a wild read — but it also seems like a lost opportunity to right the wrong of yet one more woman’s insufficient renown. Stauffacher Solomon is not remotely famous enough for inventing supergraphics in the first place, so cool in the 1960s and ’70s and subsequently so influential on everything from conceptual art to (unfortunately) corporate branding. Even a modest retrospective presentation would’ve gone a long way.

Installation view of Cowboy X Lightbound X Cowboy at Paris London Hong Kong, Chicago. From left: “Bottle Ring Rebar,” “Apple Eggs X,” Crayons Stickers Stick,” and “Bottles Shadows Sidewalk.” All works: objects arranged by Cowboy, photographed by Jason Pickleman (June and July 2020), all archival inkjet prints, 16 x 20 inches each (photo Lori Waxman/Hyperallergic)

What else can be arranged or, more precisely, rearranged? Just about anything: an empty bottle of Squirt soda, an orange, a heavy chain, Starbucks coffee cups, mini bottles of Fireball cinnamon whiskey, a metal ring, a flattened paper grocery bag from Trader Joe’s, pieces of turquoise rebar. These are some of the items belonging to Cowboy, an unhoused person who, lacking a closet, uses the sidewalk to hold his possessions, which he lays out in small constructed situations suggestive of clocks, islands, constellations, or cities. His assemblages do not last long — maybe a couple of minutes, at most a few days, before the bottles need to be redeemed or hunger must be sated or someone comes along looking for something to kick. A few, though, have been photographically preserved by Jason Pickleman, the principal of JNL Graphic Design, who first encountered Cowboy in Lincoln Park last summer.

Ten of these pictures are on view in Cowboy X Lightbound X Cowboy at Paris London Hong Kong, a tiny gallery whose aesthetic force often feels inversely proportional to its square footage. (The photos are for sale, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and the remainder being set aside for Cowboy, whose whereabouts are currently unknown.) The compositions fascinate for the sense of orderliness imposed therein. Cowboy achieves this via geometry: placing a red apple and two eggs at the crossing of sidewalk contraction joints; laying a circular chartreuse hairband at the center of a chaotic pile of Chex cereal squares; arraying nine packets of crayons evenly around a rectangular sheet of stickers. For a moment, at least, everything has a place and that place is pleasing. 

Rebecca Morris, “Untitled (#09-20)” (2020), oil on canvas, 95 x 103 inches (photo Lori Waxman/Hyperallergic)

Is that one of the most difficult aspects of art to explain, the rightness of placement? It’s so boring to fall back on symmetry and balance and color theory and texture, even if so often they are correct. The shortcut — or maybe it’s just the lazy way out — is to simply point to what works and what doesn’t, as in Rebecca Morris’s show of new paintings at Corbett vs. Dempsey. There are seven very large oil paintings in #29 (she chronologically numbers her exhibitions and artworks, a handy tactic for any dedicated abstractionist who wishes to avoid figurative suggestion) and I like one, “Untitled (#09-20),” completed in 2020. I like that one painting immensely, enough that I would happily spend all day looking at it, many days in fact, but that is the only one. Why? Maybe because, unlike a lot of the other paintings here, it doesn’t look like it’s made of floor or counter tiles. Maybe because, unlike them, it holds together without relying on a metal frame or a central axis. I don’t really understand its appeal, and that keeps me hooked.

Okay then, an ingenious arrangement can engender awareness of spatial relationships, provide a much-needed sense of order, or offer purely aesthetic mysteries. Check! At the Chicago Artists Coalition, where resident Selva Aparicio has installed a simple casket covered in innumerable dandelion seeds, something entirely other occurs through those means, something that squeezes the heart tightly with sadness, then releases it in wonder. Ode to the Unclaimed Dead, displayed in a recessed niche evocative of Spanish burial traditions, appears from afar as if encased in a softly glowing halo. Up close, the wooden box is like gooseflesh, each of the tens, or maybe hundreds of thousands of seeds individually distinguishable, having been painstakingly affixed to the pine boards, one by one, with tweezers and imperceptible dabs of glue. The combined effect is of ennobled personhood, extended in requiem to those countless bodies that go untended after death — interred in mass coronavirus graves, buried under the rubble of war-torn Ukrainian cities, and so on, moving backwards through the cruel endings of human history, arranged.

Selva Aparicio, “Ode to the Unclaimed Dead” (2022), plywood casket covered in dandelion seeds, casket dimensions 79 1/2 x 29 1/2 x 16 3/4 inches (photo Robert Chase Heishman)
Selva Aparicio, “Ode to the Unclaimed Dead” (2022), detail, plywood casket covered in dandelion seeds, casket dimensions 79 1/2 x 29 1/2 x 16 3/4 inches (photo Robert Chase Heishman)

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon: Exists Exist continues at the Graham Foundation (4 West Burton Place, Chicago, Illinois) through July 9. The exhibition was organized by Sarah Herda, director of the Graham Foundation, and realized with Ava Barrett, program and communications manager; and Alexandra Lee Small, senior advisor; and features new supergraphics by Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, installed by Nellie King Solomon, and painted by Andrew McClellan and Kelsey Dalton of Heart & Bone Signs.

Cowboy X Lightbound X Cowboy continues at Paris London Hong Kong (1709 West Chicago Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through April 23. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

Rebecca Morris: #29 continues at Corbett vs. Dempsey (2156 West Fulton Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through April 23. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

Selva Aparicio: Ode to the Unclaimed Dead continues at the Chicago Artists Coalition (2130 West Fulton Street, Chicago, Illinois) through April 7. The exhibition is the result of the artist’s BOLT artist residency.

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