Chicago

“A New Generation from SAIC”

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA Chicago)

Although none of the artists in this show are my former students, I recognize in them aspirations to uniqueness that I see everyday at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I teach. All these artists are recent graduates, and their work reflects a continuing commitment to Ezra Pound’s now-ancient dictum, “Make it new!” The results are at the least engaging and idiosyncratic, and in one instance—a seven-channel video performance by Miroslav Rogala—truly brilliant. Inspired by the need to learn English as well as video, Rogala explores the question of whether his new medium is also a language. He probes the electronic image to see if it has, as they say in linguistics, inherent deep structures. Considering the ubiquitous struggle for singularity, however, I was struck by how closely related the visions of these artists are. Of the 15 represented here, more than half seem preoccupied with long time, with a history that is biblical, glacial, even primordial.

Viewed from above, the slabs of molded styrofoam with which Peter Taub and David Kelly have lined either side of a corridor apparently make the shape of Central America. But from where we stand, between the shoulder-high edges, the piece doesn’t feel like the topical tropics. The dark, cool, narrow passageway is more an ice cave, somewhere frozen in time. Trapped between a confrontation with the present and a need to go spelunking in the past, we are forced to occupy what the piece’s title calls middle ground.

Jeff Wrona guides us through subterranean chambers as well, though these are clearly in the unconscious. Here the past is reconstructed from the artist’s own memories of childhood. We enter via a tunnel in a papier-maché mountain that, though life-sized now, is reminiscent of the kind through which model trains run. Our eyes go down shallow tile steps, as if into a suburban swimming pool. Instead, we find ourselves in a boy’s bedroom beyond which is the messy closet where he keeps his things. Outside, embedded in the rock like fossils, are toys and other artifacts of memory cut away as if uncovered on a dig.

Many of the other projects seem to be efforts to get back to origins as well. Tim Richards uses electrostatic discharge, lasers, and rear projection to create an atmosphere that crackles and flashes as if with the lightning storms in which, scientists have speculated, DNA was synthesized. Within this charged setting Richards retraces the course of evolution from worm to bird to free molecule ricocheting off the outer limits of space. Amy Hauft has constructed from galvanized steel and Sheetrock a camera obscura through whose wall a lamp on an easel projects a wilderness. The Old Testament fruit—dates, figs, prunes, grapes—in Paul Martin’s molded-wood cornucopia swirls out onto the wall and ceiling as if riding the whirlwind of some scriptural disaster. The theme of impending doom is common; looking into the distant past gives many of these artists premonitions about the future.

In Elizabeth Newman’s installation three curious urns are suspended from a child’s swing whose frame is charred, as if in a nuclear holocaust. These urns are the sort of ancient pottery in which the Dead Sea scrolls were found—except that they also appear, ambiguously, to be pods undergoing freakish mutations, growing coarse hair or a nipple in the form of an oil can. They contain both the secrets of a lost past and the seeds of a hideous future.

The visions of these recent SAIC graduates are so alike that they could almost be responses to an assignment. But they aren’t just academic exercises. They address themselves to important matters about which, I suspect, young artists everywhere are concerned. Since the 19th century, the cycle of art history has been getting shorter and shorter. In recent decades, especially, time has accelerated. Post-Modernism has lasted only five years, but already seems to be giving way to a return to abstraction. It’s as if the history of painting were decaying like uranium, by half-lives. It’s no wonder young artists feel this need to look at the big picture, to try to take the long view of the past.

Colin Westerbeck