Despite the periodic ringing of the death knell for painting, this genre of art making is alive and well. An important reason for this is its continued evolution. Painters are bound to the traditions they inherit and know that in order to keep painting alive, push it forward, and agitate for its legitimacy, they must find ways to connect it to our times. The artist’s hand—the central protagonist in modern gestural painting—has become a primary reference point for many artists intent on rethinking painting. Artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Christopher Wool have fostered skepticism about the role of the hand-made as an indicator of artistic genius or authenticity, a doubt that has found an outlet in a wide variety of paintings and artistic practices since the 1960s. This ambivalence toward the hand inspired the title of this exhibition, Phantom Limb, which brings together a wide cross-section of painterly activity by artists who are defining the terms by which we understand this tradition today.

James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator Michael Darling examines key works in the exhibition.

MCA Chicago presents Chicago-born, New York-based artist Rashid Johnson’s first major solo museum exhibition, surveying the first fourteen years of his career. Deftly working in a range of media—including photography, painting, sculpture, and video—Johnson incorporates commonplace objects from his childhood into his work in a process he describes as “hijacking the domestic.” The artist transforms these everyday materials—such as plants, books, record albums, photographs, shea butter, and soap—into conceptually loaded and visually compelling works that challenge entrenched ways of thinking about the black experience and emphasize its plurality. Johnson investigates the construction of identity in a practice that is steeped in individual experience while invoking shared cultural references. Throughout his work, he enters into dialogue with black American creative and intellectual figures whose impact has transcended race, extending their legacy. Message to Our Folks, Johnson’s first major solo museum exhibition, examines how this work has developed over the first fourteen years of his career.

This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s covers the period from 1979 to 1992. During this era, the political sphere was dominated by the ideas of former US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the music scene was transformed by punk and the birth of hip-hop, and our everyday lives were radically altered by a host of technological developments, from the Sony Walkman and the ATM to the appearance of MTV and the first personal computers. In the United States, the decade opened with an enormous anti-nuclear protest in New York’s Central Park and closed with mass demonstrations against the government’s slow response to the AIDS crisis. This exhibition attempts to make sense of what happened to the visual arts in the United States during this tumultuous period.

The artists represented in This Will Have Been belong to the first generation of artists to grow up with a television in the home. They came of age in a culture saturated with images designed to promote desire—desire for objects, for lifestyles, for fame, for conformity, for anti-conformity. So too the majority of these artists lived through the heady days of the 1970s feminist movement and witnessed that broad-based social movement’s demands for equality in all areas of life—work, family, and intimate relationships. It became the task of the 1980s to assimilate these powerful social forces—the rise of television and movements for social justice—as they converged.

For many of the artists represented in this exhibition that meant grappling with complex questions: In a world increasingly filled with mass-media images, what is the role of the visual arts? How can artists make images that either compete with or counter the powerful images produced by advertising and Hollywood? In a society struggling for increased equality, how do historically marginalized people—women, people of color, and gays and lesbians—find their public voice? Toward the end of the decade, as the rise of HIV/AIDS created a growing political and medical crisis in the United States, these questions increased in urgency. This Will Have Been features a wide range of artworks, made by a diverse group of nearly one hundred artists, demonstrating the decade’s moments of contentious debate, raucous dialogue, erudite opinions, and joyful expression—all in the name of an expanded idea of freedom, long the promise of democratic societies.

In works that range from intimate poetic objects to large-scale neon signs, Martin Creed (British, b. 1968) reevaluates the status of art with a generous sense of humor. As part of a yearlong residency at MCA Chicago, Creed brings his avant-garde sensibility to the building and the city. In each month of 2012, Creed unveils an artwork in a different space of the MCA, progressing upward through four floors of the building and extending his work outward to the sculpture garden and plaza and into the city of Chicago. Some works live as sculptures in the museum’s public spaces, and some projects are site specific—for instance, murals in the atrium and café. Others still, such as a work that takes the form of crumpled balls of paper placed in each of the museum’s public spaces, play with the notion of the carefully curated object. Extending his project beyond the MCA, Creed—who fronts a rock band—explores the city’s vibrant music scene as well.

IAIN BAXTER&: Works 1958–2011

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Iain Baxter legally changed his name to IAIN BAXTER& in 2005. He appended an ampersand to his name to underscore his belief that art is about connectivity, contingency, and collaboration with a viewer. A relentless emphasis on reaching out to the viewer, a core concern with ecology and the environment, and a belief that art must assume plural means and media, inform BAXTER&’s early credo: understanding that “art is all over.” This exhibition seeks to appraise the remarkable achievement of this artist, and to position his contribution in relation to mainstream histories of conceptual art, photography, and installation art.

Ron Terada: Being There

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Ron Terada is a Vancouver-based artist who has exhibited extensively in Canada and Europe over the past 15 years but has had relatively little exposure in the United States. Working in the high-tech and multicultural British Columbian city, where influences back and forth across the Pacific Rim are numerous and complex, as well as exploring his own Japanese Canadian identity, Terada has built a fascinating body of work that includes paintings, photographs, video, sound, books, and graphic design. Often using his position within the art world of Vancouver as the starting point for measuring his self-worth, self-esteem, and self-identification, he has used signage, advertising, and Hollywood films in unusual and inventive ways. This is his first solo exhibition in the United States.

The Language of Less (Then and Now) is inspired by the MCA’s rich holdings of work from the 1960s and seventies that typically rejects imagery, reveals little if any evidence of the artist’s hand, and embraces industrial materials. In doing so, this work—known broadly as Minimal art—directs the viewer without distraction to the subtle underpinnings of all form: line, plane, mass, and color.

The exhibition is divided into two distinct parts, the first of which presents a fresh reinstallation of this historical material, with work by artists such as Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, and Richard Serra. The second showcases a new generation of artists who have assimilated the lessons of their forebears but address a new range of concerns. These five contemporary artists—Leonor Antunes, Carol Bove, Jason Dodge, Gedi Sibony, and Oscar Tuazon—offer new insights into what is valuable and enduring in the historical work but also point us toward the pressing concerns of today.

Pandora’s Box: Joseph Cornell Unlocks the Collection puts Cornell’s work into direct dialogue with objects from the MCA Collection to illuminate the continued relevance of his pursuits while also grounding even very recent work within a historical continuum that yields surprises to this day. Spanning more than 60 years—and including media from painting and photography to sculpture and video—the exhibition relies on loose and playful juxtapositions to prompt new appreciations of his career and shows the work in a decidedly different and distinctively contemporary light.

Jim Nutt: Coming Into Character

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Since 1990, Jim Nutt has focused exclusively on female heads in spare-line drawings and rich, detailed paintings. This exhibition is a retrospective of Nutt’s work that emphasizes the development of these important paintings through their precedents in his own work. Acknowledging the groundswell in interest in this unique American artist’s work, this will be the first major presentation of Nutt in over a decade. Nutt’s history as an important artist dates to the mid-1960s where in Chicago he was a chief instigator of the irreverent “Hairy Who” group, now better known as the Chicago Imagists.

Further solidifying Jim Nutt’s stature as an internationally significant artist, Seeing Is a Kind of Thinking: A Jim Nutt Companion provides an excellent opportunity to expand the artistic framework in which to consider his work beyond Chicago’s Hairy Who. While Jim Nutt: Coming Into Character offers a focused look at Nutt’s portrait busts of the last 20 years, revealing precedents in Nutt’s early works, this companion exhibition takes a much broader approach, delving into the rich and varied visual and cultural universe that has informed Nutt’s work and that of his peers.

The MCA’s Pamela Alper Associate Curator Julie Rodrigues Widholm, Paul Nudd, Diane Simpson and Gladys Nilsson provide insight into this companion exhibition to Jim Nutt: Coming Into Character.