Head Pieces

The artist  Theodore Homer slides impishly across the floor of Slow gallery, his polar-fleece footie pajamas providing little in the way of traction. At only nine-years-old, Homer has already made his Chicago art scene debut. A dozen of his penciled portraits line one wall of the half-residence, half-exhibition space. But Theo–as his friend, gallery owner and curator Paul Hopkin, refers to him– is only one of the more precocious members of the group of artists participating in the show, entitled  “Head.” The elementary-schooler’s renderings of former commanders-in-chief was exhibited side-by-side with sculpture and installations made by three-year-old Archer Bellas and his father Benjamin, in addition to works by Laura Davis and Andrew Holmquist. The latter three are established members of Chicago’s art community and are also affiliated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Bellas and Davis are former and current faculty members, respectively, and Holmquist graduated in 2008.

The concept behind “Head” has been incubating for quite awhile, Hopkins says. Hopkin’s original inspiration for the collection of head studies is an incomplete sculpture of Jeffrey Grauel, a friend and longtime collaborator whose capacity at Slow is listed as “Handyman/Silent Partner/General Antagonist.” The decade-old red clay bust of Grauel, which Hopkin digs out of plastic wrapping and hefts in his right hand as he speaks, was originally intended for use as a slip mold, from which he planned to cast a porcelain nightlight as a reinterpretation of Brancusi’s “Sleeping Muse.” But life interrupts even the best-sculpted plans, and the head was never quite finished. Hopkin describes with a rueful laugh how the specter of neglect has kept him tethered to the clay’s upkeep; he says he’s doted on the head too long to stop looking after it now.

In keeping with the dynamic between sculpture and sculptor, the show’s head studies examine the fuzzy divide between what is finished and what is under construction. The collaborative nature of the show unify the installations: Davis and Holmquist repeatedly exchanged and modified each other’s pieces, and the senior Bellas contributed to his young son’s work. The art on display covered a vast range of materials–foam core, Cheetos, scrap metal, plastic grapes, decoupage, and digital vide–and subject matter, including the late-night TV show “Dharma and Greg,” the human profile, an apparent variation on Viking armor, and of course, no shortage of one- and two-term presidents. The variety made for a climate not of informality, but rather of relaxed inclusion and an endorsement of experimentation.

Hopkin’s enthusiasm for piquant, provocative art is contagious. Davis, Holmquist, and Homer are eager to describe the unorthodox art practices that brought their work to Head. After Homer sold a few of his portraits, he approached Hopkin about featuring the work at Slow. The accretive process that produced the Davis and Holmquist pieces was no less informal; both artists attest to the played-by-ear quality of their contributions.

Conventions of formal presentation are shunned at Slow, where multimedia refers not merely to a hodgepodge of artistic disciplines, but a diffuse variety of physical materials, edible and non-edible.  For Hopkin, the show “asks questions about what is okay and what is not okay” to present to a critical and consumer audience. When prodded for a specific definition of what is presentable, what qualifies work for display, Holmquist notes that, “A way to know when a piece done is when…there’s a nice scale of elements, a range of textures, maybe the colors are buzzing off each other, or it makes you laugh, or maybe provides a counterbalance to what came before it.” But unlike a pot roast or a pancake, when–and whether–a piece is done is entirely subjective and, given Holmquist’s criteria, difficult to characterize.

Rather than answering the question proposed by Hopkin about what is acceptable and meaningful art, the heads on display at Slow are more aptly described as revelations of process. If Head has one virtue, it is its ability to draw attention explicitly to the singular processes of its contributors.