On a pair of TV sets above the bar at the Arts Club of Chicago, scenes from the films The Wizard of Oz and The Wiz play side by side. Across the room hang several works on paper — vintage architectural drawings in black and white, with fantastical, bright green structures painted into the skylines.
Both the videos and the prints are studies for But Tell Me, Is It a Civilized Country?, multimedia artist Max Guy’s first solo exhibition , which runs December 3 through February 5 at the Renaissance Society in Hyde Park. The show explores various iterations and adaptations of L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz. (The title references the Munchkins’ query about Dorothy’s native Kansas.)
“I often take literature or movies as a jumping-off point,” Guy says during a walk-through of the Arts Club preview in October. “I think I was really interested in, frankly, why Motown would produce a Black-excellence version of The Wizard of Oz, which led me to exploring the entire kind of canon of literature.” That canon consists of 14 novels by Baum and several more by other writers authorized by Baum’s publisher after his death in 1919, as well as countless adaptations in other forms, including the aforementioned movies, which Guy is editing together into a two-channel video installation.
A New York City native, Guy, 33, arrived here in 2014 to pursue an MFA at Northwestern. “I like to say that it was just my excuse to move to Chicago. For a long time, all of the emerging artists whose work I liked, they were coming out of Chicago.” His art spans such disciplines as video, sculpture, and collage, and it has been exhibited at Expo Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Malmö Art Museum in Sweden.
His solo exhibition was still taking shape when he gave the preview — “I sort of let time edit things for me,” Guy explains — but he plans to include sculptural elements and theatrical performance, in addition to video, to reflect the many forms Oz has taken. In their proliferation, Guy sees the Oz stories as a forerunner of the superhero comics that are now IP engines for multiplex blockbusters. “Frank Baum envisioned plays, movies. There was a fan club. I think he really had a lot of foresight but maybe not the infrastructure to develop the kind of franchise and large studio he wanted. I’ve been describing it as pre-Marvel.”