So many art exhibitions are precise, exacting, mixed like a bracing cocktail and meant to be taken in sips.
“Seeing Chicago,” the MCA’s new eclectic gathering of Chicago-owned art convened by London fashion designer Duro Olowu, is more like a punch bowl of a show, a myriad of seemingly disparate ingredients swirled together to miraculously arrive at a tasty whole.
Imperfect as it is, the adult-beverage metaphor comes to mind because I’ve seen the exhibition twice now, once on walk-throughs with Olowu and MCA senior curators and once as a museum patron, and the phrase I keep coming up with to describe it is: “drunk with art.” Not sloppy drunk, mind you, but gloriously, giddily tipsy.
Has Henri Matisse been on a wall with Chicago photographer Dawoud Bey before? Probably not, because that isn’t how museums think. But here the way Bey’s “Muhammad,”a Chicago boy on a bicycle, and the subject of Matisse’s “Laurette with a Cup of Coffee” both meet your eye, one hung on top of the other, makes them seem close cousins, despite the images being made an ocean and almost a century apart.
And then the geometric patterns in the Matisse painting correspond to those in the adjacent photo of a girl in a red-dress against a Moroccan tile backdrop, which reflect back the exuberant fabric of Olowu’s own fashion against the opposite wall, which then speaks to the soft pink and glitter adorning Kerry James Marshall’s lyrical “Vignette (Lalala),” back on the Matisse wall.
A love letter to the city written in visual language, “Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago” is composed of pieces that normally live in Chicago museums and in the homes of its art patrons, and it feels like a new and thrilling mode of presentation. The sheer volume of art is a little overwhelming, yes, but the arrangement is warm and welcoming as it helps you spot how Martin Puryear works with Rene Magritte works with Wesley Willis works with Cindy Sherman.
It’s how you imagine your place might look if you had the eye of a dandy and the money of a swell. And very, very high ceilings.
“I could just put a mattress down,” said Olowu, 55, a Nigerian Brit probably most famous here for being one of Michelle Obama’s go-to designers. “It’s my dream. They’re the kind of rooms that I’d like to wake up in and go to sleep in at the end of the day.”
More than 360 pieces from 67 collections now hang on the MCA’s fourth-floor walls and on new interior walls there mimicking art-storage screens that Olowu had built for the occasion. They merge painting and sculpture, “outsider” art and what we might as well call “insider,” a phalanx of mannequins in the designer’s dazzling, mixed-pattern vision of high fashion and a whole gallery of works in which the subjects gaze straight back at you.
“Work that is happy together is not claustrophobic,” said Olowu. “Everything somehow should be here, whether it’s AfriCOBRA or surrealism or photography or sculpture. And the real experience is not to divide, to conquer. It is just to take your time and look at things.”
And then to come back, because the second visit and presumably the third pay dividends: “I hope people visit the show more than once because I feel that then it’s not about learning all the names of the artists. You just become familiar and your eye and your heart will guide you.”
Olowu in recent years has developed, almost by accident it seems, a side gig of curating gallery and museum shows, in London, in New York and now, in his biggest one yet, here.
MCA Director Madeleine Grynsztejn approached him about working with the MCA, not only because she loved his clothes but because she had been taken by his work as a curator.
“I’m wearing your pants,” she said at the outset of an enlightening on-stage conversation she did with Olowu on the show’s opening weekend.
One of the things Grynsztejn said she liked about Olowu’s “curatorial premise” was precisely its radicalism. “This is not your usual white cube, everything in line 62 inches off the floor against the white wall,” she said to Olowu and the crowd. “It is kind of a marvelous sort of moving across history, moving across media. This is really where you start to create something that’s quite egalitarian.”
She went to London in 2016 and saw Olowu’s biggest exhibition to date, “Making & Unmaking” at Camden Arts Centre, and, she said, “this is where I fell in love.”
Over the last couple of years Olowu worked with senior curator Naomi Beckwith and curatorial assistant Jack Schneider in particular.
They began with the MCA’s own collection, and about half the pieces are from the vaults or regularly seen on the walls.
“There’s a lot to Chicago that Chicagoans don’t boast about but people are aware of,” said Olowu. “I just want people in this region to be even more aware.”
But then the net went wider, to the Art Institute, the DuSable Museum of African American History, Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, the National Museum of Mexican Art, the DePaul Art Museum, Columbia’s Museum of Contemporary Photography and more.
“It started here,” Beckwith said. “And then it became about kind of looking around the city and seeing what could complement it, starting first with other institutions and then moving on to private collections. He had also been visiting (private collections) as a courtesy and then got the idea, ‘You know what, there’s amazing stuff here. We just need to pull it in.’ And that’s how it really landed on a show called ‘Seeing Chicago.’”
Schneider described the process of discovery as being almost like a game of telephone, where one collector would recommend another and, soon enough, the show had burgeoned.
Chicago artists are central to the show: Archibald Motley, the Imagists, the AfriCOBRA black arts movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, and known contemporary names including Bey, Marshall, Nick Cave and Theaster Gates plus up-and-comers such as the woodworker Nate Young.
One organizing principle is supplied by Chicago conceptual artist Amanda Williams. Hanging in the first, Chicago-centric room is “Color(ed) Theory,” a suite of photographs of the guerrilla art project that saw her paint abandoned South Side houses in colors that spoke to African American consumer culture and to community disinvestment.
Olowu then picked up some of those colors for the walls elsewhere in the show. But, as Beckwith noted, the beauty of the exhibition is that formal notions such as organizing principles are not really the point.
“It’s a show really pulled together by the intellect of an individual without having to answer to these broader questions of art history,” she said. “It’s not asking, How does this fit in with a historical narrative? It’s not asking us to make a judgment about, Is this really good, really bad? I mean it’s all amazing, clearly, but the works and the moves that exhibitions make often are really about trying to make an argument for the importance of something.”
The argument here is for a kind of collective power of art, for removing the barriers between one movement and another, for helping visitors see, perhaps, beyond their own comfort zones.
Said Schneider, “One of my favorite moves that Duro did in the exhibition was just having outsider art, which is clearly influential on people like the Surrealists and the Imagists, just hung alongside them in a totally non-hierarchical manner and having it all just mixed together. It’s all a level playing field and that’s really special.”
Olowu, after being given such extraordinary license to survey, cull, and then re-assemble Chicago’s treasures, agrees.
“The thing is that artists love other artists’ work. There isn’t this competition that everybody assumes. It’s there, but not if you’re a good artist,” he said. “They’re peers, all these artists up here. And that’s why they’re all on the same wall.”