West By Midwest
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, November 17, 2018 - January 27, 2019
While many would guess from her chosen name that Judy Chicago came to California from Illinois, fewer would know that David Hammons did. Even fewer still could imagine that Ed Ruscha's chill, west coast detachment grew from a Midwestern, specifically Oklahoman, sobriety. But seeing his iconic TWENTYSIX GASOLINE STATIONS (1962), which recorded the petrol stops along his driving route between Los Angeles and his home state, within the context of West by Midwest gives his deadpan seriality the feel of an earnest attempt at conveying the cornfed in-betweenness that haunts the Midwestern subject rather than the ironic detachment one usually associates with these works. This exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago takes up the Westward expansion of the art world in three generations of Midwesterners, tracing the lesser-known histories of a now well-established artistic milieu in an effort to set the art historical record straight.
Judy Chicago, best known for her overtly feminist work, appears in this exhibition with a massive, glossy tableau of blue and yellow fades akin to the work of Billy Al Bengston, who also has a piece of powder-coated steel in the show nearby. The Midwest connection is looser here—Bengston moved from Kansas to Los Angeles at age fourteen and never looked back. Some of the other West-Midwest connections are equally tenuous: Gladys Nilsson included with a large painting of silhouetted humans and animals rendered in pastel blues and greens textured with short, bristled paint strokes, spent a brief five years in Sacramento before returning to Illinois permanently. Painted during this stint, the canvas abounds with cacti-like forms wiggling with phallic absurdity over a hilly, beige-brown desert-scape, a clear sign that Nilsson was contemplating what must have appeared to her an alien landscape.
The exhibition proceeds chronologically, favoring the social networks that brought artists to the West coast from the Midwest. Photographs of Anna and Lawrence Halprin's Summer workshops in Northern California illustrate the embodied collectivity that undergirded the West's burgeoning art scene, costume-clad bodies eating and lying together literalize a social rather than an aesthetic dimension of the exhibition's thesis. Images of Senga Nengudi's Ceremony for Freeway Fets shows the artist performing music and dance with Hammons and others of the Studio Z collective beneath a Los Angeles highway. Like Hammons, Nengudi was born in Illinois but left for Los Angeles for a spell before settling in New York City. By displaying their early works—Hammons's body prints and Nengudi's stretched stocking sculptures—alongside documentation of their performance collaborations, the exhibition accounts for, and champions, the experimental beginnings of their later successes in New York.
In no small part, due to the work of these early transplants to the West, later generations of artists found an easier time getting settled out there. Andrea Bowers and Catherine Opie, both from Ohio, found career success and faculty positions in Los Angeles, the city we now associate them with most strongly. As if to correct the record, they are represented by works that nod to their Midwest roots. Opie's hazy, horizon-heavy photographs of Lake Michigan in each season hang in a row, inviting a longing gaze through the walls of the white cube. Likewise gesturing outward, Bowers's meticulous drawing of Elvira Arellano taking sanctuary against her deportation in a Chicago Methodist Church in 2006 presents a not-so-subtle reminder of the political conditions that are otherwise absent from the show.
The youngest generation of Midwest-trained artists fairs best in West by Midwest. Sterling Ruby's massive ceramic Basin Theology/The Poacher 2 (2013), a child's sloppy pinch pot monstrously enlarged to the size of a bathtub, pairs delightfully with Amanda Ross-Ho's Cradle of Filth (2013), a larger-than-life re-creation of a teenager's backpack covered in angsty Sharpie-scrawl. Fittingly, the puckish influence of Mike Kelley, whose masterful, room-sized installation of crocheted children's dolls precedes these works, emerges as the clearest formal and conceptual link between two generations of Midwesterners who went West. A longtime Los Angeles resident who was born in Michigan, Kelley left behind an extensive legacy, only now coming to light in the years since his apparent suicide in 2012. Surrounded by the work of his students, including Ruby, Jorge Pardo, and Aaron Curry, Kelley's presence shines through brilliantly.
Scholarly approaches to the increasingly networked art world abound—among the standout recent titles, see Lane Relyea's Your Everyday Art World (MIT Press, 2013), which critiques the depoliticized "network" theory of neoliberal art systems. Setting it apart from textual academic treatments of contemporary art worlds, West By Midwest likewise succeeds in emphasizing the social and the incidental—studio mates, group shows, and student-teacher relationships—that have shaped artistic practices and the subsequent art historical narratives that coalesce (knowingly or not) around kinships and coincidences. Style, form, and medium—the stuff of art proper—recede behind these quintessentially American stories of migration, a necessary intervention that one hopes will be followed by a closer look at the art itself.
ContributorElliot J. Reichert
is a Chicago-based critic and curator. He is Art Editor of Newcity and formerly Assistant Curator at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University.