PRINT March 2000


David Robbins

David Robbins is an artist and writer living in Evanston, Illinois. His fourth book, a fiction entitled The Ice Cream Social (Purple Books/Feature Inc.), was published in 1998. He teaches comedy, writing, and other interests at the Art Institute of Chicago. He is represented by Feature Inc. in New York.


    What a shame that Chris Smith’s funny, big-hearted documentary about indie-film desperado Mark Borchardt didn’t get nominated for an Oscar. Borchardt on stage, facing the academy, would have been a mind-blowing moment in pop history (has anyone ever imploded on live TV?) and a tribute to the life-transforming magic of media-caprice—somewhere between the Schwab’s-drugstore-discovery legend and the career of Mark Wahlberg.


    (Pax Network) Weary of the entertainment monosystem? Tired of seeing the same names flog product on the airwaves and in the glossies? You're now ready for this refreshing amateur hour, beamed from Hawaii and hosted by a willowy black lady and a native muscle man. Rediscover clean living as you root for hungry entertainers whose fame so far extends only to the local papers. Be genuinely amazed by suave nine-year-old magicians. Thrill to the unbridled voices of twelve-year-old divas. Aren’t humans something? Do yourself a favor: Promise you won’t watch ironically.


    Myths die hard, so most cool galleries still get situated in urban art ghettos. (Santa Monica, a suburb? Please. Winnetka—now that’s a suburb. Are there cool avant-garde galleries in Winnetka? Nope. Nor are there in other American suburbs—with the exception of Birmingham, Michigan, which boasts two!) The Suburban, a new exhibition room run by artists Brad Killam and Michelle Grabner in Oak Park, Illinois, is thus a welcome addition. At seven by ten feet, the white cinder-block jewel of a space attached to their garage may be tiny, but how big does a next step need to be?


    That we don’t annually celebrate Electricity Day is unfathomable.


    Mr. Claire Mithelman of Grinnell, Iowa, earned his livelihood selling corporate incentives—the inscribed keychains, pens, and such that companies distribute to promote themselves to clients. Humor must have been a strong sideline, though. When he died two years ago, each of the friends and relatives attending his funeral received a ballpoint pen inscribed with a message: “Your last pen from me. Claire Mithelman September 24, 1921-December 18, 1998.” Imagine the presence of mind! Heartbreaking wit, small-town division.


    Minor key cities have been major beneficiaries of our entrepreneurial age’s do-it-yourself ethos. They’re flowering. Take Milwaukee’s Hermetic Gallery. Run by affable autodidact Nicholas Frank, it's as good as any artist-run storefront space in NY or LA. That's partly attributable to improved information flow, no doubt, but it's also a matter of attitude. The Hermetic consistently looks to feed the local community’s sense of itself as a real community making real culture. A town needs only one or two venues such as this to start feeling like a very different town.


    Recently hailed by something called the New Yorker as the funniest periodical in America, the Madison, Wisconsin-based Onion offers masterly deadpan satire. Weekly. For free.


    (Delacorte, 1999) Bill Zehme’s bio of Andy Kaufman gets a firm grasp on the slippery master. An artist of destabilization whose medium was our confused, media-warped idea of integrity, Kaufman applied an attitude of ambiguity to ambiguous subject matter and wound up generating authentic, genuinely contemporary experiences for performer and audience alike. A seminal artist of the Show Biz Age. Zehme’s book hasn’t a dull page.


    In 1997, Milwaukee artist Paul Druecke began going door-to-door collecting snapshots of social gatherings, the kind we all stash somewhere in album or shoebox and forget. His collection now numbers nearly 600, many anonymously contributed via the post. (Anybody can contribute one, but only one; check out for guidelines.) Individually, each photo provides a glimpse of private pleasures preserved; together they attain a critical mass of tragihilarity. Celebration of the wondrous inventions devised by Homo sapiens to establish and maintain contact? Game preserve affording coldhearted study of the species’ ludicrous notions of community? A treasure either way. (You clever New York publishing types listening?)

  10. INOVA

    Three years ago, the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee decided to do something about its tired on-campus gallery. Fortunately they hired Peter Doroshenko, who renamed the place the Institute of Visual Arts, hired curator Marilu Knode, and took the place from zero to seventy in nothing flat. Basically a kunsthalle (translation: no collection) working primarily with the stars of the installation/new media/portable avant-garde—Uri Tzaig, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Jennifer Steinkamp—INOVA has established itself as one of the most adventuresome venues in the States.