This article is part of Chicago Art Magazine’s “40 over 40” series.
Humor has played an important role in the art world. Starting with the Dadaists, and re-surging with Pop-Art and Post Modernism, humor, pop-cultural sourcing, and naiveté have played important roles as sources of levity and cultural critique. Chicago has its own founding fathers of quirky humor as seen through many of the Harry Who (aka the Chicago Imagists). Often works of this ilk may look, at first glance, as something made for children: colorful, cartoonish, juvenile. Upon deeper examination, these works reveal themselves to be anything but child’s play.
Nick Black (b. 1958) creates amalgamations of contemporary toys, creating meta creatures stinging with humor and critique. Melanie Treuhaft described the works in Black’s 2009 Antena show: “contraptions lining the walls revealed themselves not as charming teddy bears and dolls, but instead as mildly perverted reconstructions of old children’s toys. Artist Nick Black had dismantled the playthings, rearranged parts, and reassembled them into an ‘Orgy of Mutant Toys.’” Black received his MFA from Mass Art in 1988. He has exhibited throughout the US, including shows in New York (Joymore), Chicago (Antena), Hammond (Uncle Freddy’s) and Kansas City (Byron Cohen Gallery). Black lives and works in Chicago.
Jno Cook (b. 1940) is busy. jnocook.net, like the little globe featured on the homepage, is the center of the swirling universe of Cook’s artistic pursuits. Cook is a true force behind cataloging the mass that is the Chicago art scene, running ChicagoArt.org, a database of Chicago visual art resources including over 7000 Chicago exhibitions, galleries, artists, and links; ChicagoArt.net, a homepage for Chicago individual gallery announcements; and Spaces.org, a weekly selection of Chicago art exhibitions. On top of that, his homepage links you to many of his individual creative projects, including: aesthetic investigation, mural art, and care spaces. Many of these works are deeply infused with humor, intentionally or otherwise, as is most of Cook’s practice and this carries over into his classroom practice, the outcomes of which can be seen under student work on his site. Cook received his MFA from SAIC in 1983 and currently teaches at Columbia College.
Melissa Jay Craig-
If whimsy could be manifested in physical form, it would be the work of Melissa Jay Craig. Her works push the boundaries between sculpture, fiber, and paper, combining these mediums to create bookish mushrooms and rainbow lichen dust covers. In discussion of her primary medium, paper, she reflects, “Made from plants, it is a material derived directly from my conceptual catalysts, involving me physically as well as metaphorically in the perpetual cycles that intrigue me.” Craig, who is near deaf, strives to, “interpret my environment in the same multifaceted, minute ways I comprehend speech, and to become as absorbed as I do when I’m reading the most compelling novel or provocative essay.” Craig received her MFA in 1990, and has taught at Columbia College, SAIC, and Loyola University.
William Marhoefer is an example of an artist putting his talents to work. Together with his wife Michelle, the couple runs Broken Art Restoration, based dually in Chicago and Momence, Illinois. In 1979 Bill decided to take up an internship in porcelain restoration, the same internship taken up a year later by his then future wife. Together they started Broken Art in 1980 and have been running strong ever since. On top of Broken Art, William also maintains an independent artistic practice, sculpting comical creatures out of ceramic, usually looking like escaped circus creatures or odd assemblages of parts attached to softballs. As discussed in his 2008 interview in The Daily Journal, “Marhoefer does not try to make ‘artsy’ things. He simply takes elements of his life — his upbringing, his appreciation of both fine art and kitsch, and his craftsmanship of art restoration — and puts them together to create these captivating sculptural objects.” Marhoefer’s work can be seen at Broken Art Restoration in Ukrainian Village.
Chris Ware (b. 1967) works in the classic medium of the comic strip, but his work is anything but the comic super hero stuff or the Sunday funnies. Ware’s work juxtaposes the light-hearted medium with heavy subject matter, including explorations into social awkwardness and isolation, anxiety, cultural inequality, and depression. In a 2005 interview with the BBC, Ware explains his reason for favoring the comic strip as his medium, “…comics are essentially a visual language that provides a sort of synaesthetic simulation of life and consciousness, the best examples allowing the reader to ‘feel’ the odd quake and disposition of the artist’s personality through the rhythmic pattern of tiny, personal hand-drawn pictures.” Ware stirred up some controversy in 2010, when his Foutune 500 cover design, heavily critiquing the Wall Street monied elite, was rejected by the magazine. Ware has received many awards for his work, including the National Cartoonists Society Award for Best Comic Book, the Eisner Awards for Best Continuing Series, Harvey Award for Best Letterer, and in 2002 became the first comic artist to be accepted into Witney Bienneal. Ware lives and works in Chicago.
John A. Giemzik III–
John A. Giemzik III’s world, or at least the world which his work embodies, is a compacted, psychedelic space. Faces crawl within other faces, and the entire body of work has the distinct feel of an acid trip or fevered dream. Giemzik sites R. Crumb, Ed “big daddy” Roth and Tony Fitzpatrick as influences, but manages to make his characters his own, finding, “the perfect balance of influence and imagination.” Giemzik is based in Chicago and has shown at Cornerstone Gallery in Blue Island, IL.
Mary King uses the naïve imagery of childhood drawing as a scope through which to explore deeply troubling aspects of the human condition. In her “War” series, King, “depict[s] of the emotional part of war memories of old people in Nebraska and young people in Chicago, with emphasis on World Wars I and II and the Iraq War. I made the works in my idiosyncratic intentionally-childlike style so that the difficult stories would not be too horrible to look at.” Her works, often involving finger painting, scribbling, and abstracted imagery, disconcert via the interplay between style and subject matter. King has had various solo exhibitions throughout the US, including show in Chicago, Detroit, and New York.
Michael Thompson takes stamp collecting, a great American pastime, to a whole new level. Rather than simply collecting stamps, Thompson has infiltrated the U.S. postal service, creating his own stamps, which when used are canceled and returned to the artist. In discussing how he got into making fake stamps as an art practice, Thompson cites, “an article about the publication of the panels of the Doonesbury cartoon as a series of postage stamps, and how readers had cut the panels out of the newspaper, glued them to envelopes, addressed the envelopes and dropped them into a mailbox. They were subsequently delivered, with cancellations…Weeks later I found myself staring at a cartoon stamp with Bugs Bunny…I promptly cut the image from the page, affixed it to an envelope and dropped it into a mailbox. It arrived the next day. Canceled. I was hooked.” Thompson’s international exhibition record includes shows in the US, China, Korea, Germany, Mexico, Canada, and the U.K.
Artist Stuart Hall takes the bite out of bombs with his sculptures, re-envisioning air raids and artillery as flower emitting peace emissaries. In discussing Bloom, Hall relates that it is, “an installation based on the iconic image of a hippie placing a flower in the gun barrel of a National Guardsman in protest of the Vietnam War.” Hall’s work seeks to continue the dialog of peace begun by those protesters so long ago. His work Bloom took place on six artillery pieces throughout Chicago, and Bombs was featured in Art On Track.