Fresh Cuts

It’s a quiet evening at the Chicago Urban Art Society (CUAS). A small group huddles in one corner of a large light-filled gallery, anticipating a story slam to take place later that night. The song “Kryptonite” echoes softly in the background, as a few visitors break from the crowd to pace along the gallery’s perimeter, examining collages of varying shapes, sizes, and media. These collages, created by thirteen artists from Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Moscow, and beyond comprise the show “MEDLEY,” CUAS’s debut show in their new Cermak space.

“This show is meant to set the tone both for my voice as a curator and for the space as a whole,” explains Peter Kepha, CUAS co-founder, curator, and featured collagist. Kepha explains that he was trained as an oil painter and initially planned to become a medical illustrator, but switched to collage because he could not fathom the thought of drawing corpses for the rest of his life. Despite his casual tone and checkered high-tops, Kepha’s eyes reveal an intensity that gives away his passion for creating, showcasing, and collecting. “I already bought two pieces from this show,” he confesses,

The collages that comprise “MEDLEY,” rendered in bright colors, dynamic and graphic cutouts, reflective foil, and in one case, a three-dimensional surface that literally jumps out at the viewer, could not contrast more with the mellow mood of the gallery space. “People view [collage] as something so simple, when it’s actually really difficult,” says Kepha. “You have so many images fighting with themselves…how do you make them play nice?” In fact, the sizeable and diverse collection of collages feels immediately overwhelming. Kepha admits, “Collage can sometimes all run together…it’s hard to differentiate.”

The wide range, from the fantastical, pristine digital collages of Belgian artist Oleg Borodin, to the illusionistic painted “layers” of acrylic paint in Jessica Bell’s work,  highlights the versatility of collage, and its potential sophistication. Some of the artists, like New York based Matt Shaw, seem to address formal and medium-specific issues. One of Shaw’s pieces includes a ripped black and white photographic print of a woman’s face. Her eyes seem to roll back into her head as she stares upward, the top of the image ripped off to reveal blurred dots in primary colors like those seen on printed images.

Other artists abandon the “formalism” route entirely. Kepha’s collages, for example, display a cheeky, nostalgic playfulness. One piece, in the shape of a skateboard, uses Styrofoam pieces to make photographs of wheels hover against the background of the board’s underside. In the piece, Kepha incorporates a print of the dollar bill, old comic strips, and glittering baseball stickers. Yet, the board displays a calculated composition and meticulous execution indicative of an adult creator. He juxtaposes, for example, the dollar bill with a selection of cutout words arranged to read “The original 1,” at once skeptical of mass media culture and wholly immersed in it.

Later in the evening, Kepha, with his sister and CUAS co-founder Lauren Pacheco, carries a small desk out of the main gallery into a small side room to clear a “stage” for the later story slam. “Glamorous gallery life for you,” he remarks jokingly. But to call CUAS just a gallery is misleading. The not-for-profit space maintains local ties and continues to support art production in the Chicago community. Kepha, for example, explains that he hopes one day to create a large collage mural project in a Chicago community. “We’re cultivating younger kids,” he says, “We’re trying to show that Chicago is still a productive place for art. They don’t have to come here for school and then move out.”  One exhibited artist, Emily Haasch, is an SAIC sophomore and former CUAS intern. Her graphic black and white series of wrestlers hang alongside the work of other local Chicago artists such as Ruben Aguirre and Chad Kouri. At the same time, by bringing contemporary art into Chicago from all over the world, Kepha creates a space where Chicagoans can see great works of collage in their home city. “We’re trying to constantly push further,” explains Kepha. “I’m trying to switch things up, keep things fresh.”

Chicago Urban Art Society, 600 W. Cermak Rd. May 11-June 16. Thursday-Friday, 6-9pm; Saturday, 1-6pm. Free. (773)951-8101.