Paul Chidester

Public Library Cultural Center

In Paul Chidester’s 12 small egg-tempera and oil paintings, collectively entitled “Corn,” red words name little-known constellations, and black ones designate obsolete varieties of corn. Between the verbal references to the rural Midwest, one glimpses the faded concrete and brick of a crumbling city infiltrated by pale green vegetation.

The circuitous arrangement of these phrases, imitating the growth patterns of vegetation, do not actually enter the virtual space of the image but trace its shapes on the surface, gently reaffirming the picture plane and thus recalling the image’s material nature. The unadulterated nostalgia suggested by the genre of the romantic ruin, to which Chidester’s paintings refer, is filtered through the screen of text. But what kind of words are these? “Expanded Paw,” “Auspicious Feet,” “Purple Subtle Enclosure.” These are names that invoke other referents, connecting disparate worlds through visual correlations—flowery phrases that we would never know named corn or stars without an explanatory text. Most of these names have fallen out of use, (except for a few modern hybrids: “NK–75,” “Y–81”).

Previously Chidester cross-referenced the lyrical names of extinct prairie grasses (“Pussytoes,” “Hoary Peavine,” “Bastard Toad flax”), painted in sinuous cursive script, with the names of commercially viable grains, on the inside walls of an abandoned 19th-century firehouse inhabited by transients. Before Chidester completed his project, the “Jay Pee Chaff Museum of Prairie Grasses” was bulldozed to make room for the westward march of deluxe high-rise apartments. Chidester knew this was coming; indeed, he conceived the grain and grasses conflict as a more general allegory of urban displacement, whereby transients, or “nonproducers,” (their lifestyle likened to the wayward growth of the noncommercial grasses) are displaced by yuppies (production personified).

A similar narrative of encroachment animates these small paintings, although they partake less explicitly of the dynamic of power and innocence. The words perform as if in cahoots with the plants, rupturing not only the urban façade and the cultural order it stands for but the space of the picture. The words, however, are ordering systems themselves—indices of our attempts to make sense of, and control, the earth as well as the heavens. No single narrative of loss coheres; instead the paintings are traversed with multivalent pulls and tugs. We are left with an idea (not a utopian fantasy) of encroachment, and with the allusiveness of language and the simple pleasure of naming: “Trucker’s Favorite,” “Hindmost Loiterer,” “Left-hand Maintainer of Law.”

These paintings were clustered together on one end of a very long wall in Chicago’s Cultural Center, which houses the offices for the City’s Department of Cultural Affairs as well as the downtown branch of the Public Library. Historically, the D.C.A. has been a major presenter of free (multi-)cultural events and art exhibitions that get viewed by an unusually diverse audience. As the library will move to a newly constructed site this summer, the fate of the Department of Cultural Affairs is uncertain, and it seems likely that rather than rededicate the entire historic Beaux Arts building to arts programming, the city of Chicago will sell it to the private sector and dismantle the D.C.A. altogether. Chidester’s installation was, by his admission, site-specific, and in light of these circumstances these sly paintings of encroaching ruin served as sensitive indices of the political tensions that crisscrossed this site.

Laurie Palmer