Interesting Ideas

Urban Art Chicago: A Guide to Community Murals, Mosaics, and Sculptures
By Olivia Gude and Jeff Huebner
Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 130 color illustration, 256 pages, 2000, ISBN 1-56663-284-6

The paradox of public art is that its pervasiveness makes it invisible. Monuments and fountains, equestrian statues and grave markers, even heroic modernist abstractions mostly blend into the background of their day-to-day visibility.

Context can change that. Obelisks scattered amid hundreds of cemetery markers are barely noticeable. But collect a set of 19th Century memorial pillars into a several-mile stretch of Highway 27 along the Chickamauga battlefield in northwest Georgia and they become stunning, even harrowing. Form, presentation and meaning interact to make a statement far more compelling in its sentiment and its sorrow and than the sum of the parts. Rarity also matters. WPA murals become the more treasured the more they disappear. And time: An indifferently executed 19th Century statue gains an aura simply by being old, though it's the patina that glows, not the original conception.

But all these types of objects also suffer from public art's other great problem: Variations in form and quality can make taking notice seem not worth the trouble. You'd have to have awfully catholic tastes to like everything, especially considering that it is subject to the general rule of art that across a wide range of objects quality descends toward an indifferent mean.

Yet an expansive response to our common landscape can make all of this material relevant, affecting and worth noticing. Even the abundantly second-string stuff can provide welcome relief from the relevant and affecting stuff that is even more abundant -- the depressing indifference and outright eyesores that line most of our streets.

Public art is not just a buffer against atrociousness, it also weaves multiple threads of history, culture and (sometimes) personal expression into our day-to-day lives, at least for those of us fortunate to live where it is common enough to take for granted. More to the point here, public art includes plenty of material in another class than the men on horses.

Obvious additions to roster include graffiti art and personal environments and yard shows, as well as the public equivalent of found objects. In Chicago these can range from the formally fascinating railroad drawbridges that dot the city to oddball smoke stacks to a wealth of commercial but idiosyncratic signs, including the monumental Magikist lips that still stand along the Kennedy Expressway.

Altogether this stuff plays a big part in creating the urban fabric that makes city living tolerable, even desirable. The new guidebook Urban Art Chicago focuses on another of these alternative categories that upgrades the city's aesthetics -- the non-commercial murals, mosaics and sculpture gardens that the authors group under the "community art" label.

It's work that is easily distinguishable in its populist/heroic style and in the leftist politics that usually inform its themes -- about as far as you can get from the typical equestrian statue or modernist steel monolith. The works' roots in the surrounding community and the frequent participation of non-professional artists in its creation are legacies of the '60s activism from which the mural movement, later expanding to include mosaics and sculptures, took its inspiration. Beyond the populist gestures, political and aesthetic, the art contributes in its own way to a common space that needs all the help it can get. Even the most heavy-handed of these murals adds something engaging to the otherwise blank spaces they inhabit.

Urban Art Chicago, while leaving qualitative evaluations up to the reader, can serve as a guide to the more artistically interesting material. Although not lavishly produced, the small-format book illustrates more than 100 community art sites in and around viaducts, on community center and church walls and along railroad embankments and other places. It supplies details that aren't apparent from driving by the work, including dates of creation (and restoration, when applicable), explanations of subject matter and identifications of the originating artists and community groups.

Personally, I'd start a tour with the "Mile of Murals" that line Hubbard Street on the near West Side. Painted in the 1970s, the pictures are impressive in their scale and variety. The 1985 "Mural of Heroes" at Diversey and Milwaukee is a kitschy but still legitimate tribute to three firefighters killed in the line of duty. Some more formally interesting works also are sampled, including "Fishing at Hogarth's Head Bay" at 1108 W. Lawrence and "Pax et Bonum" at 4055 W. Belmont. The self-taught sculptor David Philpot shows up a couple of times, in collaborations with Milton Mizenburg.

Are these murals and mosaics experienced differently from other public art? The work cataloged in this book may have originated in defiance of establishment statues and monuments, but it still joins the continuum of the built environment as public art. That means it contributes to the richness of our public space, and it suffers from both widely varying quality and a ubiquity that leaves much of it taken for granted. On the walls of the local school or non-profit headquarters, art easily fades into the brickwork.

While Urban Art Chicago helps bring the work into focus, its definition of community art excludes lots of extremely interesting material. One could argue that many of the murals in the book area as institutional in character, and no more populist, than a great deal of work that one presumes the authors would consider insufficiently community in origin.

This might include, on the one hand, interior murals by individual artists, whether of WPA vintage or more recent, like Joe Hindley's construction-themed picture in the Banana Republic on Michigan Avenue. Or it might encompass works of personal eccentricity, like the plaque house environment on the near north side or the anonymous stone carvings and horizontal murals that line the miles of Chicago's lakefront. These creations are less visible than any of the pieces in the book and far more likely to disappear (especially as the government moves to preserve the city's eroding shore). Unlike faded murals, there is no restoration once they are gone.

It's perfectly reasonably, of course, for authors Olivia Gude and Jeff Huebner to write about one group of work and not another. But recent veterans of outsider art's "term wars" know that creating and adhering to artistic categories is fraught with peril. Artistic categories often collapse into the very exclusions that they put into place. A broader definition may have put the art under consideration here into a more meaningful and rewarding context.

For those with an interest in self-taught art, there is a particular cultural disconnect in the notion of community art. Explaining the concept, Gude and Huebner write that "the very existence of the work is a tribute to the efficacy of dialogue and collaboration."

In fact, there seems little reason to believe that community involvement increases aesthetic quality, even if it might enhance a work's local relevance. And while the involvement of kids and other untrained community members may resonate a little in the world of self-taught art, faux na´ve styles and populist kitsch can easily outbalance the feel-good virtue of community involvement.

More to the point, an approach that emphasizes group production, community values and ethnic heritage is a tough sell for an aesthetic that elevates idiosyncratic creativity as the wellspring of artistic interest. Urban Art Chicago succeeds well enough on its own terms, but one awaits a book that fully scopes out the eccentric end of the city's public art continuum.

This review originally appeared in The Outsider, the magazine of Intuit: The Center for Outsider and Intuitive Art.

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Copyright William Swislow 2001