Maddie Reyna, Fantasie, 2014, ink-jet print, 36 × 24".

Maddie Reyna, Fantasie, 2014, ink-jet print, 36 × 24".

Maddie Reyna

Julius Caesar

Maddie Reyna, Fantasie, 2014, ink-jet print, 36 × 24".

Maddie Reyna is emerging as a dutiful acolyte of the British Conceptual artist Stephen Willats. “Jamaica Sweethearts,” Reyna’s recent pop-up installation at Julius Caesar, a prominent Chicago artist-run project space, examined art’s social agency in an apparent endeavor to demonstrate Willats’s cool polemics. Indeed, the show could have been pulled from the pages of Artwork as Social Model, Willats’s 2012 manual for artists “looking to find a meaningful relationship with contemporary society, and intervening to transform norms and conventions, to provide a new vision of a possible future.” Reyna built a crude foamcore environment into Caesar’s small white cube (located in a dingy Garfield Park studio building), literalizing the “glass ceiling” effect while drawing on a range of stereotypes: teenage-girl aesthetics, alternative art spaces, contemporary abstraction, and thrift culture. Each heavy-handed reference was handled with impertinent disregard, in an effort to exert pressure, as Willats advocates, on the processes of production, distribution, and consumption that maintain art’s status quo.

Reyna’s distinct visual vocabulary differs from Willats’s didactic graphic lexicon; her slapdash gallery-in-a-gallery tableau had feminist overtones and an unaffecting appropriated style that took material disinterest to a new level. Her methodology, however, resonates with the British artist’s brand of participation and collaboration. The installation brazenly reflected a critical divestment of the authorship of studio production and public display—a position that Willats claims is “relevant to an emerging culture founded on networks of exchange, fluidity, transience, and mutuality.” The exhibition also implicated Reyna’s hand in the management and ever-evolving philosophy of Julius Caesar. She and a few others have recently taken the reins from the gallery’s previous overseers; thus, “Jamaica Sweethearts” could be interpreted as a visual mission statement for the future of the gallery—a credo that holds art to be more dependent on personal relationships than it is on the economy of objects.

Reyna crafted an improvised dropped ceiling from warped white foamcore that was cantilevered from the gallery walls at approximately six feet above the dirty concrete floor, effectively transforming the space into an uncomfortably low, dark hideout. Reyna’s efforts to amend the glass-ceiling cliché here literally brought viewers to their knees by offering a more appropriately opaque truth (one that was emphasized by the exhibition’s press release—documentation of an exchange with the exhibitions manager of the Power Station in Dallas regarding the gender inequality represented by its roster of exhibiting artists). Viewers were forced into crouched positions to view three “digital posters” and two paintings that lined the walls beneath the flimsy canopy. The installation was intentionally neither resourceful nor imaginatively playful. Viewers clung to the posters’ hackneyed sensibilities to make sense of the artist’s crude (and creepy) Dr. Caligari–esque lair.

The word FANTASIE was printed in a bold collegiate font across the bottom of one of Reyna’s posters (Fantasie, all works 2014), and moonshine, in cursive, was featured on another (Moonshine). The third, an orange and purple composition titled Jamaica Sweethearts, is emblazoned with banalities that read like song lyrics: JAMAICA SWEETHEARTS THIS WAS A DREAM, and I’M NOT SATISFIED BUT I’M HAPPY. Basic digital cut-and-paste effects are noticeable in the posters’ depictions of cutout hearts, found images of butterflies, and abstract flower motifs. In Moonshine, a vernacular photograph depicting a wintery Chicago night fills the interiors of eight hearts that float atop a faded lavender portrait of a black man wearing shades. Another heart-framed photo documenting a bouquet of limp daisies is foregrounded in Fantasie. The oil paintings (both Untitled) emploed similar girlish imagery, reinforcing a totalizing attitude that lashes out at a mixed bag of social stereotypes. Most effective here was Reyna’s aloof rejection of art’s current conventions—what Willats describes as “well-crafted, self-referenced, modernistic [and] possessible.” If “Jamaica Sweethearts” is any indication, we should expect a new vision of social engagement from Julius Caesar and new possibilities for artmaking from Maddie Reyna.

Michelle Grabner