Chicago’s rich art scene offers prehistoric art, contemporary works, and everything in between.
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Chicago has long been a haven for public and outdoor art, with its excellent city-sponsored public art program providing more than 700 pieces throughout the city. So it should come as no surprise that Chicago’s indoor art offerings, from galleries to museums to artist workshops, are just as impressive. You’ll find the city’s art scene in general weighted slightly toward modern and contemporary works than traditional; however, the depth and breadth of options will leave even the most strident traditionalist satisfied.
Art enthusiasts visiting the Windy City should start in the River North neighborhood, which has the highest concentration of galleries in the city. Contemporary painting, Outsider art, fine art prints, photography—you’ll find plenty of this and more in River North, and all within walking distance.
A standout in River North is the Catherine Edelman Gallery (CEG), one of the best galleries devoted to photography in the entire Midwest. Opened in 1987, the gallery focuses on showing prominent contemporary photographers alongside emerging talent. CEG’s next show is the American debut of Italian photographer Francesco Pergolesi. Titled “Heroes,” Pergolesi’s exhibition is a series of photographic tableaux that pays homage to his memories of growing up in Spoleto, Italy. He creates both traditional prints and small photographic boxes that are lit from within. Edelman came across Pergolesi’s work last summer while in Arles, France, says gallery director Juli Lowe. “Catherine saw the work and was completely taken with it. His [photo boxes] are really interesting—they’re these beautiful, unique little objects.” Pergolesi will be in attendance at the May 6 opening reception from 5–7 p.m. The show runs through July 1.
After viewing the Pergolesi show, try stepping into the brand-new Rivera Contemporary Fine Art Gallery. Judith Rivera is an abstract landscape painter who depicts the American Southwest and Mexico, reveling in the textures and colors of the Arizona-Sonora desert. Born in Sonora, Mexico, Rivera studied there and at the Escuela de Bellas Artes in San Miguel de Allende, where, she says, “they taught me the techniques of the Mexican master painters, like José Clemente Orozco and Rufino Tamayo.” Rivera achieves a three-dimensional effect by using a very heavy impasto and overlapping many layers, reinforcing the desert effect by adding sand to her paint. “I do extensive research on pigments and the optics of colors,” she says. “I’m not a lazy painter.”
Although River North has the highest concentration of galleries, it’s just one of many places in Chicago to get your fine art fix. For a change of pace—and time period—head to the Douglas Dawson Gallery in the South Loop, a fascinating collection of ancient and historic ethnographic art from Africa, the Americas, and Asia. The Douglas Dawson Gallery takes a slightly different tack to showing tribal art than many in the industry. Co-owner Dawson decided to echo contemporary art gallery models, offering the standard art gallery opening reception for his themed exhibitions, along with more scholarly events like lectures. In May, the gallery will open the show “Stone: Prehistoric Hand Tools.”
Other notable galleries include the Michael LaConte Gallery (MLG), which specializes in contemporary paintings and photography. In June and July, the gallery will host a group Impressionist show featuring artists Andrea Harris and Aubrey Barrett. In addition to a roster of more than 30 artists, the gallery offers a selection of sculptures from Indonesia and antiquities from China and Africa, which LaConte selects and brings back from his frequent travels.
At the Carl Hammer Gallery, on North Wells Street, art enthusiasts can find a stimulating mix of Outsider, American Folk, and contemporary art. Founder Carl Hammer, a true enthusiast himself, says that when he opened the gallery in 1979 he showed exclusively self-taught artists. “But the gallery has evolved in terms of representing emerging, academically trained artists as well as picking up some that have established track records both here in Chicago and nationally,” he says. “It’s a happy blend. The aesthetic I developed was focused on self-taught and Outsider, and that has definitely has educated my eye.” Hammer has works by Outsider masters such as Bill Traylor, Henry Darger, and William Edmondson, while the contemporary non-Outsider artists featured include Irene Hardwicke Olivieri, Marc Dennis, and Michael Hernandez de Luna, whose exhibition “Philatelic Adventures” is up through May 14. Visitors will also be intrigued to see Hammer’s selection of circus sideshow banners, which he put together during trips through rural America looking for Outsider artists. “I saw the potential of it being treated seriously as art,” Hammer says. “The Chicago Imagists were into it even earlier than I. It’s a perfect fit—it fits Chicago and that kind of very honest aesthetic.”
Visitors should also stop in at the McCormick Gallery, run by the enthusiastic former antiques picker-turned-paintings dealer Tom McCormick. The gallery specializes in mid-century American abstract paintings, and offers a large selection of works by an equally large number of artists. McCormick’s emphasis began as something of an accident. During his early antique-picking years, he had to find relatively cheap pieces, as they were all he could afford. Over time, he began seeing a renewed interest in the Abstract Expressionist era. “I realized this was important material that merely needed to be put into context and presented, or really re-presented to a wider audience hungry for affordable, vintage work from an important historical period,” McCormick says. He now represents several contemporary painters and sculptors as well. “In the past year I’ve become more interested in our contemporary program, and we have added some exciting new members to our family of exhibiting artists,” McCormick says. Many of those artists will be participating in the gallery’s summer exhibition, a group show curated by the independent curator Jessica Cochran.
And more great contemporary art —along with fine jewelry, furniture, decorative arts, and much more—can be found on the auction block at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers. This major house will host several auctions in the months of May and June at its headquarters in Chicago, as well as at their various other locations throughout the country. On May 24 there will be a Fine Prints sale, featuring a Chuck Close color silkscreen Self-Portrait from 2000 (est. $80,000–120,000) and Roy Lichtenstein’s The Sower, a lithograph, woodcut, and screenprint from 1985 (est. $30,000–50,000). Also on the 24th, Hindman will hold a Postwar and Contemporary Art sale, and on the 25th an American and European Art sale, highlighted by Gabriele Munter’s floral still life Blumen Mit Wisser Rose, from 1950 (est. $60,000–80,000) and Ralston Crawford’s Smith Silo, Exton, from 1936–37 (est. $300,000–500,000).
Bird and nature art lovers will want to visit Joel Oppenheimer, Inc., a landmark for natural history art. Located in the historic Wrigley Building, the Oppenheimer gallery offers exquisite antique botanical, ornithological, and other prints by Mark Catesby, John James Audubon, Edward Lear, Basilius Besler, and other major contributors to the field of natural history. Oppenheimer also offers art conservation and restoration services.
Another excellent art restoration company is Restoration Division, LLC, which handles everything from classical paintings to historic textiles and contemporary assemblage. They’ve recently started an initiative to locate and restore regional works of historical significance housed in small, regional museums and foundations. “So far, the project unfolds well,” says owner Dmitri Rybchenkov. “We’ve found a historically significant banner that came from Philadelphia—it’s about 140 years old. We’re finding interesting artworks and presenting them, raising awareness so that we can restore them.” Restoration Division hosts occasional art shows and installations, as well.
Those in town with an eye for design can’t go wrong with the Pi Squared Collection, an interior design, home decor, and furniture company run by designer Susie Chiu. Chiu designs and imports furniture and decorative pieces from Asia, specializing mainly in exotic woods. One of her more distinctive specialties is petrified-wood sinks.
And a visit to Chicago wouldn’t be complete without stopping in some of its many fine museums. One of these is the Driehaus Museum, housed in the beautifully preserved Gilded Age mansion of Chicago banker Samuel Mayo Nickerson. Beginning on June 25, the Driehaus will host the traveling exhibition “With a Wink and a Nod,” a collection of cartoons from the Gilded Age (on view through January 8, 2017). The focus of the show is Puck magazine, a satirical publication focused on politics and society. “It’s very timely,” says director Lise Dube-Scherr. “A lot of the issues that they examine are many of the same issues we’re facing right now, today.”
Head down to the South Loop to visit the monolith of arts and culture, the Art Institute of Chicago. Founded in the early 1800s as both a museum and a school, the Institute has remained true to both of those missions throughout its history and is recognized today as among the top fine arts institutions in the U.S. The museum’s ongoing exhibition “The New Contemporaries” showcases 44 works by 20th-century icons from the Abstract Expressionist and Pop Art movements, tracing the course of these developments into contemporary times. Among the many other exhibitions on view are “Van Dyck, Rembrandt, and the Portrait Print,” showcasing portrait etchings and prints spanning the 1500s through the 1900s (through August 7); and “Aaron Siskind: Abstractions,” which exhibits 100 of the photographer’s most famous and influential images (through August 14).
Another notable exhibition is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago. “Diane Simpson: Window Dressing” runs through July 3. The show exhibits this Chicago sculptor’s window display-inspired installations, which originated as a commission for the Racine Art Museum in Racine, Wis. “The show’s been getting a great response,” says curator Lynne Warren. “Simpson’s work is speaking to a younger audience for sure, as it has that familiarity—clothing, this idea that we are what we wear—along with this very vintage, Art Deco style, which is really popular now. And everything is handmade. The work has that fine Chicago craftsmanship that we’re so known for here.”
And through June, MCA will present the exhibition “Surrealism: The Conjured Life,” showcasing works by René Magritte, Max Ernst, and Leonora Carrington, among many others. To coincide with this show, fine art dealer and scholar Thomas Monahan will present works by the Surrealists Roberto Matta and Marcos Raya throughout the month of May at his gallery, Thomas Monahan Fine Art. The show will coincide with the publication of Monahan’s new book Matta: On the Edge of a Dream, which will be released on May 23 (Skira, $45).
By By Elizabeth Pandolfi