The Business of Beauty



By Stephanie Burke and Jeriah Hildwine

This year’s iteration of SOFA, Chicago’s fair of Sculptural Objects and Functional Art, ran from November 4th through 7th.  SOFA’s mission is “bridging the worlds of design, decorative and fine arts, showcasing the rich visual heritage of the decorative arts alongside new, innovative expressions. The works presented bridge historical periods, art movements and cultures, from ethnographica, Asian arts and mid-twentieth century modern to the most cutting-edge contemporary arts and design.”  In practical terms, this translates into an array of ceramics, fibers, wood, glass, furniture, jewelry, and wearable art.

Continuing a tradition started last year, SOFA also partners with Intuit, The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, to present The Intuit Show Of Outsider and Folk Art.   In contrast to SOFA’s theme of finely crafted objects created by skilled and trained artisans, Intuit presents “self-taught art, outsider art, art brut, ethnographic art, non-traditional folk art and visionary art.”

Both SOFA and Intuit, as venues for fine craft and outsider art, respectively, present unique challenges in criticism and interpretation.  The very object-centered nature of the contemporary craft displayed at SOFA places it outside the scope of concept-based criticism, and most “serious art writers” are more or less content to ignore it.  On the other hand, beautiful objects have an appeal of their own, and have no problem attracting collectors:  a difficulty sometimes faced by the more ephemeral forms like performance, installation, and the infinitely reproducible video and sound art.

Outsider art finds itself in a paradoxically identical-yet-opposite situation:  if contemporary craft runs the risk of being dismissed as superficially beautiful but lacking meaning and deeper cultural value, then outsider art can be smothered to death by a pluralistic art world eager to embrace it but always on the edge of a patronizing condescension.

On top of these concerns about marginalization specific to fine craft and outsider art, one must also acknowledge the fundamentally commercial nature of an art fair.  Art fairs are produced by companies:  in the case of SOFA/Intuit, it’s The Art Fair Company, a company jointly owned by former dmg world media CEO Michael Franks and former Vice-President and SOFA founding director Mark Lyman.  Franks and Lyman bought the fair from dmg, whose current productions include trade fairs for the construction industry, the architecture and interior design market, digital marketing, hospitality and hotels, and fifteen different energy and oil industry expositions.

Content is up to the “clients,” which at SOFA means the galleries and dealers, but could just as easily be hotel chains or tar sands companies.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s art or petrochemicals, what fair companies sell is face-to-face connectivity, networks, and visibility:  they sell face time.  This is true of most art fairs; Art Chicago is produced by Merchandise Part Properties, Inc., whose branches include Property Management, Trade Show Management, and Consumer Events Management.  Art Chicago is one of MMPI’s Consumer Events, along with Art Toronto, The Armory Show, Art Platform – Los Angeles, VOLTA, and VOLTA NY, as well as antique fairs, kitchen and bath fairs, and residential furnishing expositons.  Tony Karman’s upcoming Expo Chicago is something of an exception in that Karman has some background in art, but along with an earlier art fair on Navy Pier he also managed boat shows, drawing on production skills he gained producing concerts in college.  The one exception to the commercial art fair model is the recent MDW (Midway) Fair, produced by threewalls, Roots & Culture, and Public Media Institute, all 501(c)(3) nonprofit arts organizations.

But like Hoot says in Black Hawk Down, “Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes right out the window.”  And so it is at SOFA:  stand in front of a Sam Maloof rocking chair, and the postmodern critical chatter and worries about materialistic consumerism all fall silent, because sometimes, shit’s just awesome to look at.

As with any art fair, visual overload is par for the course, and a lot of the work runs together into a slurry of dichromate glass and whimsy.  But there are a surprising number of standouts as well, in a variety of media, and not all are the slick home furnishings one might expect.  One of the first things to grab us was Joseph Gasch-Muche, represented at SOFA by Heller Gallery of New York, NY.  He showed 7.4.2011, a terrifying amalgam of shattered glass, a frozen vortex of shards ready to rend asunder or collapse.  The piece had already sold, at a label price of $39,500 (the actual price paid by a savvy collector is frequently 10-20% below the label price).  Visually stunning, 7.4.2011 is far more aggressive than the sterotypes we might have about glass art.  We couldn’t help notice that a stray shard had fallen from the piece and rested on the carpet beneath:  an unintentional homage to Julian Schnabel’s plate paintings, perhaps, in which some of the pieces of plates apparently had been poorly adhered to the canvas and fell off after the works had been sold.  Dali had a similar problem with pebbles in a painting he created in his youth.  This kind of thing happens from time to time and generally the gallery and artist team up to make it right without much of an issue.

Susan Taylor Glasgow, also represented by Heller Gallery, created another vortex of a sort.  Entitled The Communal Nest, the work consisted of both natural and cast glass branches (contributed by artists from around the world) arranged in a nest formation around a glass-cushioned chair.  The actual crocheted edging on the cushion is an echo of the artist’s usual “sewn glass” practice.  We were both reminded of the constructions of a friend and SAIC alum, Elise Goldstein, both in its aesthetic (clean and simple) and in its use of nest imagery.

Another remarkable set of works, small and quiet, were Eunmi Chun’s animal brooches, made from cow gut, human hair, and gold leaf.  Represented at SOFA by Ornamentum Gallery of Hudson, NY, the animals were gorgeous and transcended the “something pretty made out of something gross” gimmick to stand on their own as amazing objects.

The one medium by which we find ourselves constantly impressed at SOFA is woodworking.  This year we saw for the first time the wood sculptures by Brad Sells, whose hollowed organic forms are reminiscent of some of Louise Bourgeois’ 1960s marble sculptures, in particular Cumul 1, or maybe a wooden rendering of the negative space surrounding it.  Sells, represented at SOFA by Del Man Gallery of Los Angeles, CA, creates his pieces by hollowing out massive wood chunks, following the coutours of the material itself to create writhing, organic negative spaces reminiscent of the kodama from Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke.

The other highlight of woodworking is a familiar face, Sam Maloof (or more appropriately, Sam Maloof Woodworking, Sam himself having passed on in 2009). The Maloof pieces on display included one of the classic rocking chairs, as well as a low-backed seat.  Maloof’s wooden furniture is absolutely breathtaking, and of all of the impressive work at SOFA, his are the ones that we’d actually really want to own in our home.  Some of the pieces (both Maloof’s and others) were made of a particularly attractive wood called zircote, which we’d never heard of before, but which was very impressive.  The woodworking that catches our eyes at SOFA tends to be that where the woodworker (through, I’m sure, countless hours of work) appears to simply get out of the way and allow the figure of the wood itself to do all the work.  Maloof and Sells are two woodworkers who do this very, very well.

The Intuit show had its share of standouts as well.  Last year it was the vintage sideshow posters; this year, it was Bernard Gilardi at Portrait Society Gallery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Gilardi’s paintings look like old-time circus sideshow banners painted by James Ensor, with a dash of a more pop-folk artist like Mr. Hooper.  Gilardi worked in the basement of his family home in Wisconsin until his death in 2008, and now his body of over forty years’ work is represented by Portrait Society Gallery.

It will be interesting to see how SOFA and Intuit evolve, particularly with the advent of new fairs like MDW and Expo Chicago joining SOFA and Next/Art Chicago.  Of all of the fairs, SOFA and Intuit seem to have the most clearly delineated missions, and the least overlap with the others.  Hopefully we can look forward to epic installations on the level of 2008’s presentation of Lucio Bubacco’s mythological glass miniatures.  We wonder also whether Chicago’s premier Studio Glass gallery, Ken Saunders, will return:  a previous and obvious SOFA exhibitor at both the Chicago and New York fairs, he was conspicuous this year by his absence.  Other Chicago galleries continue showing at SOFA.  Among others, Judy Saslow presented outsider art in Intuit, and Ann Nathan provided a respite from the craft theme with her gallery’s exhibition of paintings, including work by Ben Duke, Jeriah’s fellow Hoffberger alum from MICA and an excellent figurative/narrative painter.  Hopefully, these and others will give us great stuff to look at again next year.

Jeriah Hildwine was born in San Diego, CA, in 1979.  He received his BA in Studio Art and History from Humboldt State University in 2002, and his MFA in Painting from the Hoffberger School of Painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2007.  He is a painter, with an exhibition scheduled for February 2012 at Linda Warren Gallery; he also writes art criticism for Art Pulse, Art Talk Chicago, Bad at Sports and Chicago Art Magazine.  Jeriah lives and works in Chicago, Illinois, with his wife Stephanie Burke.

Stephanie Burke was born in Nevada City, CA in 1984. She received her BA in Studio Art and Anthropology from Humboldt State University in 2007, and her MFA in Photography from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2009. Currently she lives in Chicago with her husband Jeriah, makes work, teaches, writes for Bad at Sports, is Editor-in-Chief of Art Talk Chicago, works as Managing Editor and Director of Operations at Chicago Art Magazine, as well as maintaining her own blog, The Gallery Crawl and So Much More. When not making, teaching, looking at, or writing about art, she enjoys running around in the woods, drinking beer by bonfires, crazy quilting and target shooting.


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