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Book Reviews: Studio Life—Rituals, Collections, Tools, and Observations on the Artistic Process, David and Goliath: Underdogs,

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By CHICAGO LIFE
Studio Life—Rituals, Collections, Tools, and Observations on the Artistic Process  by Sarah Trigg (Princeton Architectural Press, $35)  
Appleton, Wisconsin native Sarah Trigg, now based in the DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) area of Brooklyn, interviewed 200 artists across the country and abroad for this project and photographed stuff they keep in their studios—sometimes for inspiration, sometimes for distraction, sometimes just because. Called an “anthropological approach to observing the practices of visual arts” she archived the myriad collection of objects under six categories: Mascots; Collected Objects; Rituals; Residue; Makeshift Tools; and, Habitat.
  
For the book Trigg selected 100 artists and publishes the others on her Web site, http://www.thegoldminerproject.com/wordpress/artists/. She interviewed a number of local Chicago area artists.
   
Trigg spent time with Phyllis Bramson, a well-known Chicago artist who uses decorative paintings from the Philippines and Korea re-worked into postmodern collages and chinoiserie—amusing, lovely, romantic and bemused works that you’d have to be an awful curmudgeon not to enjoy. Her studio is filled with two-and three-dimensional imagery collected over years that feeds her work.
   
If you went to high school with Kevin Wolff, who recently moved to Countryside, IL, you might want to see if your picture from your high school yearbook shows up in his work. He collects yearbooks, including his own, and uses the images to create clay models which he photographs and then makes paintings from. Naturally, his studio is packed with files and photos and lots of yearbooks. His favorites are from the early 1960s.
   
“It seems like a completely different world to me,” he told Trigg, “a bit earlier than when I was in high school. I don’t see bullies but I do see a hierarchy, and I see something that seems a lot more civilized.”
  
Judy Ledgerwood, an Oak Park painter, arranges cans of paint on the floor of her studio similar to the way her paintings are often designed. Asked if this was on purpose she said: “Yes, that’s exactly why I set it up that way—to work out the color. I’m always pulling from the edges into the center.”  Downstairs, in the studio of Judy’s husband, Tony Tasset, is a desiccated pumpkin which was once upon a time the model for his oil-painted bronzed sculpture, Rotting Pumpkin.
   
Jesse McLean, who makes montages from appropriated video clips in her Wicker Park apartment/studio, is a big user of Post-it Notes. One that caught Trigg’s eye and appears in the book said “Don’t Forget about Beauty.” McLean said the note was to remind herself not to get so caught up in recontextualizing appropriated imagery that she might forget she could do more with it.
    
Michelle Grabner, in Oak Park, is a busy mother of three. She runs a gallery, co-edited “The Studio: On the Space of Artists,” reviews art shows and makes minimalist works of art herself. She was named a co-curator of the 2014 Whitney Biennial and, it turns, out, not only does she come from Appleton, but she and Trigg shared the same high school art teacher, Joseph Perez.
   
Grabner’s son’s advanced placement European history teacher told her class: “I want each of you to go home and thank your parents for not being artists. The children of artists are the ones who lose their minds, fall into madness or commit suicide.” Her son took it in stride; he was, after all, experienced in explaining to his suburban friends that the garage party his parents threw on Saturday was actually an important art opening.
 
Rachel Niffenegger, an Evanston-based sculptor, rather disarmingly admits that the only way stuff leaves her studio is incorporated into her work. Trigg’s description: “Niffenegger’s sculptures look like the primitive ritual objects of a tribe living in a post-apocalyptic era.” Accumulated objects were on the floor or tacked to a wall, awaiting their incorporation into her next piece of work.
  
Theaster Gates, described as a ceramicist, installation artist and urban planner, but also an acquirer of buildings on the South Side, has developed a community organization, Dorchester Projects, around his interests. At its core are a 15,000-volume library of art, architecture and design books purchased when Prairie Avenue Bookstore was going out of business, and the glass slide art collection from the University of Chicago, redundant in the digital age. Gates, as might be expected, has lots of shelves and filing drawers.
    
Chicago artists gets things done. Candida Alvarez, an abstract painter who works from images of popular culture and current events, has a studio on the top floor of the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue. Not much was happening in the arts around the South Loop in 2006, but she figured there must be a way to use an inactive elevator cab for a gallery, and she did. She revived the idea for SubCity at her current studio.
    
John Henderson’s studio occupies an entire floor in a West Loop building—no heat, no air and no rent but plenty of room to stack materials for his abstract paintings.
In Wilmette, IL, Gladys Nilsson and her husband Jim Nutt, have mementos of their association with the Chicago Imagists and the Hairy Who. Her studio is adorned with pictures of her cats and playing cards—she likes to play solitaire while her paint dries.
   
Apparently one key difference between pack rats and artists is that artists use the stuff in their work. Sometimes it’s only when a gallery comes to collect their work that they get some space back, as Niffenegger noted.
   
“It’s good when the gallery comes  by to pick up work and gets some of it out of here, or this place would overflow,” she laughed.
    
Probably because she is a known and accomplished artist herself, Trigg was welcomed into studios by artists whose work isn’t always easily accessible, but who didn’t fear the dismissal that unfamiliar art often provokes. She found the visits often illuminating.
  
“...in a few cases I was familiar with the work but understood it much more clearly after the visit.” She notes that artists rarely have other artists visiting their studios; more often they see collectors, gallery owners or curators.
   
Trigg made a point of getting outside the commercial boundaries of collectors, gallery owners and curators by working outward from artists she already knew, looking for other artists they would recommend.
   
The book concludes with an artist index showing a single work by each, a brief bio, and Web sites in some cases and a referral to the page where they appear. The index, unlike the book, is arranged in alphabetical order.
  
Artists who didn’t make the book are listed on Trigg’s Web site http://www.thegoldminerproject.com/wordpress/artists/ and should have some more detailed information on their work appear on the site at some later date.—Tom Groenfeldt

    David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown and Company, $29.00)
Gladwell looks at the world in a way that often makes us think, “Yes, that does make sense.” He also sometimes leaves gaping holes in his logic. He is always, though, thought-provoking. His use of real-life examples makes for easy and enjoyable reading.
  
The opening section of the book is about the “advantages of disadvantages”. The first chapter proceeds not to show David overcoming disadvantages, but demonstrates that Goliath was probably the one at a disadvantage. He was very possibly vision-impaired and slow-moving due to acromegaly, a form of gigantism. This caused him to lure David closer to him in order to see him better, which increased David’s odds of a direct hit. A slingshot in those days was a formidable weapon in the hands of one who knew how to use it, and, as a shepherd, David was an expert.
   
The next chapter deals with school class size, and arrives at the conclusion that smaller is not always better, but that there is an optimum size, a sort of bell curve with a point at which more or fewer students are less effective. Gladwell asserts that this is the case in many areas of life. There is a point, for instance, at which more money does not bring more happiness.
  
The final example in this section is a young woman who attended an Ivy League university. When she found herself struggling with the science courses in which she intended to major, and not at the head of the class, where she was accustomed to being, and switched to a field which came more easily to her. Gladwell proposes that if she had gone to a less competitive school she might be a scientist today, loving what she does. Is this strategy overcoming disadvantages, however, or declining to try? She was not failing, and the possibility is there that she would emerge a better scientist.
  
The middle section deals with what Gladwell calls “desirable difficulty”. He cites two highly successful business men who compensated for dyslexia and actually credit their accomplishments in part to dealing with things in a way different from most people. They would not, though, wish dyslexia on their children.
  
The second illustration involves the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, and puts forward the idea that African-Americans could take advantage of the perception that they were slow-witted. They came up with clever stratagems to advance their cause and were never suspected at the time. Bre’r Rabbit and Bre’r Fox are the archetypes here; you can win by being tricky.
  
Last in this section is a pioneer physician in the treatment of childhood cancer. Dr. Jay Freirich was severely emotionally deprived as a child. It left him emotionally crippled, but capable of dealing with dying children pragmatically. He never lost objectivity, but remained determined to beat the cancer. He could be aggressive in his treatment because of his lack of empathy.
  
The third and final section deals with the limits of power. The first example is Rosemary Lawlor, a woman from Northern Ireland. When British troops attacked the Irish, rather than surrendering to sheer overwhelming force, the people rallied and refused to disperse on command. Three thousand armed troops could not break up a crowd of eight thousand people. The harder the British pushed, the more determined the resistance. 
   
A more effective technique was that adopted by police officer Joanne Jaffe in Brownsville, a New York City neighborhood with staggering crime rates. Rather than trying to hold the criminals in check, she opted to get to know the people in the community, even going so far as to deliver Thanksgiving turkeys. She and the officers in her command let families know they cared and got to know individuals; crime dropped dramatically.
  
We meet two parents who lost children in violent crimes; one fights for three strikes and out, the other works toward forgiveness; both find the strength not to let their losses  destroy them.
  
Last, during World War II a Huguenot boarding school in France sheltered hundreds of Jewish children among their students, eventually sending them on to safety. It was an automatic response. These Protestants who had suffered so much over centuries in France could not imagine doing anything but assisting those currently experiencing persecution.
  
Gladwell’s propositions are, in many ways, nothing new. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. We have nothing to fear but fear itself. Things are not always what they seem. All of these have been heard before, but Gladwell is a kind of Aesop for our time, combining entertaining stories and lessons. A good book for a winter afternoon in by the fire.—Cynthia Taubert


Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink and How They Can Regain Control by Gabrielle Glaser. (Simon & Schuster, $24).
For those addicted to alcohol, this book presents the case that they can “control” alcohol and their behavior. The illness of addiction is defined by denial. This book gives license to those who cannot drink without losing their health, relationships, jobs, and self-respect to go out and keep trying. How many people need to die in drunk driving accidents before people like Glaser quit encouraging addicts to keep on drinking? People drink because our society buys into the social aspects of getting high and frowns on those who decline. Drinking alcohol is not a social requirement. If a friend ends up sick or in a terrible situation every time she eats broccoli, why would you encourage her to keep eating broccoli? This insane book should be thrown in the recycling bin.—C. Johns


Published: February 22, 2014
Issue: Winter 2014 Issue