August 12, 2011

Unique multimedia exhibits produced by UChicago alumni are on display in Chicago, in print, and online this month.

In academia’s lecture halls and leafy courtyards, college students feel sheltered invincibility that often evaporates the instant they leave campus for good: Think of Superman landing smack dab in a pile of kryptonite.

Three University of Chicago alums not only tackled that subject, but also merged two disparate art forms—comic-book panels and theater—in a buzzed-about production and exhibition. "Powerless," which ran through August 20 at Voice of the City (3429 W. Diversey Ave., Chicago) follows three new graduates as they try to define heroism in Chicago's bureaucratic jungle. Co-writers David M. Brent, AB’09, and Mitch Salm, AB’09, take on a time-honored subject of taking on the “real world” as though it were a page from a Marvel Comics serial.

"They have really great instincts," says director and fellow alum Jack Tamburri, AB’05, in a YouTube video about the production. "I'm in grad school [at Yale] and the playwriting department would chain me in the dungeon for the way I'm working with Mitch and David."

The production was presented in three separate "issues," to be viewed either on different nights (via stamp card) or in unison on Saturdays over the course of 2.5 hours. During the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival at the end of July, the Powerless Art Gallery displayed prints and illustrations inspired by the themes and content of the show. The creators have adopted a cheeky moniker, too: The Society of Young Superheroes.

Also working as a production assistant on "Powerless" was recent grad Michael Guido, SB‘11, who like Brent and Salm belonged to UChicago’s esteemed Off-Off Campus comedy troupe.

Dead laptops, lifeboats and scrimshaw

Unless you Googled the term, you might think laptops have nothing in common with "scrimshaw"—the practice of engraving the bones and teeth of whales that traces its origins to whaling ships of the mid-1700s. But artist Michael Dinges, MFA’05, combines the two as part of his solo show "Artifacts from the Recent Present" at the Chicago Cultural Center (78 E. Washington St., free admission) through October 2. The exhibit features work from Dinges' "Dead Laptop" series, where he applies scrimshaw to defunct laptops.

The show’s centerpiece is "Lifeboat: The Wreck of the Invisible Hand." The full-sized boat, fashioned by the artist from wood and vinyl siding, bears engraved images and text exploring the intertwined stories of labor, consumerism and the environment. Says Dinges, "It's a call to the political class to put short-term, partisan battles aside and make the tough decisions in confronting the serious problems facing the country, as well as the rest of the planet." Measuring 11 feet long, "Lifeboat" took Dinges 18 months to make. And it fits with Dinges' artistic philosophy, which explores how technological advances "have reduced the skilled worker from craftsperson to assembler." By reverting to scrimshaw, Dinges slyly applies a fine craft and lost art to mass-produced product and the cookie-cutter rhetoric of modern politics.

Rockabilly believer

In her coffee table photo book The Rockabillies, Jennifer Greenburg, MFA ’01, focuses her camera on a group of people who dress and live as though 1950s America never went away. (It's published by the Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago).

"The people who appear in the book are not actors nor historical re-enactors," says Greenburg, herself a collector of mid-century clothing and home furnishings. "They are real people who live their everyday lives in a nod to mid-century Americana. … Each has carved out their own happiness in a post-9/11 world that seemed filled with nothing but patriotic depression and hopelessness."

As Greenburg captures it, life the Rockabilly way is more pop cultural than sociopolitical: "Certainly none of the Rockabillies would have wanted to live with the actual realities of the 1950s [such as] racial tension and gender-specific standards," she says. Instead, "this culture draws from movies, TV and magazines for its wistful interpretations of the post-war era."

Next up for Greenburg is the project "Revising History," where "I make new pictures from old pictures using myself and my family as subjects. The project plays with the idea of rewriting my past and fantasizes about a picture-perfect life that we do not actually live." A solo show of this project will be held from November 14 through December 10 at Indiana University's Northwest Gallery for Contemporary Art, 3400 Broadway in Gary, Ind. Meanwhile, Greenburg will also photograph Jessica Stockholder, new DOVA department chair at UChicago, for a feature in Jettison Quarterly due out in early September.

A reading room with a story of its own

John Preus, MFA’05, directed the design of “The World as Text," a combined exhibition and summer reading room up through August 12. It's part of Columbia College’s Book and Paper Center for Book and Paper Arts.

Preus created the room in collaboration with students from the Columbia College's departments of Art + Design and Interdisciplinary Art, as well as students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The hybrid space is crafted from re-purposed materials to amplify connections between the action of reading and the activity of performance, and features books picked by a number of guest curators.

Artforum described the exhibit in a recent review: “’The World as Text’ is probably best understood as a series of intertextual excursions whose trajectories are charted by the viewer’s own idiosyncratic wanderings. By putting artists’ books directly into the hands of visitors, the exhibition transforms viewers into readers who may construct their own metatexts without the aid of museological signposts.”

Artist chapbooks, handmade zines, and e-books are displayed—and circulated—throughout the immersive space. The exhibition featured readings, music performances, and other gatherings. Those and other images and can be found at the complementary “The World as Text” blog.

Upcoming exhibitions

Zachary Cahill, MFA’07, will present his solo exhibition "USSA 2012: The Orphanage Project" at Threewalls (119 N. Peoria St., Chicago) September 9 through October 15. The project originated in an essay entitled, "The Condition of The Orphan: A Dialogue” published by Shifter Magazine in the journal Rethinking Marxism, Vol. 23. Issue 2, April 2011.

Chicago Magazine’s 2011 Best Neighborhood Festival, the Hyde Park Jazz Festival features two UChicago alumni on Saturday, September 24. Ben Paterson, AB ’04, leads his eponymous organ quartet at Little Black Pearl (1060 East 47th Street) from 4-5 p.m, and Rising stride piano star Stephanie Trick, AB ’09, plays the International House (1414 East 59th St.) from 5-6 p.m.

“Dominion,” a group show featuring Amy Babinec, MFA’09, imagines the depths below her coal mining hometown in “Dominion,” a group show at Eel Space (1906 S. Throop St. #2F). The exhibition opens August 13, 6-9 p.m., and runs through September 10.

By Lou Carlozo

This graphic design by Quinn Fenlon is part of the "Powerless" exhibit, running through August 20 at Voice of the City (3429 W. Diversey Ave., Chicago).