Out of Context

“Intimate,” comments Orron Kenyetta, standing in the front room of the Southside Hub of Production (SHoP) on a sunny Sunday afternoon. If the crowd’s laughter isn’t boisterous, it’s not for lack of goodwill–the twenty refurbished chairs, assembled in a loose semicircle, are only half-filled, and a large part of those hold Kenyetta’s fellow speakers. Kenyetta is fourth in a line-up of five of the thirty-six artists who took part in the exhibit “This House is Not a Home,” and the discussion is intimate in tone as well as number as the artists talk about the process behind and wider setting for their work.

Though the title of the series is “Co-Production: Artists talk about collaboration in their work,” context emerges as a major theme. Michael Webster, the first speaker, reveals the pieces of blonde wood placed upstairs as reproductions of repair work he did in Talca, Chile. The artist’s use of light wood additions to battered local pieces worked with the idea of visible intervention, a concept heavily affected by Webster’s research into the University of Chicago’s lasting impact on Chile’s economic system through the historic “Chile Project,” the brainchild of Milton Friedman. Webster explained, “I was thinking of them in relation to the history of minimalism, but also trying to highlight them as interventions. Here you can kind of see that they’re parts of something, but you don’t quite know exactly what. They seem to have some kind of function, but they’re really just kind of the residues of this event that happened, all recreated exactly here.”

Rachel Herman followed Webster, placing the three large, framed “anti-family portrait portraits” that hang in the collection within a lineup of projects that she felt went “hand in hand” with the familial scenes from her collection, “Other People’s Children.” Herman described the work that flashed on the screen behind her as “the attempt of trying to make something like love, that’s intangible and amorphous and something that doesn’t reside representationally in the world–trying to make that visible through photography.” Speaking to the intimacy of the room, Herman introduced her final pieces with the caveat: “This project is absolutely not anything I would show, or have shown.” The screen held a series of cell-phone shots of the sky, taken in the direction of an unrequited love. Of the physical versions, Herman says, “they fit into the palm of my hand, and I think that’s really important, that they are so intimate. The sky is so huge but you can put it in the palm of your hand.”

If there is a theme that emerges from the five talks, it is that each artist’s contribution to the exhibit is but a piece of a much larger story–the part that could fit in the palm of Fenn house. High school art teacher Bert Stabler brings with him two masks created by his students, whose school, Bowen high school, counts recently imprisoned Chicago cop and alleged torturer Jon Burge as an alumnus. The masks were made in pairs–one for a torturer, one for a victim.

Tara Morton’s lonely wooden steps, made shabbier in contrast with the bright wood bits from Webster that surround it, prove to be as much activism as art. The stairs speak to Morton’s childhood–she acquired them from a mobile home park in southern Illinois, not far from the one she grew up in. “Many times when the homes are moved, the stairs are left behind, so for the families remaining in the mobile home park, it becomes a sort of visual marker of families that were once there,” explained the artist. In response to the impending development of the bank-owned land that hosts her childhood community, Morton is working to organize her former neighbors to buy the land themselves.

Her current project is the creation of a central set of steps that will serve as a community meeting place for park residents. Morton confessed that she was unsure whether the image of the stairs, so instantly evocative to her neighbors in southern Illinois, could make sense in urban Chicago. Kenyetta, whose poem followed Morton’s talk spoke up, connected the stair culture she described to his own urban youth: “Don’t give up. When you said, ‘those steps, that’s where we talked,’ I instantly related it to my own upbringing here in Chicago. The front porch…that was it.”