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Front & Center: The Vocabulary of Furniture

The Center Program celebrates its sixth year with the exhibition of Front and Center: The Vocabulary of Furniture. This show is the culmination of the work done by the 25 artists in the Center Program’s Class of 2017. Artists met every week for six months to discuss and develop their work with peers and visiting artists, curators, and educators. Their collaborative efforts address themes that include audience interaction, forged spaces, education, as well as intimate and public personas.

Dawn Brennan, installation view of works on paper, 2017,  dimensions variable, acrylic and charcoal on paper.

Dawn Brennan’s narrated drawings showcase private moments through monumentally sized works. The progression of Brennan’s work is particularly outstanding over the course of the Center Program. Brennan entered the Center Program influenced by naturalistic Greek and Roman art. While presenting images of her work to the class, Brennan included images of her comic-book style journal entries, which received resounding affirmations for the group. Soon, she began to explore her journal’s motifs through larger works. In her own words, Brennan’s works “don’t literally document; they express a moment of emotional pain, confusion, dissociation or alienation.” These themes have successfully culminated in works such as The Breakup, which documents Brennan’s interpretation of her lover’s thoughts after an argument. There is a scopophilic nature to these drawings: her depiction of intimate moments entice the viewer. But the jarring use of text transports the audience into a dynamic experience of frustrating relatability juxtaposed by a cathartic distance from Brennan’s personal life. The transformation of Brennan’s work during the Center Program is notable for its successful culmination as an engaging device of emotive narration.

Unline Brennan, artist Carlos Flores continued to focus on his work’s original themes that address topics such as labor and gentrification. Still, in keeping his message, Flores shifted media away from ceramics to installation work. Hand In/To Hand, a hut made of bandit signs, is meant to confront the audience as they “approach it from all directions; physically it carves out space in the lobby for gathering and conversation, what I’m most interested in.” Milk cartons are arranged inside of the hut as seating for viewers. Milk cartons occur as a common motif throughout the complete body of Flores’ work: “They’re charged industrial objects to me… they start the conversations about cultural hybridity, craftsmanship, labor, and urban landscape.” Conversation is successfully ignited by the culturally charged symbolic materials and welcoming form of Flores’ work. Flores hosted events during the exhibition. His office hour events build conversations that focus on the aforementioned themes of his work. These office hour events expands Hand In/To Hand beyond the role of the art object into a tool that engages his audience as autonomous members of a community brought together for discussion.

Rambod Vala and Ramyar Vala, Challenges of Imagination, 2017, plywood, speaker, and full HD video, 63.25 x 9 x 52.25 inches; 17:41 minutes.

Like Flores, Rambod Vala created an installation to house viewers in a space dedicated to education through a video lecture, Challenges of Imagination. This work was originally designed as a lecturer performance during the Center Program. Vala wrote a lecture that was to be presented alongside a screening of his video work. Vala asked his brother, Ramyar, a Chicago-based sculptor, to create a podium for this piece. In the midst of the Center Program, Vala’s artists’ visa was denied for renewal, an event that drastically impacted the format of his work. The piece shifted from an in-person presentation to a video installation that faces a bench crafted by Ramyar Vala. The bench holds two speakers which play both brothers’ voices narrating the lecture that melds together personal narrative against an academic presentation of Gary Becker’s controversial theories that touch upon themes of immigration, love, and multiple realities. Vala’s personal involvement with each of these themes provides compelling anecdotal evidence to his video lecture that engages and educates his audience.

The power of installation work is amplified from Vala’s necessity through Silvia Gonzalez’s creation of an inner space to share with visitors. While Vala created a space to replace the unavailable format of performance work, Gonzalez’s Volver I Return centers upon her thoughts about in-between space. Gonzalez seeks to question what it means to both belong and not belong. She attempts to juxtapose a sense of being fully grounded to the transitory navigation between one place or another. “When I was little,” Gonzalez said, “I feel like my stronger memories are not so much in a house as much as they are on a greyhound bus or an airplane. I was so constantly transitioning between spaces.” Like many other Center Program artists, Gonzalez entwines her own narrative through portable personal belongings and family photographs that enliven her work’s focus on crafting a space of nostalgia in any setting. Gonzalez hopes to take the installation to new spaces beyond Hyde Park Art Center, like the lake, or even a more intimate space such as her bedroom: “It doesn’t need to be shown to people,” she said. During the Front and Center show, Gonzales also plans to host a zine-making even. She crafted this event to continue the legacy of forging autonomous spaces, and plans to use the occasion to host and celebrate the work of “Chicago Zinesters, many self- identified women of color who focus on the personal and political.”

Sooyhun Kim’s work also involves events held at the Art Center in conjunction with the Front and Center exhibition. Open photo shoots further the legacy of the conversations provoked during Kim’s photographic portrait project of immigrant families. This body of work was developed in the midst of personal and political obstacles: “So many things happened (during) the Center Program… I received a rejection of my Green card application, and then I had to tweak many of my plans.” Kim then took over a photo studio in Arlington Heights where he, “had the chance to meet new people… I met a family from Sri Lanka who brought their new baby to my studio to take photos.” Kim used his studio as an opportunity to meet and interact with fellow immigrants and their families: “I talked to them about the minimum wage movement and life in the USA… I moved here five years ago and for the past three years I have learned about American politics, social justice, and the wage system… I wanted to continue that conversation with my new customers who came from other countries.” These photos commemorate both Kim’s subjects and their prolific conversations. Although these conversations are not shared through a text component with the audience, Kim’s Passport Photo sessions seek to welcome the audience and engage them in the work’s dialogue.

Grace Needleman, Practice Helmets 1 – 4, 2017, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Artist Grace Needleman also focuses on audience engagement: “I love the context of work and how it functions for people and what interactions it inspires. For the last couple of years, my solution was to make work in the context of theater.” Needleman’s earlier work focused on audience engaged practices, which influenced the development of her masks to channel the collective imagination of her audience members and participants. Caroline Picard, the Front and Center 2017 curator, described Needleman’s poignant duality of performativity against shielding and interiority. Perhaps these qualities are key to introducing Needleman’s “collective imagination;” the masks encourage interaction while providing the comfort of anonymity to ease participants into true, imaginative play.

Participation is a common theme in the Front and Center show. While Needleman encourages play with her art objects, other artists, such as Soohyun Kim, Silvia Gonzalez, and Carlos Flores, engage their audience through events and services.

This exhibition was up from August 6th to October 8th, 2017.

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