Art of Three Neighborhoods: Inside and Out

by Temple Shipley

It’s a critical time for arts on the South Side. After years of attention being focused on the pillars of the Pilsen visual art scene, the tide is shifting–in large part because many artists have trickled into other communities south of the Loop, bringing with them both the hope of a colorful neighborhood and the threat of gentrification. This past weekend, artists in Pilsen, Bridgeport, and Bronzeville organized informal tours-cum-street celebrations intended to bring together the artists with art lovers in their respective areas and from across the city. The event was a spectrum of media, methods, and merrymaking that seemed to reflect both its artistic foundation and its Second City context. It was also a great chance to learn about South Side art. Here’s a roundup of the festivities:

Pilsen Open Studios

Walking along 18th Street in Pilsen this past weekend was like strolling through a street carnival. For the Pilsen Open Studios event, the galleries stayed open late as people filed in and out of their doors. As the sun went down, the chatter and laughter echoed off the storefronts. Goat meat tacos sizzled on an outdoor grill. Local handmade jewelry was peddled to idling pedestrians as kids frolicked around sculptures on display in the open lobby of an artists’ loft, their parents dancing to music coming from a nearby gallery’s aging stereo system. And, of course, artwork was on display and ready to be discussed, shared, and enjoyed.

The work at the Pilsen Art Walk was overwhelming in every respect–in color, content, and sheer volume. More than 80 artists from Halsted Street to Western Avenue and from 16th Street to 23rd Street showcased their work. Painted, wheel-less skateboards hung next to an etching of Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus.” On 18th Street, sculptures inspired by tribal masks stared down passersby as they surveyed the scene. These pieces were by the artist Roman Villareal, who has worked in Chicago for over fifteen years. Those who stopped to make eye contact with the eerie forms responded enthusiastically. One exclaimed, “Oh, that sculpture is scary, but it’s hard to stop looking at him.” Another visitor said, “Let’s take a picture of him.”

All across Pilsen–from vintage thrift shops to the local CTA routes–people seemed to be enjoying the afternoon. The mood of the event was summarized by the pithy statement of two art students entering the Pink Line after the Walk: “Dude, Pilsen’s where the party’s at.” (Temple Shipley)

Bridgeport Art Walk

Although Bridgeport’s reputation as an up-and-coming artistic neighborhood bears a close resemblance to that of Pilsen a decade ago, the two scenes differ markedly in both scope and style. Whereas Pilsen’s stretch of Halsted Street is a gauntlet of trendy galleries with vibrant, inviting storefronts, Bridgeport’s exhibition spaces are scattered throughout the neighborhood–in some cases tucked away within storage facilities or above clothing stores. Even Podmajersky, Inc.’s influence in Pilsen has its own Bridgeport foil in the rebellious, anarchist leanings of galleries like the Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Bridgeport’s Art Walk Weekend was a concerted attempt to expose this fledgling neighborhood to the wider community. There was minimal fanfare or formality surrounding this event (the Bridgeport Art District’s blog provided a highly pixilated map of the neighborhood), despite the area’s expansive arts scene. At the Zhou B gallery last Sunday, a handful of art enthusiasts wandered the darkened gallery space on the first floor. The exhibit currently on display is Herbert George’s Orange Meditations. The show is made up of giant marble sculptures, often humanlike in form, whose polished, contorted limbs melt into one another in abstract embraces. When viewing the dimly lit show, one has the overwhelming feeling of having entered the Mausoleum of the Chinese Emperor Qin Shihuang Ling, complete with terracotta army standing at vain attention.

In the basement of Zhou B, artists’ studios are freely accessible. The photographer Geraldine Rodriguez was present to answer any questions about her work, which was largely devoted to her personal interpretations of the seven deadly sins and the seven cardinal virtues. Her digital works were often inspired by real-life narratives and were accompanied by song lyrics that served as inspiration for her shoots.

Farther west, at the Bridgeport Art Center, the studios drew significantly fewer visitors. This is probably because the Center itself also functions as a storage facility for those less artistically inclined. Artists worked furiously at Macintosh computers within their studios, eager to greet anyone with an interest in their pieces. Luis DeLaTorre, whose work features Aztec imagery drawn from his own Mexican heritage, was seated near his recently completed works, most of them untitled as of yet.

Although sparsely attended, the Bridgeport Art Walk Weekend had a lot to offer for Chicago art enthusiasts who weren’t afraid to explore a disjointed neighborhood that is fast becoming a compendium of emerging names and well-kept secrets. (Tobi Haslett)

Bronzeville Trolley Tour

Last Friday, tour guide William Scott marked the close of his fifth year as Bronzeville Art District Trolley Tour guide by warmly welcoming a lightly packed trolley for its last tour of the season as it launched from Gallery Guichard. Along its route, the trolley made stops at the South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC), Little Black Pearl, Faié Art Gallery, and the Hyde Park Alliance for Arts and Culture.

As the trolley rolled from corner to corner, Scott’s local insight–stemming from his experience as “a community resident for forty-four years”–illuminated the untold wealth of history on every block–places that bear the mark of prominent African-American figures, from local artist and SSCAC founder Margaret Burrows, to Ida B. Wells, to Louis Armstrong. For many on the tour, these insights into local culture and history are all new. Eric Nix, an artist at the SSCAC gallery, noted that many of those brought to its historic wooden walls by the tour have “never walked through these doors before.”

The next trolley’s guide was Candace Hunter, an artist and professor whose own work is featured in SSCAC and Faié. This made for notable background information on several galleries, and on the decline of 47th Street since its heyday in the 1950s. “It was really miserable for a little while,” she said, “but it’s now coming back.”

It’s no stretch to say that this revival was only possible because of a culturally aware community. The Bronzeville art district and tour were organized after gallery owners banded together in hopes of spotlighting the art of the African Diaspora in tandem with the rich black history of the neighborhood. Spearheading that effort was André Guichard of Gallery Guichard. “As an artist, I knew it had to happen but I didn’t know how it was going to happen,” he said of the art tour. With the cooperation of Chicago Trolley and Gallery Guichard, it has happened with such success that this year a new line was added to Hyde Park’s Art Here Art Now. The new frontier of Hyde Park and Kenwood is “where we are really looking to bring in people who’ve never been here before,” said Guichard. (Bonnie Fan)