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  • Writer's pictureBryn Foreman

In Solitude: Chicago Part I


What follows is the first of a multi-part documentation of my recent trip to Chicago, and focuses primarily on the visual art that I consumed there. Included, however, is a glimpse at a poetry reading, curatorial practices, and a fair bit of my personal life. Travel, no matter how far from home, is an unavoidably emotional experience. 

If everything goes according to plan, I will publish each part within a week of one another. This means, of course, that they will appear at intervals of two weeks, until the work is concluded. I try to do justice to all of the good art and artists that I saw, but I have inevitably forgotten a few, and for this I apologize. 

Thanks for reading. 

Part I: 

The sun had not been up for very long when my train arrived in Chicago on a Saturday morning in late February, and it was freezing. I was in the city to rendezvous with a pair of close friends who had recently moved away, and turned the trip into an opportunity to enjoy a long weekend poking around at the galleries here. 

It was not my first time traveling to Chicago just to look at art, but it was my first time doing so alone. Twice on the train I was asked, “Is _____ with you?” and twice I answered in the negative.

I can no longer remember how many times I’ve taken the bus or borrowed a car to come visit a friend or visit the galleries; I’ve been doing this for a long time. Sometimes when the skyline comes into view after a long time away, I wonder if this is what happy people talk about when they talk about going home.  

And so I have returned. After a brief stop in the hotel, I venture back out into the cold wind pushing in from the lake, and begin walking. In my head I keep a map of artists, curators, events, publications, museums, events, places, schools, and collectives, all bound together by pins and thread. On my visits, I meticulously document each gallery, and walk until they all close or my body signals a pause. Today is no different, except that I am alone, and I am able to walk as far as I’d like without anyone complaining or arguing with my directions.  This pleases me.

I was displeased, however, was the beginning of the trip - my visits to The Arts Club of Chicago, and Alan Koppel Gallery were both unfruitful. My unscheduled visit to Gruen Galleries was so dire that it left me feeling discouraged, and second-guessing my own ability to navigate the city after all this time. The feeling didn’t last, however, because finally, after traipsing through affluent neighborhoods and designer enclaves, I found what I was looking for.

Gallery Victor: 

Gallery Victor welcomed me with warmth and a flurry of artwork. The young and very enthusiastic gallery attendant, donning a cozy white sweater, ushered me and a couple of fellow visitors into the sunny showroom showcasing Marcos Raya's latest collection, The Fetish of Pain, eager to talk to us about the work on display. 

The Anguish of Being and the Nothingness of The Universe, Marcos Raya

My attention was immediately captured by the towering tondi dominating the space, offering a glimpse into the inner workings of a face. The title, "The Anguish of Being and the Nothingness of the Universe," was evocative of Hirst's infamous piece, "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living," hinting at a shared exploration of existential dread. 

The celebrated Marcos Raya was born in 1948 in the city of Irapuata, in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico. It is a place caught between other places, nestled amongst the arid north and the verdant south, the Sierras, the plateau, and the volcanic belt. When The Spanish came, they raided the land for minerals, but after a while the land became known best for its livestock, and now for its manufacturing. Raya lived there until he was 16, and moved to Chicago with his family. It was here, in Chicago, in Pilsen, that Raya rose to fame for his murals. In his work I see Kahlo, Rivera, Chávez Morado, Hirst, and, at moments, artists like Broobs and Zach Grear

The gallery wall text says it best - 

"Marcos Raya brings together old and new works in a variety of media that mostly explores the sociological impact of technological change. His paintings, collages and installations present an idiosyncratic hybrid of Mexican folklore, American pop-culture. His work has more affinities with Dada and Surrealism, infused with elements of Chicago-Style Pop-Expressionism and Machismo... His installations operate as both a self-portrait and collective history. In the context of a merging reality of medical and psychological proportions. His active space is an esthetic of abundance and display that presents traces of the ongoing struggles with urban displacement. Raya’s edge is both intimate in a domestic construction and sinister in a spectacle of public dimension."

The work is complicated, brittle, and makes me feel small. The feeling of being a young child in the dentist office collects like dust in the back of my throat - I am curious and apprehensive, disgusted and riveted in place. I cannot look away. Around the room there are antique mannequins, tubes, and photos that seem straight out of a medical textbook. The images reveal a deep anxiety, and perhaps a waning trust in the efficacy of transfusions, transplants, and injections. The collages - hypersexual and irreverent - offer a reprieve.

Zg Gallery:

In spite of the fact that it is partially underground, Zg Gallery was flooded with light from the street-level windows. When I approached from the sidewalk, I could see Amanda Elizabeth Joseph’s devastating portrait, “Mary Lou,” in the office space. The grit and severity was evident from a distance. 

Entering the gallery from the stairs, however, had an effect on me like carbonated water. The effervescence of the lush group show on display shook off the dust and the unease from the Raya collection. Expertly curated by gallerist duo Meg Sheehy and Myra Casis, In Other Worlds… is a group show featuring nine of the artists in their stable. While there wasn’t a single thing on the walls that I didn’t like, four artists in particular stood out to me. 

The first was Molly Briggs - a design historian, design theorist, landscape artist, and Assistant Professor of Graphic

Design at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who works in an aesthetic language that spoke to me most clearly of the bunch. Large, gray planes are turned to vibrant pink maps that spell out the blinding silhouettes of treetops and root systems. Her website reads, “Her writing and teaching focus on mediated spaces, mediated sensation and curation, representational epistemologies, and design research methodology. Her studio projects reflect on how we sense and make sense of the natural and artificial spaces we inhabit.” 

Molly Briggs "Clearing #1," flashe, gouache and acrylic on cradled panel, 36" x 76"

I am reminded most of the work of my friend and colleague, Bryn Jackson, in particular his series, Mind Controls, and Islands of the Blest. A few days before I left for Chicago, Bryn sat in an orange swivel chair in my office and joyfully told me that magenta is the absence of green. I will think of this often. 

I was pulled along next to the jammy, colorful photographs by Suzy Poling. These appeal to me in two distinct, disparate ways, one being the appeal of a sweet cream, and the other like the sheen on an oil spill. The inkjet prints might as well have been gel for how they slid through the frame. In Mammoth Springs

"Mammoth Springs #2", archival pigment print

#2, travertine consumes tree branches and exhales a hazy gradient, and the geyser prints look as though I could dip my hand into them and watch it dissolve. Otherworldly, indeed. Oceanic, mysterious, exciting.

These are not images that are informative in the way that a publication like National Geographic would find useful. Rather, they are informative in the way that Thierry Mugler found the answer to a question in a glacier. My mind slips to Abi Ogle’s Grapefruits, as precisely the type of fabric that could be draped over these rough, stony edges and glassy tops. 

Steve Hough, "Lattice 2," color-shifting urethane paint on hand-carved Plexiglas, 26" x 36"

I want Steve Hough’s work for my personal collection. It is no surprise to me that on Zg’s website, most of his color-shifting, carved plexiglass works are already sold. The works are relatively large (without being overbearing) and wonderfully smooth. I know that if I were to reach out and touch the glossy blue finish before me, it would be the perfect kind of cold. To call Hough’s work “easy” would be a mistake, in the same way that Yin Yoga is often misunderstood to be “easy.” These surfaces are meditative. There is a difference. 

I am confident, however, in calling Hough’s work deeply literal, and almost photographic. I recall the act of tossing stone after stone into a pond just to see the ripples fan out and disappear again and again, and note that Hough has captured the very moment that I always desired to. The ripples encased here may be articial, but they are not imaginary. 

Amy Casey’s paintings are whimsical, certainly, but not necessarily lighthearted. In her acrylic painting, “Barge,” buildings topple into an ocean with no shore. The image instantly evokes in me thoughts of climate disaster, and a futuristic vision of cities on stilts to stay above the oceans that will someday soon begin to consume the land, as they already have in Venice. “Smooch,” provides an alternative future, albeit one clearly meant for fairies. A tiny painting depicts a pair of tiny yellow houses, nested comfortably among what appears to be Trichaptum. Nature is reclaiming these homes, too, but slowly, and without violence. Persistence, inevitability, and dreaminess pervade these images, and I can see why Myra would be so eager to share with me the books containing Casey’s work. 

Amy Casey, "Barge," acrylic on panel, 16" x 16"

It is easy for me to imagine the works of Indianapolis-based artist Graham Marshall in a gallery like this. His large scale paintings are nearly anatomical, and take cues from Audubon illustrations, but introduce a vibrant color palette similar to Benjamin Cook, and a magical realism akin to what I see in Casey’s paintings. Verdant and densely packed, Marshall’s paintings possess an immersive quality that was on full display in Zg. 

Although I did not have the opportunity to meet Meg Sheehy, I had a wonderful conversation with Myra Casis about their gallery, and the artists represented in it, particularly Amy Casey. Everything about Myra was impressive, especially her encyclopedic knowledge of the artists. With instant recall and conversational ease, Casis was able to tell me about the houses depicted in Casey’s work, her residency in Finland, and the way in which Casey’s dreams have echoed throughout her career arcs. It is this unpretentious advocacy for the artists that I strive for in my own career. I see in her an exuberance for the work, and a seriousness, too, for the role of caretaking in the profession of a curator. 

Upon returning home, I pulled a little more at the thread of Zg, and found a healthy quantity of articles from the late 2000’s and early aughts. In one of them, the Chicago Tribune gets Casis’ name wrong, but I can trace a trajectory. Chicago Reader paints a picture - the two women met in college, became friends and eventually a couple, graduated in ’88, and worked in Douglas Kenyon until 2000. Zg opened its doors in February of 2002, and that seems to be when the real work began. A 2006 article mentions in the first line that the duo saved for more than ten years to open, and that at the time of writing, sales alone were still not enough to cover the bills. 

And yet, in 2010 they were still around, and Gregory Jacobsen’s opening is covered by Newcity Art. In 2012, HyperAllergic includes Zg on the list of three Chicago galleries to see in a weekend. In 2016, CAN Journal, a publication out of Cleveland, is over the moon to report Dana Oldfather’s exhibition in the gallery. Then, in 2023, another Cleveland journal boasts of Amy Casey’s success through the gallery. This gallery didn’t just survive, it thrived. 

I see a model for my own future in this example. So often I remember Braydee Euliss uttering to me, “If you want to go fast go alone, but if you want to go far then go together.” In Myra I saw elements of myself - the drive, the recall, the enthusiasm, but I also saw what I lack. Of course I need experience, time, and money, but what I really need is a partner. Working alone, while at times liberating and expedient, also limits me. With a partner or a collective there are expanded opportunities, resources, and capacity. I feel an immense amount of gratitude to Myra Casis for her time, kindness, and information, and I can only hope that my career will reflect the lessons that she unknowingly bestowed upon me during our short interaction.

1709 W Chicago Ave: 

After a brief and uncomfortable stop in Zolla-Lieberman, I continued on to 1709 W Chicago Avenue. This address has long been a favorite of mine. Featuring Western Exhibitions, Document, Volume Gallery, and Paris London Hong Kong, this location has always delivered on high-caliber, thoughtful work. 

Ruhwald, "In the Woods"

I went first into Volume Gallery. Anders Herwald Ruhwald’s IN THE WOODS had just opened the previous day. It was crowded with sculptures that I needed to step around, and navigate carefully with my bag, which suddenly felt gigantic and silly. Elongated, multi-colored heads occupied the small room, which was punctuated by candles in tall, slender stumps. 

According to the gallery text, the exhibition is an homage to Thoreau, and his isolation at Walden Pond. The heads “wander through unfulfilled curiosities.” Anonymized portraits, repeated in Giacometti-like forms are uniform and discordant, and drive me from the room rather quickly. The tall heads and tall candles did not provoke much from me. 

Next I went into Western Exhibitions, diving headfirst into a homoerotic bacchanalia. Our Lady of the Latrines, by Elijah Burgher, is a soft, colorful exploration into the notorious 3rd century Roman emperor, Elagabalus. The press release uses they/them pronouns to refer to the emperor, whose gender and sexuality have been contested as of late, with some scholars believing Elagabalus to have been transgender. 

Burgher’s drawings and sketchbooks engage with the myths, legends, and rumors of Elagabalus as “corrupt tyrant, sexual deviant, and a religious zealot,” only to be “recast as an uncompromising aesthete, anarchist and sexual martyr.” The portraits, sketches, and scenes are lovingly rendered, and traditional at first glance. Violence looms, however, in the hidden knives and shadowy whispers coming from the opulent environments, previewing the emperor’s 222 slaying. I found the work here to be playful, camp, at times exuberant, but balanced by the secrets and air of violence that permeated Elagabalus’ fraught history. 

In the next room, Juliet Jacobsen’s show, Named Rose, takes the viewer into a more comfortable space that feels like play. The release reads,

"Juliet Jacobsen makes pictures about pictures. Her still life drawings, made with gouache on paper and a patient tender hand, are meditations on how images are constructed. Jacobsen makes pictures that are not so much about what is depicted, but rather about the experience of seeing, investigating the slipperiness of perceived reality.”

The pictures are disorienting, and fun, like a puzzle. Multiple perspectives are assembled and layered, combining photographs, posters, and prints to create a hyper-real, tromp l'oeil effect, while retaining sketches and marker tests in the margins of the pictures, reminding the viewer of what has been created, not just formed.  

Next door, in Document, I was intrigued and unsettled (but ultimately underwhelmed) by the solo show for Sara Greenberger Rafferty, An Audience. Grids of identical female shapes are measured, examined, and scrambled. Another collection about the ways in which women are policed through beauty standards? Fabulous! Just what we needed - add it to the pile with the others. Moving on.

John Opera, "The Observer," 2022.

It was in Document’s smaller, more tucked away space that I found a collection worth lingering with. The undulating, off-rhythm group show with Natani Notah, Mané Pachecho, Julien Creuzet, John Opera, and Sara Greenberger Rafferty was precisely the type of colorful intrigue I’d come so far to see. It was, however, John Opera’s painting, rendered in monochromatic red, that was the keystone to the whole display. A young black man in a hoodie poses in a yearbook-style portrait, wearing an expression of quiet determination, and some boredom. The hazy, buzzing color makes it seem as if it is rendered in smog, and I will think about this subject later on the train.

The Chicago Diner/Cafe Mustache 

After a stop in the hotel to recharge both my phone and my own energy reserves, I met my friends at the The Chicago Diner before walking over to Cafe Mustache. One of my oldest, dearest friends, John Leo, was in town from Minnesota to participate in a poetry reading to celebrate the launch of “Overflowing the Tub,” a book of absolutely magnificent poems by Lemmy Ta’akova

I bought a round of Chicago handshakes and took in the space. The cafe was crowded with people, but it wasn’t dense, and so the body heat had not yet begun to thicken the room. Cluttered with evidence of an affinity for analog film, Cafe Mustache reminded me a little bit of The Chatterbox, if it were bigger and cleaner. On a small stage in the corner, stacked television screens flickered next to a stack of Ta’akova’s books, available for sale. The microphone looked lonely. 

When the reading began, John went first. He read many of his poems, including my two favorites. The first was about the last Hapsburg, and the second was a love poem about his wife and my other dear friend, Claire, ruminating on how much he would still love her if she were a worm. What followed in the next few hours was unhurried, warm, and carried a weight that implanted itself easily into my chest, where it has since stayed, grounding me. 

There were poems about all kinds of things, including just reading black box recordings, and the consequences of learning that you can suck your own dick. But there were also a lot of poems about loss, and a lot of them were grieving the deaths of friends. Lemmy Ta’akova spoke about losing a friend to suicide - they called it “leaving.” The shared grief made the crowd sway to nod, and we all felt it. 

The entire lineup was excellent, and curated by Enter The Night Gallery, but one poet whose work I especially enjoyed was Chad Morgan. I regret not buying a copy of Ta’akova’s book while I was there.

Between sets, I took pictures with my friends in the photobooth, and was overwhelmed by how much I love the people I was with. I was overwhelmed, too, by how sharply I still feel the pain of one of my own friends leaving. Later, when I was walking and giggling and crying with my beloved friend in my beloved city, I realized that it was going to take courage to keep loving them so fiercely and also that I have no other choice. 

On the train ride back to the hotel I was despondent, euphoric, the loneliest I’d ever been. I sleep best alone, but I know, with absolute certainty, that my waking hours belong unequivocally to the people who love me back.

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