Best in Show

Thirty-seven years ago, the Podmajersky family organized the first Pilsen East Artists Open House to showcase the burgeoning talent in their new development. The open house was the brainchild of Annelies Podmajersky, wife of John Podmajersky, Jr., whose family had been living in Pilsen since immigrating from Slovakia in 1914. John’s company, Podmajersky Inc., had already begun buying and converting properties in what it called the Chicago Arts District, a preconceived colony of densely packed artist homes and studios. The incongruity of the calculating (albeit family-owned) real estate corporation creating and managing a community of bohemian artists was still apparent last Friday at the 37th annual installment of the Podmajerskys’ open house.

The open house took place at over fifty locations along South Halsted Street, but the main event was clearly the juried exhibition at Podmajersky headquarters. The show was catered by Whole Foods, eager to promote their new South Loop location. The unusual professional atmosphere this lent the buffet came with pluses and minuses: although the cheeses and desserts were organically delicious, the trade-off came in the form of the imposing young woman standing behind the beverage table denying me alcohol because I couldn’t produce ID. This set the tone for the entire Podmajersky gallery. There was interesting art and cliché art, but the sterile context never varied. The sparse furnishings and high average age of attendees made a stark contrast with the usual Pilsen gallery scene. The artists, however, were more or less the usual crowd. One standout piece was Gabe Lanza’s acrylic-on-wood assemblage “I try not to pay attention anymore,” which depicted a cartoonish everyman in his underwear with arms outstretched. Around him fluttered birds with speech bubbles such as “Do you think we drink too much? It’s not even noon” and “We should call her today. Or are we busy again.”

For those who ventured outside the Podmajersky juried exhibition–mostly a younger, more eccentrically dressed crowd–the festivities resembled a livelier and more excited Second Friday gallery crawl. Walking through the artists’ combination studio-bedrooms filled with cluttered bookshelves and animated discussions, I felt miles away from the bare concrete floors and Whole Foods-branded napkins of the Podmajersky gallery. I listened to an artist animatedly expound on his latest works in progress while two over-familiar viewers criticized his choice of colors, and I reflected on the tension that seemed to be at the heart of East Pilsen, or “Pilsen East” as the Podmajerskys prefer. The seemingly organic and at times anarchic artists’ community that has sprung up along Halsted, like the organic cupcakes served at the Whole Foods buffet, had in fact been brought to me by the same standard corporate culture from which it seems to provide a respite. None of that prevented me from enjoying the open houses, of course; it was just something to reflect on as I passed by the Podmajersky headquarters on my way from one home-studio to the next.