Chicago

Jana Gunstheimer

The Art Institute of Chicago

What if several elite and prestigious landmark homes and apartment complexes around your city metamorphosed, suddenly and inexplicably, into blue-collar, working-class residences? Such was the premise of “Status L Phenomenon,” Jana Gunstheimer’s first museum exhibition in the US. Gunstheimer envisions what would happen if a pair of century-old Chicago mansions and the Miesian Lake Point Tower on Navy Pier were to experience this transubstantiation, and she documents aspects of the displacement—physical and psychological—of their residents in a series of trompe l’oeil watercolors, two mixed-media wall installations, and a fictitious tabloid newspaper, Chicago News.

The suggested metaphor seems at first to be one of economic and social comeuppance, with the proletariat overthrowing the haute-bourgeoisie in a kind of degentrification, or squatters triumphans. But that’s actually not what Gunstheimer’s project is about. The show was centered on how the media—the daily press in particular—reports the news, and on how people adapt to extraordinary changes in their environment. Gunstheimer’s fifteen new watercolors are highly naturalistic renditions of the images surrounding her imaginary scenario of architectural and sociological transformation as reported by newspapers from around the world, including the Chicago Tribune, The Guardian, and the Frankfurter Allgemeine. The documentary immediacy of these images, the way in which they share space with headlines and logos, speaks to the power of the visual component of news, how it inevitably constructs narrative. The artist’s before-and-after images of Lake Point Tower’s shift into what seems a generic modernist housing project, as depicted by the Chicago Tribune and USA Today, provide a blunt visual record of the metamorphosis, image as grisaille fact.

The context of the watercolors becomes clearer in Status L Phenomenon # 18 (all works 2007), a stack of copies of Gunstheimer’s free, eight-page rag. All the images from her watercolors are reproduced here, and some are accompanied by blazing headlines such as CRISIS: MEMBERS OF UPPER CLASS AFFECTED BY INEXPLICABLE PHENOMENON OF LOST STATUS, SOCIAL COLLAPSE, and BUSH PROCLAIMS STATE OF EMERGENCY FOR CHICAGO. Her stories parody the tabloid media and their audiences’ thirst for instant “analysis,” the more salacious and provocative the better. The Chicago News mimics the breathless rhythms of reportage and speculation that accompany breaking news.

As an East German artist who lived through the reunification of Germany, Gunstheimer has a ready touchstone for her commentary on the psychological aspects of sudden and overwhelming alterations in context. Parts of the Chicago News and a pair of wall installations, Status L Phenomenon #16 and Status L Phenomenon #17, exhibit her interest in what she terms “Status L,” or the phenomenon of lost status. This describes how humans acclimatize to emergent situations, especially those that involve a sudden loss of prestige. Status L Phenomenon #18 recounts the struggle of James Dobbes, who returned to his villa on South Prairie Avenue one evening to find it replaced by a shabby terrace house, his daughter suddenly covered with piercings, his credit card canceled, and his housekeeper now presiding over the household and claiming to have been there for three years. Dobbes is confused, disoriented, almost concussed, his concept of self, like that of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, defined from the outside, not from the inside, and shifting as his external world comes apart. Gunstheimer has Dobbes conclude his interview: “I very much hope the matter will be cleared up and we can all return to our previous lives.” Fat chance.

James Yood