Critics’ Picks

View of “Heartland,” 2009. Left: Cody Critcheloe, Boy, 2009. Right: Carnal Topor, Purifications of the CalmDome, 2009.

Chicago

“Heartland”

Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago
5550 South Greenwood Avenue
October 1 - January 17

This eye-opening group exhibition highlights the work of visual artists and other cultural producers who take tactical advantage of their peripheral geographic relationship to major urban cultural centers. From its title onward, “Heartland”—a collaboration between the Smart Museum of Art in Chicago and the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands—simultaneously embraces and debunks regional clichés. The independent spirit, bootstrapping gumption, and friendliness often attributed to midwesterners, for example, here takes the form of a determined DIY mind-set, a willingness to collaborate, and a savvy ability to get the job done by “making do.”

Such methods are certainly not exclusive to this region, but they are arguably most prevalent (and essential) in cities like Detroit, Kansas City, Chicago, and Memphis. Falling real estate prices have enabled the Detroit-based, community-minded collective Design 99 to purchase studio and storefront space, while Lowndes County, Alabama—the birthplace of the first independent African-American political party—provides a rich vein of unwritten sociopolitical history for artist Jeremiah Day to tap. Oral histories and other forms of storytelling enable artists to situate a dislocated present in terms of a shared past or an imagined future, although sometimes, as in the comics-style drawings of Chicagoans Kerry James Marshall and Deb Sokolow, such place-based narratives can take surreal, truth-twisting turns.

The Chicago iteration of “Heartland” wisely includes smaller ancillary exhibitions of paintings by self-taught artist Joseph Yoakum and the Chicago Imagists, ensuring that the unique contributions of the city to the region’s art are not overlooked. Overall, however, the focus is on shared practices rather than common stylistic attributes.