If I had to choose only one gallery to recommend from the 41st Annual East Pilsen Artists’ Open House, it would be Bryan Sperry’s. At first glance, Sperry seems like an unlikely poster-child for contemporary art. His figure is slouched but sculpted, while his drooping hair seems to have coated his skin with pigment over his 40-odd years as a sculptor. In contrast, at nearly every other gallery open for Second Fridays activities, one finds throngs of brooding, anemic-looking, pastiche-pursuing individuals to whom the cultural imagination tends to attribute the perpetuation of this domain. Sperry, grinning so earnestly it makes your teeth ache, ostensibly has only his elderly father as a companion for the evening.
Sperry’s dense gallery of mute mannequin soldiers is at once forest, cemetery, phalanx, car dealership, food court, and gay bar. With the effete posture of David and the ornate rags of a steampunk Lady Gaga, the mesomorphic monoliths occupy the space so resolutely that I once barely caught myself exhale a wispy “excuse me” as I crept between a pair of the most fearsome. Yet these stoics, being subversive mirrors of the art scene patrons, are, so to speak, cracked. While they are Sperry’s children, they are also his friends and caretakers–and ours. He calls them “the people’s army from the future, a coalition to fight for every individual person–you and me, man–not conglomerated corporate interests.”
In his space, this conjectural Ragnarok is not hard to imagine. After all, as today’s youth eagerly flaunt defunct brand iconography collected from thrift store dollar bins, Sperry’s armory is similarly frankensteined together: Cadillac hood ornaments serve as crosshairs for glitter-spangled Super-Soakers aimed at the man. Meanwhile, shower nozzles and microwaves gas masks assemble foreboding visages. In this way, Sperry suggests these warriors are caught up in the same war against mainstream culture that is paradoxically fueled by relics of cultural consumption.
A fundamental capacity, however, separates these golems from the recalcitrant gallery-goers they seek to imitate and redeem–loyalty. If you’ll allow me another metaphor, think of a so-called “art crawl” like this one, situated in an impressive international city such as Chicago, as a kind of zoo. Visiting Oscar Luis Martinez’s showroom just across 18th Street, one finds the ecosystem of Latin American art conveyed as the putative sum of its crudely discernable, constitutive parts, each with immaculate pedigrees.
“This guy is a big deal,” Martinez says, gesturing to a wall of paintings with a vague imprecision that appears comprised of equal parts pride, insouciance, and inebriation. “He exploded when he had his show at the Museum of Contemporary Art last year.” He moves on, “This guy is known, but not in all circles. In some circles he’s a big deal.” Finally he settles on a distinct target of appraisal: a lyrical, slobbery abstract piece that, maybe because of the setting, looks like the interior of a piÃ±ata under siege. “Isn’t this painting amazing? Everyone loves this one. And the artist…is my daughter.”
The remark is arresting, and the painting even more so, but we leave abruptly after we finish our wine to move on to the next continent. We are chasing after the promise of a panoptical vantage point, where, after visiting each of the 41 galleries, we can look back and say we had seen not just something but it. Meanwhile, Sperry’s warriors, like the mosquito caught in amber on display in the zoo’s evolutionary history wing, never budge or avert their gaze.
The Fountainhead Lofts, 1932 S. Halsted. Second Friday of each month, 6pm-10pm. (312) 738-8000. chicagoartsdistrict.org