‘Art Worlds of Chicago’s South Side’ sheds light on overlooked art, design — Kyle MacMillan

Chicago Sun Times, 09.14.2018

With an ambitious, variegated series of exhibitions, publications, and programs, Art Design Chicago has dominated the city’s 2018 visual-arts scene.

Spearheaded by the Terra Foundation for American Art, it is designed to spotlight aspects of the city’s rich art and design history that have been overlooked nationally and internationally and have sometimes even gone under-recognized within Chicago itself.

Few if any the shows within the initiative better embody this mission than “The Time is Now! Art Worlds of Chicago’s South Side, 1960-1980,” which opens Sept. 13 and runs through Dec. 30 at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art.

This eye-opening exhibition focuses on a bustling mix of about 50 artists, many of whom were influenced by and responded to the racial tensions and socio-political tumult that coursed through these two transformative decades of the late 20th century.

Accompanied by an in-depth, 272-page catalog with interviews, essays and fascinating back stories, “The Time is Now!” examines the neighborhoods and organizations such as the South Side Community Art Center, which were pivotal to the development of this often-ignored slice of local art history.

Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists, who presented some of their first shows at the Hyde Park Art Center, get their due in this show. A highlight is a copy of the playful commercially printed poster for Hairy Who’s first show in 1966, based on a tattoo-inspired, exquisite-corpse drawing done by the six artists.

But the bulk of the show examines Chicago’s important contributions to the Black Arts Movement — work that fell under the radar at the time in a white-dominated art world and has continued to be overshadowed by the Imagists and other facets of the Chicago’s art history.

It comes at a timely moment. African-American art has shot into prominence in the last few years with record auction prices and a series of high-profile presentations like “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” at London’s Tate Modern.

The show was organized by guest curator Rebecca Zorach (great-granddaughter of famed 20th-century artists Marguerite and William Zorach), a University of Chicago art historian who also curated an exhibition in 2013 at the Logan Center for the Arts centered on a collective known as AFRICOBRA.

After meeting other artists at that time and making more art-historical connections, she wanted to expand the scope of her research — an undertaking that coincided perfectly with the timing of Art Design Chicago and led to this more extensive exhibition.

“It’s really trying to get a sense of the larger landscape of the visual arts on the South Side,” Zorach said.

Founded in 1968 by Jeff Donaldson, Jae Jarrell, Wadsworth Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu and Gerald Williams, AFRICOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) is one of the show’s pillars. A key work is Williams’ “Messages,” a 1970 acrylic on canvas with his text-driven, prismatic style and the bright “Kool-Aid” colors that typifies the group’s art.

Another pillar is the Chicago Mural Group. It was formed in 1971, four years after Jeff Donaldson and William Walker led the creation of the milestone Wall of Respect, a group of murals depicting black heroes on the side of a tavern at 43rd Street and Langley Avenue.

“The Time is Now!” (a title taken from graffiti at the time) opens with a group of works that set the scene and show the breadth of styles and approaches that are featured, including surrealism, abstract-expressionism and self-taught art.

Highlights include “Doors (3 Demolition)” (1957), by Gertrude Abercrombie, whose profile has soared with a well-reviewed show that closes Sept. 23 at Karma, a New York gallery. The oil on canvas offers a lonely surrealist take on the old doors that were used as fences around demolition sites.

Also featured in this section are depictions of the South Side during this period, including Wadsworth Jarrell’s “Neon Row” (1958), a panoramic oil on canvas teeming with the electric colors of neon lights and nighttime activity of all kinds.

The exhibition then progresses with eight thematic groupings that include “Crisis in America,” “Gender and Feminism” and “Contestation, Separation, Solidarity.”

Along with painting, photography and some sculpture, printmaking plays a major role. While some of these artists were trained in the medium, others turned to it later as way to create multiples that could spread the reach of their work in a low-cost way.

Jones-Hogu studied printmaking in the 1960s at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design. Her accomplished works in the medium like the screenprint, “Nation Time” (1969), with a flowing flag motif with stylized Ku Klux Klan figures as the white stars, are among the show’s standouts.

“The Time is Now!” takes a big stride toward rebalancing Chicago art history and makes clear that South Side artists can hold their own with those of any of the city’s other neighborhoods.