“The Chicago Connection”

E.B. Crocker Art Gallery, Sacramento

When an “outside” juror or exhibition coordinator comes in to Chicago, it usually means a transient visitation looking for refreshing innocence, the most recent example being from the West Coast. As part of the E. B. Crocker Art Gallery Exhibitions Committee, Wilma Cox went from studio to studio, equipped with diaries, cameras, lights, magic markers, and tape recorders, making interviews and viewing art. Her object was to set up a large, group exhibition, “The Chicago Connection.”

Now, the easiest way to do this sort of thing is to call some “inside” critic, gallery, or museum, and take their gratuitous advice; this leaves a lot of time for eating at the clubs. But not Wilma. She scouted real stuff and came up with an exhibition, two essays, and an art chronology, whose single curious defect is omission of everything connected with the strong and influential women’s cooperatives: A.R.C. and Artemesia. Particularly because one theme of her exposition is how artists’ independent energies have characterized Chicago growth, I wonder if Ms. Cox does not, in this instance, at least, exhibit a serious shortcoming.

But still, there is an overwhelming importance in having an “outsider” come in and sift the scene. Wilma Cox can record things which simply aren’t registered here, because our patterns are so tried and true. She can register, “The Imagist artists are in fact unhappy with that label and never really did consider themselves Imagist at all,” whereas it is not likely any artist here would admit such heresy for fear of cutting off support.

She can write that Miyoko Ito is frequently considered one of a certain group, even though her work is to all appearances part of another, when such an admission is not likely here for fear of obviating 15 years of catalogue essays. Wilma can leave out all those well-known “outside” media categories, such as Abstract Expressionist, Post Painterly Abstraction, Minimalist, and post-Minimal, when it is not likely that Chicago institutions would so “break the law” for fear of emphasizing their own unimportance. Wilma can faithfully record raw data on local lore, social source material, artist job-histories and mystical philosophies, when it is not lively any critic here would evince such curiosity for fear of tarnishing his own aura of omniscience.

Wilma can make her selections according to personal, surprising, and albeit undiscernible processes, when any coordinator here would not likely mix “winners” and “losers” for fear of opening untested, easy-to-ridicule, new precedents. For the most part, this exhibition’s concept hints at commonalities linking artists together—cold weather, thematic iconography, availability of materials, the city’s “crude strength,” high levels of craftsmanship, presence of major art schools, traditions in other arts—but none of these possibilities is as convincing as the truly untried variety of the final selection.

Predictably, there are inherent limitations in such an effort. Cox hasn’t been around Chicago long enough to have watched developments: she doesn’t know which artists have been doing the same thing for years, doesn’t know which ones make a different “style” every time a commission comes along, doesn’t know which ones are in decline from fine work of several years ago, doesn’t know which ones are apprentices who mimic a teacher’s ideas. Her catalogue essay recounts the artists’ own explanations of their work—often happy little ideas with small relation to reality—and the amount of explication may reflect only whether the artists were good talkers. In the main, her “Historical Background” and “Chronology” rehash too stereotypically known, already-published facts and leave out that material you have to dig for, such as information on the influence of the Chicago Bauhaus and the Institute of Design. Paradoxically, in her own way, Cox thus echoes what has sometimes stagnated Chicago artists before: too much Congratulation, and not enough evaluation.

This exhibition has lassoed some extraordinarily fine examples of work by various artists: Roger Brown, Bill Conger, Nancy Davidson, Harold Gregor, Ed Paschke, and Ray Yoshida. Among the 32, I would say there are about 11 top-notch people, considering each individual’s continuous esthetic development, worthiness of intention, and ability to put intuition or conception into visual effect. “The Chicago Connection” may do more to redescribe order and security in Chicago than to educate “connecting” viewers, but an enthusiastic first-exposure certainly does more good than harm.

C.L. Morrison