logo Sky Above the Clouds
Mike Wolf
March, 2002

I am, at the very least a fan of, but also sometimes a participant in what the voracious Pedro Velez (among others I suppose) has called the "alternative" gallery or art scene in Chicago (One good web page to start finding more information about that is Spaces.org).

Pedro recently wrote an article for Artnet in which by comparing two shows at two galleries he finds two strong tendencies in Chicago art. And these tendencies stem, so to speak, from two very powerful educational institutions, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). He says that the work that comes out of SAIC, because of its history intertwined with the Imagists, tends toward humorousness and an emphasis on the visual, where the work that comes out of UIC tends to be conceptual in nature and visually sparse.

I found this notion very compelling. You might say I was turned on. And, thinking about it, I realized that what turned me on was that this sounded like art history, old art history, and I got a little creeped out. It was naive of me to think that I had exorcised the ghosts of art history from my body. And why would that be desirable anyway?

This article of Pedro's can represent a number of things about a scene in Chicago art. It is about Pedro's weariness toward what plenty of folks have called a stagnant scene, it is about the beginning of a historicization, a kind of coming of age or killing of a scene. It is the further formation of a ghostly apparition, which is not altogether benevolent.

Pedro constructs a very tidy envelope, a polarizing lens through which to view this scene. I wonder and worry whether there is any danger of that lens becoming the only optic through which this scene might be perceived? It maybe inconsequential. My worry is probably no more than a misdirected fantasy, bad science fiction.

In all likelihood the majority this art work will rightly end up in a heap in some corner more obscure than that occupied by the Imagists.

One thing that I hope does get remembered, and which Pedro's article reminds us of, is that this scene is inextricably tied to, born from and, to some extent, dependent on those two educational institutions--even though most of us on the scene sometimes, kinda wish it weren't true.

With that in mind let me tell you about a memory of mine, maybe in a confessional spirit:

I've never read it, but I once copied out, by hand, the first seventy-five pages of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. A teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago asked me to do it as a homework assignment. I liked that assignment, but I had a lot of spare time that semester. About fifty pages into the book the narrator tells of his eating a bit of cake called a "petite madeleine," soaked in tea. That had the effect of calling forth in him a copious flow of previously inaccessible memories.

I read an article in Pedro's web'zine FGA (April 2002, #10) about the Whitney Biennial by Scott Speh. Speh writes something about some resurgence in abstract painting...abstract painting? I work forty hours a week in the art museum where Georgia O'Keefe's Sky Above Clouds IV hangs, among hundreds of other abstract paintings. I walk under this now crassly monumental painting at least twice a day but it was this article in FGA that became my own tea soaked madeleine:

One winter 5 or 6 years ago in St. Paul, Minnesota, during one of the most difficult and painful times in my life, I was walking at dusk in a park on top of a bluff overlooking the Mississippi. As I walked I saw the way the light hit the surface of the snow, broken by different people's foot prints in all directions. The field seemed to expand off the bluff into the sky and I was reminded of Georgia O'Keefe's painting, Sky Above Clouds. Somehow I felt like making that connection provided a kind of solace.

I had a lot invested in Georgia O'Keefe then. I knew that she had attended the Art Institute of Chicago for a short time, and that was probably one of the factors in my decision to go to Chicago. The school isn't shy about mentioning her in their promotional materials. That seems a little twisted to me now. But those were desperate times.

Soon after that evening I took flight for Chicago to go to school at the Art Institute. It was the one time in my life that I had only one option open to me, the easiest decision I ever made.

Concurrent with this piece, I have written an essay about O'Keefe's painting of clouds seen from an airplane, and posted it on CheatHouse.com.

Now if you'll excuse me, Airplane is on television.