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What Political Art in Chicago Looks Like Today

A round-up of provocative, activist art now on view.

From Erika Rothenberg’s House of Cards.   Photo: Zolla/Lieberman Gallery

What is political art? Surely it’s not a rainbow mural painted over a crumbling neighborhood. Political art can lead viewers to a place of frustration and provocation. Maybe that’s where change really begins to stir. Feeling despair? It could be a case of capitalism. Feeling unequal? You may need a dose of feminism. A jaunt around the city’s art galleries reveals the issues on Chicago’s mind.


Photo:  ZOLLA/LIEBERMAN GALLERY

Erika Rothenberg, House of Cards

Gouache on paper, 1992/2015

A re-creation of Erika Rothenberg’s 1992 House of Cards installation, which debuted at MoMA, takes aim at social ills, and it feels fresh as ever—unfortunately. Rothenberg’s satirical Hallmark-style greeting cards address uncomfortable subjects like war (“Sorry my country bombed your country”), discrimination (“Thanks, boss! For your affirmative actions!”), and even the art world (“Congratulations… for being one of the few people who understand Modern art”). “The 90 hand-painted greeting cards are a compendium of every awful, ignorant thing we do to one another,” wrote the artist in a statement. Other cards are aimed at rapists, pedophile priests, and homophobes. The message is clear: don’t stay silent on difficult topics.

Through 4/18 at Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, 325 W Huron. 


Photo: MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART, CHICAGO

Faheem Majeed, BUY, MY NIGGA

Carved particleboard, 2014

Faheem Majeed is former director of the South Side Community Art Center, as well as an activist-artist. For several years he has exhibited artifacts and ephemera of his South Side community in alternative galleries around Chicago. Now, his small but powerful solo show at the MCA packs a socio-political punch, aimed for the masses. Majeed’s topics range from race and religion in schools, to election propaganda, to neighborhood advocacy, and includes a piece of carved particleboard with the controversial phrase, an artwork from 2014. Presented on reclaimed wood, contemporary art’s material du jour (think Theaster Gates), Majeed’s charged message confronts the way racial identity and culture gets branded and sold in our capitalist era. Majeed’s show is a perfect complement to the quiet melancholy of Colombian Doris Salcedo’s sculptures, whose recently opened retrospective at the museum pays homage to victims of international political violence.

Through 8/16 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E Chicago. 


Photo: 65GRAND

Philip von Zweck, Dead Bee

Acrylic and oil on canvas, 2015

Philip von Zweck’s third solo exhibit at this West Town storefront gallery is titled Fourteen landscapes, or, all everyone wants to talk about is the end of the world. Included is a small memorial painting about Colony Collapse Disorder, which is killing the world’s honeybee population. Is the bee is to humanity what the canary was to coalminers? In typical von-Zweckian wit, the dead bee also serves as a metaphor for the act of painting, a traditional medium that used to serve great political ends (democracy during the French Revolution, for example), but today its social efficacy is questionable. Is it too late for painting—and the bees? 

Through 4/4 at 65GRAND, 1369 W Grand.


Photo: THE ARTIST

Angela Davis Fegan, from Lavender Menace

Letterpress wood type on paper, 2015

In her new print series, Angela Davis Fegan questions why queer sex is political, while other types are not. Taking a cue from history’s playbook for her Lavender Menace Poster Project—the name is inspired by a 1970s lesbian feminist activist group—Fegan says her poster is a tongue-in-cheek take on the marriage equality movement. “The poster is written in the collective voice of an imaginary radical feminist ‘gang,’” she writes, “critiquing the mainstream ‘gay’ movement from the left. In this poster in particular, YOU is middle America, or the court of public opinion, in which queer people are constantly trying to prove they are ‘normal’ in order to pass marriage legislation.” Although she believes in gender and sexuality equality, Fegan worries about what happens when queer-identified people reinforce rather than challenge hetero-normative behaviors. “I think it’s humorous to assert,” she says, that anyone "should be afraid over the same qualities of any group desiring liberation.”

Through 4/30 at the Center for Book and Paper Arts, 1104 S Wabash. 


Photo: IRAQ VETERANS AGAINST THE WAR

Mary Tremonte, Make Drag Not War

Screenprint, 2014

“Make drag, not war,” declares Mary Tremonte’s commemorative poster for an event of the same name, in which dozens of war vets were invited to tell their stories through drag performance. Tremonte calls it “dragtivist theatre,” in which soldiers experiencing post-traumatic stress disorders could out their traumas. The print is one of nearly 70 in the new portfolio commissioned by Iraq Veterans Against the War, an advocacy group for vets. All of the prints are on view in the Logan Square gallery of the grassroots political investigation publication In These Times.

Through 4/30 at Art In These Times Gallery, 2040 N Milwaukee. 


Photo: TRACERS BOOK CLUB

Tracers Book Club

Free, unlimited edition objects

What does it mean to “get traced”? A worldwide network of feminists called the Tracers Book Club was founded in Chicago by notable filmmaker Jennifer Reeder (fresh off her Sundance premier of A Million Miles Away), who created hand-outs to call out discriminatory behavior in public. Based on artist Adrian Piper’s seminal 1986 calling cards, which focused on race relations, the Tracers cards (and pencils and posters, pictured above) are free for the taking in the group exhibition Shift: Chicago Artist Collectives. So far Reeder has distributed 3,000 cards to her DIY network of feminist activists. Also on view are handmade dolls of famous leaders like Angela Davis and Gloria Steinem—perhaps better role models for young girls than, say, Barbie.

Through 5/2 at The Arcade, Columbia College Chicago, 618 S Michigan, second floor. 

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