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The AIC Explores the World of Wine

Posted in art by Anna on July 26, 2009

Today’s blogging adventure brought me to the Art Institute of Chicago for, after months and months of ooh-ing and ah-ing over the new Modern Wing, something completely and totally unrelated to the world of conceptual art or architecture!  This time around I stopped to check out the museum’s latest endeavor, an enormous exhibit about a beverage that, if the curators at the Art Institute are to be believed, makes the world go round—or, at the very least, has held a central position in multitudinous cultures practically since the dawn of time: wine.Kandler-Ewer_lg

My presumptions about the exhibit, entitled A Case For Wine, were incorrect from the start.  I assumed this exhibit would be about wine casks and how they’ve evolved over the centuries.  In retrospect, this was an oddly literal interpretation of the show’s title.  Nevertheless, upon realizing the exhibit was really more about how wine’s cultural role has evolved over the centuries, using art and decorative wine paraphernalia as a societal gauge, I sallied forth to see what the show had in store for me.

What it had, primarily, was an impressive collection of wine accessories displayed very tastefully, as well as several interesting facts.  But in all honesty, I felt like this exhibit focused more on the history of wine than on wine’s role in art or wine accessories as an art form.  This was the type of show one would refer to as “educational”—not necessarily a negative…just, not necessarily artistically focused, either.  However, to the AIC’s credit, the works—ranging from chalices, to bottles, to paintings, to viticulturally themed embroidery—were tastefully displayed in low-lit galleries, giving one the feeling that you’re in a wine cellar—a dignified, restrained setting that honors the wine.  The walls were painted deep grapey tones—ranging from rich, opulent burgundy to dark vine-colored green to dusty brown plum.  And, if the goal was to teach me about wine as a cultural staple through the ages, then goal accomplished, AIC!  Let’s wrap up this post by putting my educational experience at A Case For Wine to task.  Here are my top three fun facts gleaned from the exhibit:

  1. After the Reformation, Protestant churches melted down several elaborate Catholic ceremonial goblets into simpler, humbler serving cups.
  2. 19th century cartoonist and general socio-political snark Honore-Victorin Daumier apparently enjoyed mocking the wine community as much as he enjoyed mocking the rest of 19th century French society.  In the AIC’s exhibit, there are roughly ten lithographs by Daumier commenting snidely on class-relations, weather speculation, drunkenness, and any other social flaws that could possibly relate to the world of French wine production in the mid-1800s.
  3. While the AIC’s latest show may not be for everyone, wine, evidently, is, as the exhibit contains objects from all over the world, ranging from France to Egypt to China to Greece.  So, if you want to learn about wine, come to AIC.  Meanwhile, the rest of the world will be drinking it.

Contemporary Meets Classic

Posted in art by Anna on July 13, 2009

There is nothing more refreshing than a contemporary artist who could not possibly care less about being contemporary.  Working artists devoid of the desire to make a political statement, change how society defines art, or discover art’s “final frontier” provide a welcome relief from the oppressive onslaught of “Look at me!  Look at me!” installation pieces where artists force-feed their viewers pornography or anarchy simply for the sake of fashion (or the intentional deviation from fashion).  Jean-Baptiste Ballot provides viewers with a beautifully composed escape from the annals of trend at his new urban photography exhibit at the Loyola University Museum of Art, Paris-Chicago: The Photography of Jean-Christophe Ballot.4

Ballot approaches his subject, the similarities and differences between the cities of Paris and Chicago, from an old-school, old-world perspective: classic, elegant, thoughtfully rendered photographs.  Said thoughtful rendering is manifested in Ballot’s artistic choices, such as his decision to photograph Paris’s sculpture of yore, including Rodin’s timeless work, “The Kiss,” along with such modern Chicago installments as Calder’s “Flamingo,” setting up an old-world, new-world parallel.  He also zeroes in on the architectural parallels of the metropoli, incorporating a shot of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, sandwiched between two photographs of the old staircase in the Musee de l’Orangerie.  These shots are clever in a multitude of ways, because although the pavilion is metallic, abstract, and contemporary, suggesting the future, its sweeping arches and broken abstraction mirror the grandiose art-nouveau staircase, which is voluptuous and elegant, even in its state of abandonment and distress, made evident by the rubbish pile behind it.  In this series, Ballot highlights the similarities and differences between Paris and Chicago with effortless grace.

Ballot’s most interesting incorporation, however, is a series of photographs of the interiors of museums.  By integrating museums as the only indoor depictions in the show, Ballot singles them out as the soul of the city, its cultural pulse.  Of course, there are the more typical gritty industrial shots, and sleek architectural photos.  But it is Ballot’s museum pieces that really capture the essence of the cities, and by shooting them, he brings a kind of regal dignity not only to the museum displays he photographs, but to the cities to which they are home.

From Trash to Treasure…Literally.

Posted in art by Anna on July 1, 2009

“From trash to treasure” is a tired and clichéd expression.  In the instance of Theolia Norwood’s current exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center, however, saying that Norwood’s work materials have gone from trash to treasure wouldn’t be the quipping of an overused saying, so much as a literal statement of fact.  In his exhibition, Urban Pastoral, Norwood takes city garbage and transforms it into serene country landscapes, where optimism and idealism pool comfortably in an imagined safe-haven.530f02b07c6033bb43468e1b49086fbb_h100w575_width

Being a semi-pretentious undergraduate who’s been exposed to more than her fair share of art-history lectures, my initial presumption was that the artist was making some sort of grand socio-political statement about the irrelevance of urban technology and the appreciation of natural beauty and simplicity.  I was, however, informed I was wrong, in one of my more embarrassing moments on record.  I was standing contemplatively in front of one of Norwood’s painting, when a friendly elder gentleman in a sharp navy suit, and a whimsical straw fedora stopped to ask me about the paintings.  I told him what I liked, what I disliked, and then launched into a self-indulgent, presumptuous rant about social statements and symbolism, to which, the man, who turned out to be none other than Norwood himself, responded with a smiling honesty, telling me that it was never his intention to make some sort of grand philosophical statement.  He just wanted to paint.  Unable to afford canvases, he turned to discarded pizza boxes from an Aldi supermarket, and voila!—instant canvas.

Having this back story, it only makes sense that the artist–who is now working in his own studio provided by Project Onward, the Cultural Center’s program for disabled artists–would paint scenes with an aura of fond reminiscence and escapist beauty.  Interestingly, the pieces painted on pizza boxes (approximately half the works) are actually brighter and more uplifting than those rendered on more legitimate surfaces.  One such piece, “The S Curve” depicts thicks, soft, sunny electric green fir trees which filter sunlight, exuding a nature-induced optimism.  In the center of the smiling green forest winds a country road done in soft grays, provoking the uncertainty of the future, not as ominous, but as promising, adventurous, and thrillingly unknown.  Norwood’s upbeat interpretations of nature shine brightly in “Bottom of Tall Trees,” where the soft peppermint sea-foam greens of tree tops tower above to viewer, and everything is tinted with the bright, exaggerated hues of memory.  The sky is a deep, rich indulgent blue, imaginatively aquatic.  This exaggerated reminiscence only makes sense, as Norwood’s inspiration is rooted in his boyhood memories of Mississippi, and is his remembered woodlands are tinted with an element of the magical, creating the nostalgic fairytale forests that exist only in memory.