A Monument to Monuments

photo by Jack Nuelle

photo by Jack Nuelle

“Hall of Khan” has turned the Hyde Park Art Center into a riding stable.

Walking in from the street, one is struck first by the sight of two live palomino horses in a makeshift wooden stall. It’s the Wild West on the South Side, both an homage to and a reevaluation of the importance and presentation of the equestrian monument.

The man behind this site-specific installation, Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford, is short in stature–bright-eyed, eager, and eloquent. He has grand plans for his multi-media, multi-species exhibit. At its heart, the exhibit is about the refashioning and repurposing of the monument, specifically the equestrian monument, in postmodern society.

Hulsebos-Spofford is especially interested in the idea of the “living sculpture.” His friend and fellow artist Elijah Burgher probed this concept in a thirty-minute live demonstration piece entitled “Elijah as an Equestrian Monument to Polo Ralph Lauren.” In the piece, Burgher sits bareback on a palomino, motionless. He is wearing nothing but a Polo Ralph Lauren sweater tied around his shoulders and wields a polo mallet, all the while staring fixedly into space. It’s a striking image, the bare nudeness of both horse and human stark and seamless, not unlike an organic bronzing. The image mocks the insubstantiality and superficiality of “high fashion,” as well as the role fashion plays in defining the individual.

In addition to all the living, breathing creatures, abstract inorganic equestrian monuments and saddles dot the gallery. Hulsebos-Spofford has taken inspiration from history, albeit a kind of sundry artistic one. For instance, his abstract saddle tribute to Joan of Arc, “Maid,” is inspired by the 1928 silent film “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” A second piece, green, foam, and vaguely Seuss-ian, is a tribute to Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities,” a 1972 work of fiction that imagines a conversation between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. A third piece, entitled “White Men Can’t Jump,” is a monument composed of two pairs of sneakers and a worn t-shirt, referencing a racial dialogue from the 1992 film of the same name starring Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes.

The largest piece in the gallery, entitled “Hall,” is a dominating work that expertly contrasts with the actual horse stall in the opposite corner of the room (a piece in itself, entitled “Stall”). “Hall” is both a futuristic horse stall and a reimagining of Chicago history. For the artist, it was inspired by “a mini Crystal Palace” in the English Gardens in Palermo, Sicily. The real Crystal Palace, coincidentally, once stood in Hyde Park, London. As Hulsebos-Spofford describes it, the transposing of the Crystal Palace design to Sicily, where the Mafia paved over the surrounding gardens and graffiti artists covered the structure, inspired him to bring it to Chicago. Here, he sought to interweave the structure with Chicago history. The twice-removed model incorporates parts of the UofC’s economics building, as well as a brick from the southern boundary of the UCPD’s patrol zone, making it a composite “collage from the neighborhood.”

The event was filled with people from the art world, other reporters, and even entire families. One father could be seen winding through the crowd with his daughter in a pouch around his chest. Another parent was leading her children to note their reactions to the exhibition at the designated recording area–a kiosk full of Post-it notes to use for personal reactions to the installations. One of the more memorable responses was written in childish block letters on a yellow Post-it note: “why are there hore’s?”

Jeremiah Hulsebo-Spofford asked a similar question, and his postmodern horse parade of an installation goes about trying to answer it. It is his monument to monuments, a peek into the way humans honor their history and the icons we deem important.

Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell Ave. Through July 28. Monday-Thursday, 10am-8pm; Friday-Saturday, 10am-5pm; Sunday, noon-5pm. Free. (773)324-5520. hydeparkart.org

This story has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: April 25, 2013

The print version of this story erroneously described the Crystal Palace as still standing in Hyde Park, London. The structure burned down in 1936.