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MCA, bicoastal and multidisciplinary
by Kerry Reid
2018-09-19

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BLast year, the Museum of Contemporary Art ( MCA ) unveiled Marisol, a restaurant and bar in the lower level of the museum, adjacent to the theater lobby. Created by Jason Hammel of Logan Square's acclaimed Lula Cafe with paintings by British artist Chris Ofili, it's a hip but accessible communal gathering place for both MCA patrons and people off the street looking for a place to unwind or recharge.

Creating that sort of community commons is one of the challenges facing many cultural institutions these days. But, at 51, the MCA seems up to the task of weaving together a multidisciplinary, yet accessible, approach to understanding the currents of contemporary art.

Among the recent changes, the museum announced three key staff promotions last month—all women of color. Naomi Beckwith, who joined MCA in 2011, is now the Manilow Senior Curator. The Hyde Park native and Northwestern University graduate takes over from Omar Kholeif. Marissa Reyes is the new Dr. Robert N. Mayer Director of Learning and Public Programs, where she'll coordinate everything from school partnerships to lectures to late-night events. And Helen Yi ( founder of the eponymous women's design boutique ) is the new director of retail experience. ( That might seem like a fancy way of talking about a bookstore—unless you've experienced the cunning and broad array of books, media and objects on sale in the MCA shop. )

In talking to Katy O'Malley and Karrie Leung of MCA's press office, it's clear that the museum is interested in also changing the dialogue around the work presented. Sometimes that involves illustrating how the past influences the present. Sometimes that involves finding a balance between international voices and local artists. Or it can involve analyzing all the different media many contemporary artists use for telling their stories.

In the past-to-present category, MCA unveils a major exhibit, West by Midwest, in its fourth-floor space ( Nov. 17, 2018-Jan. 27, 2019 ). The exhibit focuses on how numerous artists with Midwest ties migrated to the West Coast in the late 1950s and early 1960s—just as the interstate highway system made it easier for artists and aspiring artists to mimic the spirit of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Those artists became in turn major influences on the roadmap of contemporary art.

Referring to MCA's current exhibition, I Was Raised on the Internet ( through Oct. 14 ), O'Malley said, "West by Midwest is going to be such a drastic change." I Was Raised on the Internet traces the changes in how art is created and in how we interact with it since 1998, and, said O'Malley, "It really looks at the future and it's a little bright. West by Midwest is going to be something to study, I think. You're going to have all these intersections of all these artists who were raised in the Midwest who moved out West and the inspiration they gleaned from going out there and joining different schools."

Leung added, "It's not solely about the Midwest going West. It's also about how the evolution of the art scene in the West was true for the Midwest." In both cases, Leung and O'Malley note, artists were seeking an escape from "the echo chamber of movements and ideas and competition" that marked the New York art scene of the era.

Among the featured artists are Omaha-born Ed Ruscha, who became a leading light of the Pop Art movement after moving to Los Angeles; Judy Chicago, who took the name of her hometown and became famous for large-scale works such as The Dinner Party; and sculptor/painter Billy Al Bengston, a Kansas native whose work drew upon California "Kustom Kar" and motorcycle art of the late 1950s.

"It underscores how they mutually influenced each other," said O'Malley. "One of the most fun parts is seeing the photographs of the artists hanging out together in front of a Thunderbird or whatever." The exhibit will be divided into six sections and features more than 80 artworks, many drawn from the MCA's permanent collection by curators Charlotte Ickes and Michael Darling. Each section maps the connections between the artists through exploring practice ( how the artists made their work ), place ( the spaces they shared, such as art schools ), and people ( the overlap in personal and professional circles that influenced their development ).

The internet will still play a role in this show, though. O'Malley noted that in place of a printed show catalog, the MCA will offer an extensive "microsite" online with additional materials about the artists and their times.

The MCA's performance series, created by original curator Peter Taub, who served in that role for 20 years, has been headed up since last fall by Chicago native Tara Aisha Willis, a dancer/choreographer/academic. Willis and assistant curator Grace Deveney team up for the ongoing Groundings series, which kicks off on Nov. 3.

Groundings brings in artists who work in dance, music and performance art ( selected by Willis ) who develop performance pieces inspired by works chosen by Deveney from the permanent collection that somehow illustrate aspects of movement. The series is structured around week-long residencies with rehearsals open to the public that culminate in a public performance. O'Malley describes it as "a fun convergence that's happening between performance and visual art. It's also thinking about how the performances we program can branch out from just the theater space by programming in the galleries, out in the lobbies, and in talkbacks after shows in the lobby."

The international profile Taub built for the MCA performance series continues—the first artist up on the stage is Rwandan dance artist Dorothee Munyaneza's Unwanted ( Oct. 3-4 and 6-7 ), a choreographed meditation on rape as an instrument of war. ( Munyaneza was a child in 1994 when the worst atrocities of the Rwandan civil war occurred. ) O'Malley describes Willis as being interested in work that offers "very topical and diverse perspectives for Chicago, as well as offering voices from outside the city."

Increasingly, O'Malley and Leung note, the MCA is focusing on artists who work across many media. In June of 2019, they'll unveil the first major exhibit on Chicago-raised artist Virgil Abloh ( who designed Serena Williams' U.S Open "tutu" uniform ). Abloh, the former creative director for Kanye West and the artistic director for Louis Vuitton's menswear collection, works in fashion but graduated with an engineering degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology and is known for his ability to synthesize work from the worlds of graphic design, music, architecture and visual art.

Said O'Malley, "We have this focus on accessibility from a physical and conceptual way. The idea is that we don't want barriers for entry to people. We want to reach general audiences who haven't been turned on to contemporary art yet because they think it's not for them.

"The multidisciplinary sense is that if artists are working in one medium, they are often working in another. I think if our audiences are interested in one medium, we can turn them onto another."


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