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ChicagoLand at Peregrine Program

Madeleine Bailey

One of my favorite museums to visit in Chicago as a young (and not so young) person was The Museum of Science and Industry, largely because of Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle. This over-sized dollhouse, originally owned by a 1930’s silent film star, seemed to me the height of luxury and privilege.  Walking around it, I could never even begin to imagine what Moore’s actual residence housing the miniature castle must have looked like.  Containing furniture and architecture literally encrusted with diamonds, emeralds, and pearls, engaging with the exhibit was an exercise in opening a treasure trove of the imagined.  A miniature paradise of elegant rooms, it seemed swollen with the potential for the fantastical, for magic.
Miniature though it may be, Daniel Lavitt’s  “ChicagoLand” at Peregrine Program sleeps far away from fairy godmothers and Walt Disney endings.  Rather than that imagined paradise, Lavitt’s carefully constructed miniature sets transport the viewer into starkly existent, albeit quirky, realities. With scale shifts both subtle and great, Lavitt explores locations as diverse as Chicago imagist and art collector Roger Brown’s house to the failed Cabrini-Green public housing development. In a city rich with historical, political, racial, and artistic narratives, this is a version of Chicago you have not seen, a stripped-down series of slivers of the city filtered through the experiences of the artist.  Daniel Lavitt shares with us both complete and fragmented versions of selected architectures.  In gestures both small and large, ordinary and neglected real estates shrink and expand with Alice-in-Wonderland tendencies.
Through the oddly satirical and sexualized surreality of this socio-economic spread, Lavitt’s tableaus manage to delicately flirt with that space between stark reality and the unknown.  To bend down and peer into one of the office-box cardboard windows of his Chapter 12 public housing reveals a reward of glowing globes of grape-like veined glass. Similarly, inspecting the fist-sized circular hole in a brick painting leads to the discovery of moss, coyly crawling out this Duchampian orifice in a supremely surreal gesture.
What I found most charming about this installation was that unlike the primness of Moore’s castle, which is elevated on a platform and surrounded by protective railings, Lavitt’s modest world of cardboard and wood is firmly planted in that same space the viewer occupies.  In these works, Lavitt teases us as he entices us to physically interact with his Chicago, as each invitation to peer into a piece is simultaneously frustrated, obstructed, and denied in turn. A flip of a light switch activates an excessively small lamp perched on an otherwise unadorned MDF panel painting, shedding little light upon the piece.  Approaching another work, the lights brightening the windows of a residence holding a tiny drawing turn off as soon as you get close enough to inspect it.
In a complicated world, the simplest gesture can speak volumes.  Through tactile interaction and more formal visual considerations, to enter into “ChicagoLand” is to partake in the excavation of an environment at once deconstructed and falling apart, while simultaneously in the process of being re-imagined and erected.  Melancholy and playful, rich with histories real and anticipated, this is a show that satiates on many levels.