“The art world is so big,” Shane Ward told an audience at the Hyde Park Art Center on Saturday, October 13. “To try to situate yourself in it is really challenging.”
Unfortunately for Ward, that was exactly what HPAC had asked him to do. The art center brought Ward and three other young artists–Jeremy Bolen, Tony Lewis, and Eric May–together for a panel discussion to “confront the relevance of their own art practice within large art world contexts” and define “the connections between their production and current trends and art world concerns.” They are not without talent; each has work featured at HPAC’s “Ground Floor” exhibition, a biennial showcase of some of the most promising recent MFA grads in Chicago. And yet, making it as an artist remains a constant concern. “It’s one of those things I think about all the time,” Lewis said.
For Lewis, life after graduate school provides an extra element of freedom, but one that must be balanced by self-imposed responsibility. He spoke of a lifestyle shaped by frugality, and the challenges of creating art when artists must also act as salespeople.
To their credit, however, Lewis and the other panelists faced the questions with remarkable, if understated, aplomb. The atmosphere at HPAC was casual and calm, the answers quiet and considered. More than once the panelists had to be asked to speak up, though they sat no more than fifteen feet away. Bolen conceded that the eventual value of a piece requires some consideration, pointing to the frames he used to cover the rough edges of his work. But he felt comfortable with the level of balance he’d managed to achieve. “I don’t feel like I’m selling out or something,” he remarked. Lewis seemed to agree, stating that while he was concerned with the value of his work, the central question was “how to make a drawing.” That didn’t stop the rest of the panelists from joking about the enormous size of his work, and what price that might command.
The panelists’ composure might best be explained by their artistic approach. Each described a similar process of beginning with a single idea, then working through it experimentally. The focus was less on an objective purpose than on exploring limitations. Bolen, for instance, expressed an interest in “pushing the potential” of pictures and engaging with the interplay between art and science. He started with soil. His pigment prints, ranging from a landscape portrayal of the Fox River to earthy, enigmatic scenes from underground, utilize actual sediments, demanding consideration of the material and visual all at once.
Lewis began with a single phrase–“people peopled and color colored”–and used the materials lying around in his studio to “see what we can do with this.” The sentence is written plainly in pencil and graphite powder on white paper, but threatening this order is the thin, curving line that runs beneath. It seems to suggest that, if pulled, the words would somehow come undone. And indeed, his other three sheets contain only fragmented pieces of the original sentence, strung out elusively over more curving threads.When Ward commented that there was a certain “slipperiness” to it, Lewis acknowledged that one of his goals was exploring what the limits of this “slipperiness” might be.
For his part, Ward described how a Miller promotional campaign sparked an interest in the exploitative power of aluminum beer cans, and raised questions about how we use certain materials. This became “Just four inches deeper. AKA: a positive hole,” a collection of pieces of aluminum recast into a series of sprawling, yet finely detailed abstract forms. The rendering makes them look organic and alive, nothing like what aluminum might usually be expected to convey.
May envisions his work as a “social project,” an attempt to capture “the language of the urban street.” His starting point, though, is food. “I decide what food I want to look at,” he said, “and from there there’s a process of fleshing out my thoughts.” His posters, intended to “ambiguously advertise” and invoke the cultural conditions of the South Side, resemble food ads without the specificity of a brand. One simply says “Tips ‘n’ Links” in bold black lettering over red; another places the phrase “White Flight” between what looks like a minimalist version of a yellow burger bun.
Though the discussion concerned big questions, the artists’ best response may have come in asking questions of themselves. “The possibilities can be overwhelming,” Lewis admitted. But if the results of “Ground Floor” are any indication, there’s something to be said for starting small.