Michael Piazza

Michael Piazza’s death in 2006 robbed Chicago of one of its most persistent cultural and social activists, an artist and teacher who believed that creativity could be a corrective and redemptive force with the potential to ameliorate the conditions of the disenfranchised and the dispossessed, naming and shaming and unmasking those who hold the reins of power (art-world power included). In Piazza’s life the personal and the political were ever fused, and his ongoing work with, for example, the inmates of the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center of Cook County was rooted in his disgust that such a place existed at all, and in his belief that the individuals he found there were more in need of cultural intervention than any art collector. In Time Book, Attention, 1998, Piazza worked with former juvenile inmates to make bars of clear tinted soap that had handcuff keys embedded in them; another work, Lot, 1995, is a round card table with eight handcuffs attached to its rim, a site of play and incarceration, a place where the child and the adult meet in bondage.

Piazza’s core stylistic strategy was, as this affectionate retrospective made clear, to alter found objects and wrench new psychological and sociological possibilities from his materials, much as he did with the many populations, including prisoners, the mentally ill, and his neighbors in the working-class area of Humboldt Park, with whom he regularly worked. In a Way, 1995, is a barbell made by driving a metal shaft through some old and very thick law books; the tomes become literal and physical deadweight, the law, in the politically insurrective and surreal way Piazza favored, becoming both empty and heavy. Fence Vehicle, 1992, is six feet of chain-link fence mounted atop a child’s wagon, capable of being moved about, so that inside and outside, the powerful and free and the quarantined and controlled—a kind of portable alienation—could be created at a moment’s notice.

If there was a more cloistered passion in Piazza’s life, it was surely books and reading. Books are everywhere in this exhibition, as collage elements or as stacks piled about, old and new books, books of social theory, art history, novels. . . . The artist was a text maniac who adored the look and legacy of print, especially old print. Reading Club, 1993, seems his vision of Arcadia: A short ladder allows viewers to climb up to a lofty perch atop which Piazza has set a wooden chair, a ready rack of books, cigarettes, an ashtray, and a coffee mug, all you need to escape the tawdry, earthbound world and enter another, more profound and wonderful one—an allegory of reading as a ritualistic and dignified act of faith.

In Illuminated, 2004, Piazza took twelve hundred feet of black electrical cord and wove it into a comfy chair, a book sack, and a lampshade, then added a lightbulb and plugged it in. Electrical energy literally encases the book bag and reader’s chair, and eventually manifests itself in light over one’s head, about a quarter-mile journey sanctifying reading, making it alive and pulsing. Piazza’s journey as citizen-artist was filled with such moments, balancing insight and empathy, of transformative wit chastened finally by his considerations of the endless tasks of the true cultural worker.

James Yood