In early January, I had the pleasure of visiting the Glasner Studio, one unit in a larger compound of Old Town studios developed in the late 1920s by artist/designer/craftsman/architect Edgar Miller and collaborator Sol Kogen. Despite my best attempts to focus on the fact that I was there for a meeting, I spent the majority of my time gazing, mouth agape, at literally everything: the chair I was sitting in, the banisters on the stairs, the panes of glass in the windows. In 2014, I had a similar struggle visiting the Carl Street Studios. Those who’ve been lucky enough to visit an Edgar Miller space can attest to the overwhelming nature of the experience. The level of detail, from the hand-painted tiles on the floor to the meticulously-crafted chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, engages the eye at every turn. But not everyone gets to see it. Miller’s work is largely hidden from the outside world. I can’t say I’ve ever seen his name in a gallery, nor have I seen much scholarship around the subject of Miller. I’ve only interacted with his work as a visitor behind a collection of closed, yet very ornate, doors. That’s why I was so intrigued by Zac Bleicher’s work with the Edgar Miller Legacy, an organization with the goal of making this very special, somewhat unknown creative’s philosophy and art more available to a wider audience.
On Saturday, February 25, we’ll be joined by Rolf Achilles (SAIC), Lisa Stone (SAIC, Roger Brown Study Collection), and Wendy Greenhouse, PhD (Art Historian) for a conversation about Edgar Miller. From painting to sculpture, woodwork to stained glass, Miller was a self-taught artist and master craftsman—a true “Renaissance Man” of the modern era. This presentation is a collaboration of The Arts Club, the Terra Foundation for American and Art, and the Edgar Miller Legacy. Free of charge.
In anticipation of Saturday’s program, I asked Zac a few questions.
-Jenna Lyle, Programs Manager
Edgar Miller has been hailed as Chicago’s last Renaissance Artist. What does the diversity of interest in his body of work reveal about him as an artist and person?
Born in Idaho in 1899, Miller grew up on the dwindling American frontier, and he learned from his parents an iconoclastic regard towards authority, and simultaneously a high esteem for those who make their own way and do things themselves. So it is no surprise Miller came to embody a rugged individualism often seen in American folklore. His story would seem like something out of a fairy tale, except it was real life. Born with a natural gift to master artistic expression by his teens, and with a self-awareness that pushed him to reach for the stars, Miller came to the American Metropolis—Chicago—and fully integrated himself into several concurrent art and cultural scenes, from the bohemian to the professional, all while maintaining his creative independence. The diversity of interest in his work reflects both the extremely wide range of materials Miller masterfully employed—painting, sculpture, metalwork, woodwork, stained glass, mosaic, and more—to the expansive list of projects he completed—figure and landscape painting, freestanding and relief sculpture, illustration and graphic design work, decorative arts, and of course, his architectural projects. Additionally, Miller incorporated so many diverse styles of art into his own aesthetic, from the classical to the primitive, without ever making a mockery of either (if he ever mocked a style of art, it was mid-century abstract expressionism, which he found naive). Furthermore, his life story appeals to so many artists and art lovers because it is the story nearly all artists wish to pursue: to create on one’s own terms, to pursue art for art’s sake, to be recognized and become successful, to work within a robust community of esteemed peers, and to inspire others during one’s lifetime as well as after one’s own death.
What has been your most surprising discovery about the work of Edgar Miller?
What is most surprising about the work of Edgar Miller is always how deep the well goes. We have spent years compiling digital and tangible archives of all the projects Miller completed, knowing there could always be more out there that he produced, and sure enough, eventually another discovery is made. A mural in Kansas City, a painting he gave a friend as a wedding gift in the 1930s, a stash of collected works in a university archive—it always amazes us how much work Miller accomplished and how casually and often he tossed them into the ether. But for Miller, making art, rather than seeing his art displayed on museum walls, was the end goal. It was what he lived and breathed, and so it makes sense that in 93 years of life, he made a lot of stuff, and much of it traveled as far and wide as those to whom it was given.
Where and how does Miller make the distinction between fine and folk art?
Miller was very cognizant of the role fine and folk art played in his development, and he fought against categorization. He often stated that art critics needed to categorize everything so that they could better understand the work of the artist, and so that a market could be established, but that to the artists, there should be no distinction between what kind of artist you were. You either are an artist or you aren’t one. He took this so far as to even describe someone like Frank Lloyd Wright as an artist, because of his unique vision and desire to force the viewer of his art—in this case the home dweller—to see the world the way Wright saw it. But Miller did understand that many saw art at least drawn into two categories, that of the fine arts and the folk arts, from the fine paintings of Rembrandt to the beautifully painted earthenware bowls of nameless Hopis. He also sometimes referred to the “big arts” and the “little arts.” Miller believed that art culture was only strengthened when both fine arts and folk arts flourished, and in the Chicago of his era, he felt too much attention was placed on developing the big arts while not much was done to cultivate the little arts. This is one reason why he gravitated towards the Hull House Kilns in the 1910s and ‘20s, why he was drawn to learning about and practicing his craft in all the various forms of material and media known to humankind, including his handmade architectural projects, and why he continuously pursued art-making in any way he found compelling, regardless of whether it paid or resulted in personal fame.
If you’re still curious, listen to Zac’s interview with architecture writer Ben Schulman and Zach Mortice on Newcity’s podcast series A Lot You Got to Holler.
Join the John Cage-inspired music ensemble a.pe.ri.od.ic and object designers Jessica Charlesworth and Tim Parsons for the merging of their two practices in Time With People. Using absurdity, humor, and non-narrativity, Time With People is an hour-long music and theatre work by British composer Tim Parkinson (b. 1973) which “redefines fundamentals of opera from its 16th century origins.” Without characters, costumes, or even orchestral instruments, the soloists and chorus speak, dance, chant, and drum in a production that is alternately funny, playful, sad, and perplexing. The set, comprised of collected detritus, will be assembled as an installation by Parsons & Charlesworth, whose work was recently exhibited at the Chicago Cultural Center.
Free and open to the public.
Edra Soto is a Chicago-based artist, educator, curator, and co-director of the artist-run outdoor project space THE FRANKLIN. Commissioned to build a piece for The Arts Club’s Winter Garden Project, Soto will be in conversation with art historian Daniel R. Quiles about her work. Expanding on her interest in architectural interventions (members may recall her work Manual Graft on the Mies staircase windows during last Fall’s open house), Soto brings us Screenhouse, a freestanding social structure influenced by traditional garden gazebo models and decorative patterns. Come toast the unveiling of Screenhouse and learn about the inspiration behind it.
Reception at 6:00, Gallery talk at 6:30pm.
Free and open to the public.
Event Date: February 2
Location: The Arts Club of Chicago, 201 E. Ontario St.
This Thursday evening, Brit Barton, The Club’s first Artist Fellow, enacts a work about interdisciplinary practice, site, permanence, and documentation entitled Sitting Ovation. The annual Visual, Literary and Performing Artist fellowship was awarded to Barton in August of 2016, and the upcoming program will be the first showing of her work at The Arts Club during her fellowship. Initially planned as an artist talk in the gallery, Barton’s event rapidly evolved into something much more, and at the same time something much less. In her site-specific work, Barton engages with the idea of absence…absence of the artist, absence of explication, and absence of a commodifiable art object. As instructions for attendees of Thursday night’s Sitting Ovation enactment, she offers the following:
Immediately, the onus is on the audience to be self-aware. We have a task. We’re not coming to the gallery to watch something happen as much as we’re coming to have an experience during which we remain conscious of ourselves and our reactions to whatever might be surrounding us. Barton’s Sitting Ovation is a carefully-crafted environment, and we, the audience, are its inhabitants.
Earlier this month, Barton was interviewed by artist and curator Max Guy about her work. Read on to learn more.
-Jenna Lyle, Programs Manager
MG: In a past life you were a photographer, what types of photos did you take?
BB: I was interested in images, and still am, that document empty or minimally inhabited space.
Towards the end of college and again in graduate school, I started looking closer at architectural typologies that were basically spaces designed for temporary encounters. So, initially, I thought a lot about hotels and the suspension of disbelief they encourage. The quality is negotiable. This is your bed, your bathroom, your space, for as long as you are willing to pay for it.
I realized quickly that my interest in temporality within liminal space was rooted in an institutional critique of academia. I let some time pass, but ultimately came back to thinking about site and the body more critically through media beyond photography.
In general, I think I am interested in architecture and documentation while being entirely suspicious of them. My work is about that suspicion.
MG: How did you come to work the way that you do now?
BB: The majority of my practice deals with space and time that is site-specific. There was a turning point when I refused to make any more object work, like sculpture or painting. In other words, I realized that I am not a “studio artist” per se, and I embraced that fact.
What I’m interested in, and what I keep coming back to in my moving image, sound, or action-based work, are the principles of photography, i.e. optics, seriality, or mechanics. But it is never bound to the notion of sight entirely; there is a tension to other senses like hearing or touch that I am drawn to. I think especially about artists like Lygia Clark, who created things to hold or wear to be manipulated or complicated, walking a fine line between spectatorship and participation.
MG: You often use ambivalent language speaking of “gestures,” “machines” and “synopses” as a way of eluding disciplines and genres. How much of what you do is a project of defining and setting these terms?
BB: I am controlled about language, especially when it comes to writing. It is the framing of the work that I won’t compromise. I use the term “gesture” as opposed to “performance” because I am not a performance artist. I am an artist and I use whatever is the best strategy to convey an idea.
I think that the word “gesture” is aligned much more with drawing and the notion of a sketch; it’s brief, done in 5 minutes or less, a little gritty and unrefined. The delivery is slower to interpret. Waiting is involved. You may have to see a few over time to realize the bigger picture.
MG: You document your live works through “synopses” the day after they happen. Would you elaborate on that term in relation to your happenings and their scores? What liberties does writing in retrospect allow you as opposed to instructive text?
BB: A synopsis indicates an account that is often brief but inevitably biased. It is just as much apart of my work as the gesture itself in it’s matter-of-factness. Leaving some time between experiencing the gesture and evoking it gives the writer a chance to elaborate on the unexpected moments.
For instance, during October Piece (2015), I was walking with a microphone dangling at my feet. I could not have anticipated that I would trip or that at one point, the cord would snap with the tension and produce an intense and sharp feedback sound, unsettling the audience. In another work, I accidentally cut my hand when I was transporting a heavy piece of granite with a jagged, unpolished edge. I didn’t realize until I was in a freight elevator with the audience that I was and had been bleeding, leaving smears and marks along the way throughout the building and in the snow that stayed for days after.
There are details that seem pertinent to include in the documentation, that are better expressed in retrospect as opposed to a .jpeg.
MG: But a .jpeg is also experienced retrospectively. Do you mean to say that the written anecdote can account for spontaneity/chance?
BB: Right. A photograph encountered digitally is completely inadequate as documentation for the work I do. I will document the materials and installations I work with, but I hold the written accounts of those who have witnessed something first-hand to a higher regard.
MG: Individual works of yours involve physical reverberations, accumulation and entanglement; how does this inform your understanding when producing a series of works?
BB: I know that my work, like any other artist’s work, is better negotiated with a historical structure behind it. But, my structure is a little more messy, not as easy to purchase or display. Each work builds on the work preceding it.
MG: Is a work ever finished to you?
BB: Maybe once or twice, but not usually, no. I’m skeptical about finality.
I’m interested in how things turn into drafted versions of themselves.
MG: I couldn’t help but associate your video work “Making Knots” (2016) with Yvonne Rainer’s Hand Movie (1966). It seemed quite clear that both pieces embrace absurdity, but it felt significant in your video that the absurdity of your film involves the use of string and the introduction of a second hand to play Cat’s Cradle. Adding them into the mix seems to make the film personal in a way that differs from the singularity of Rainer’s hand. No longer a movie about what one does (Hand Movie), but what one does with oneself (your work).
All this to ask: In what ways does your work feel personal? From what part of you is this work conceived?
BB: There is a larger argument to be had over whether one’s work is always inherently personal or whether the viewer automatically projects that it is personal; this question is fundamental to the experience of abstraction and maybe even contemporary art in general. Such is life.
One of the biggest misinterpretations of this work is the assumption that the hands are my own. Some might suppose upon seeing female hands and realizing that I am a female artist, I must’ve been the subject. Does the knowledge that it isn’t me change anything? I’m not sure.*
The Rainer reference comes up a lot, as does choreography and minimalist dance in general. I think that we are told what to do with our bodies every day, sometimes through instruction, or expectation, or through an unconscious sense of obligation. It’s possible I was considering those things as I was making the work.
Max Guy is an artist and curator based in Chicago Il. Max co-hosts Human Eye, an occasional podcast on art and life with Miranda Pfeiffer. He has collaborated on projects such as Szechuan Best, Spiral Cinema, and Rock512Devil in Baltimore, Maryland. He received his M.F.A. from the Department of in Art, Theory and Practice at Northwestern University in 2016.
Brit Barton is an artist and writer. She is the inaugural Artist Fellow at The Arts Club of Chicago and a Post-MFA Fellow at the University of Chicago.
*See art critic Solveig Nelson’s 2016 text, “A ‘spectacle of entrance, exists, and changing coalitions” from the MFA thesis exhibition catalogue, And No One Fish In The Middle ; noting of Making Knots (2016) that the video “thematizes the ways in which artists have courted proximities to and staged distance from the objects they produce. The mark of the hand signals authorial presence but also departs from fantasies of face-to-face contact.”
Event Date: January 16
Time: 7:15 pm
Location: The Arts Club of Chicago, 201 E. Ontario St.
[Interview by Programs Manager Jenna Lyle]
The dynamic (and enigmatically named) ensemble Mocrep has become an essential part of Chicago’s music and performance community over the past few years. Not to be pinned down to a single discipline, they make a point of collaborating with people who challenge them, from performance artists to stand-up comedians to illustrators. They never shy away from exploring the social, political, and radical in art, and they’ve developed a practice of constantly asking questions about justice. Honored by the Internationales Musikinstitut Darmstadt as one of three invited performer collectives at last year’s prestigious Summer Courses for New Music, Mocrep collaborated with eight artists from around the world to develop new works for performing ensemble without traditional instruments. In the evening on January 16th, they will present an extended version of Plank Rodeo, developed with composer/performer Jenna Lyle.
Read on to learn more about Mocrep.
What IS Mocrep? What does your name mean?
Mocrep is a Chicago-based ensemble dedicated to the performance of radical, 21st century music that engages with contemporary culture – aesthetically, socially, and politically. We specialize in works that not only synthesize music, theater, and performance art, but also productively embrace the differences between these mediums. In this way, we hope to expose and explore new possibilities in performance today.
Comprised of eleven performers, the group’s practice reflects upon the idea of music as a medium, the meaning of performance as a social relationship, and the potential of art as a catalyst for change. Mocrep constantly pushes to address political, social, and cultural questions through performance, and aims to create spaces for audiences to do the same. Collaboration is a central part of this practice, both between composers and performers and across artistic disciplines.
Our name is a word we made up–it means us!
How did your ensemble begin?
The current group of eleven has been working together for about a year now. We met variously through school and through the very active new/experimental music scene in Chicago, but what drew us to each other is a shared interest in performative work and the wish for a collective practice that allows for multiple possibilities, multiple roles, and multiple disciplines. That means a different thing for each of us.
Another thing that draws us together is a shared need for and interest in artistic discourse. We talk about what we do and why we do it a lot, and those conversations are one of the most vital parts of our practice.
What is your practice?
Our practice, in both curation and performance, is one of seeking out and leveling hierarchical musical structures, whether they are between performer and instrument, performer and composer, or performer and audience. Ultimately, we are interested in exploring the most essential part of any performance situation: people. As performers, we are interested in making music about and with our bodies. As curators, we are interested in creating performance situations that help build community and facilitate new social and political possibilities.
In practice, this takes many forms. In the past 3 years we have performed with spaghetti pots, wigs, sandpaper, Barbies, radios, PVC pipes, candy, and western classical instruments. We have pushed the boundaries of our roles as performers, found new ways to work with composers collaboratively, and crossed disciplinary lines to work with visual artists, performance artists, and even a comedian.
We believe that our artistic practice should reflect the world that we want to live in, both in the way that we organize as an ensemble, and in the work that we present. We are constantly seeking to grow our performance community and to create art that we feel is both imperative and otherwise lacking in the Chicago community.
We spend a good deal of energy on our organizational structure. We meet at least once a week to make curatorial and (large) logistical decisions, which we decide on unanimously. Though time consuming, both the process and the outcome of this decision-making process can be extremely rewarding, because final decisions are the result of synergy, rather than a majoritarian or dictatorial system. Part of the point of this structure, for us, is to posit alternative possibilities for political and community organization.
To whom does your practice give a voice?
A huge part of our practice has to do with breaking down the patriarchal norms of contemporary music curation. We curate primarily female, female-identifying and genderqueer composers and collaborating artists, which we see as a concrete way of pushing the Chicago music community to question the ways in which we all propagate normative or oppressive structures through our curatorial and performance practice. We want to push ourselves further in the direction of curatorial diversity in future seasons.
Somewhat more abstractly, our work’s focus on bodies allows for a unique subversive potential. While sound is often a component of what we do, we are also reacting to a musical culture (particularly in the composer-performer model) that treats instrumentalists like instruments; we claim that musical performance is first and foremost a social gathering, predicated on the actions of bodies. To champion our bodies is to champion our own personhood–our humanity–and, by extension the humanity of our audiences.
Another extension of this is, again, our structure as an ensemble. While it may seem odd to make a point of it, our practice gives us a voice. Since all of us are classically trained, we’re used to composition and performance opportunities that come with a strict hierarchical structure. We’re trying to break that down, and create a space for ourselves as artists.
What, for you, are some of the social, political and aesthetic implications of instrumental music performance? How in particular are those implications subverted in other forms of instrumental practice or post-instrumental performance?
Instruments, particularly the Western Classical instruments that we are all trained in, occupy a specific space in the mindset of our culture. They represent the privileging of Western European culture, a specific acceptable artistic lineage, and the cultural importance of higher education—and the capital required for it. Performing on these instruments both implicates us in this lineage and all of its baggage, and propagates the aforementioned musical culture, one that treats instrumentalists as instruments.
Moving beyond work with classical instruments—or performing work with them that is specifically aware of their cultural weight—allows us multiple possibilities for either commenting on, or working outside that lineage. All objects have weight, of course—both the spaghetti pot and the violin—but we’re trying to give ourselves as many possibilities as we can.