Unfinished and Organic

In a city known for its devotion to steel towers, brother and sister curators Peter Kepha and Lauren Pacheco have decided to investigate a more organic material–wood. In their display at the Chicago Urban Art Society, “Wood Worked,” the duo dictated that every sculpture be made of wood–no exceptions. It is a deceptively straightforward name for a show that offers entirely unexpected pieces made from a material more often associated with furniture than artistic expression.

The collection’s highlights are diverse. Smaller pieces include a hot dog and an Igloo cooler, crafted to perfectly model their real counterparts. With the addition of paint and finish, the hotdog looks good enough to eat.

The show also includes larger, technically complicated pieces. According to Kepha, a gigantic wooden robot by artist Michael Rea took a whole six months to craft. Rea is well known in the Chicago art world for his thoughtful and distinctive replicas of machinery, tools, weapons, and vehicles. The intended meaning lingering behind the wooden robot holding two lion heads in its mechanical hands is fairly nebulous, but the sculpture boasts a set of chains so large and life-like that it left the gallery owners dumbfounded as to how it could possibly have been carved from a rectangular block of wood.

Some of the show’s larger pieces do more than simply impress and mystify. Two full-size cabins, designed and assembled in the gallery by a group of young Chicago artists, highlight the environmental damage committed by the modern consumption of wood. Kazuki Guzman, a former SAIC student, built hers from materials purchased at major hardware store chains and adorned it with generic landscape wallpaper–an attempt to make a statement on the “big box consumerism” that saps deeper cultural and artistic expression from so many American homes.

Earlier this year, Kepha and his sister began an extensive search of art school exhibitions and galleries to see how both the city’s newest artists and most established pros were working to realize wood’s hidden potential as a foundation for creativity. The challenge of assembling a collection of fluid, unique works carved from one of art’s more rigid materials was an exciting prospect for Kepha.

This unique balance of assorted veteran and upstart contributions is readily visible in “Wood-Worked.” If there is any other organizing principle to the show beyond simply the uniform medium, it is the delicate equilibrium of it all: the mammoth pieces mixed with small ones and the placement of Chicago art powerhouses beside up and comers. The resulting show is a feat, not only of artistic expression, but also of the logistics and manual labor it took to display home-sized artwork  Only after two days of taking truckloads to and from galleriers were Kepha, Pacheco and their team ready to put together an exhibit. “We got back [from the last pick up] and just started working,” Pacheco says. Her brother chuckled softly and added, “We’ll see how it all breaks down.”

Chicago Urban Art Society, 2229 S. Halsted St. Thursday-Friday, 6-9pm; Saturday, 1-6pm. 773-951-8101. chicagourbanartsociety.org