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Big Youth: Two Years After its Close, Where Are They Now?

by Stephanie Cristello

Work by Joel Dean

Around this time two years ago, Corbett vs. Dempsey was closing an exhibition that focused on thirteen of Chicago’s most promising painters – and most of the young artists have done some impressive things since.  Veering away from their usual mid-20th century American programming, Big Youth: New Painters From Chicago got great reviews, making Newcity’sTop 5 of Everything 2009”. For an exhibition that presented contemporary painting in an uncertain light, being reviewed as “half-cooked, goofy, and discombobulated” was actually a good thing.  The baker’s dozen of freshly graduated painters from the city’s largest arts incubator, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, made perfect the participating artists’ sense of painting, and the position of the medium in the frantic and rebellious quality of the work.

Big Youth was a big deal for a couple of reasons.  In addition to being an unexpected display of exclusively local work, it was refreshingly an all-painting show, which hardly ever happens.  And it held up to its promise- the artists in the show were steadfastly worth following.  Since its close, members of Big Youth have gone to show in the MCA and pavilions of the Venice Biennale.  Nearly all of them have been consistently showing around the city.
By means of an update, here’s of what five of the city’s strongest young painters are doing now.

Work by Austin Eddy

Among the freshest of the batch, J. Austin Eddy had graduated with his BFA in the spring of 2009.  This past year, Eddy had a few solo exhibitions in Chicago, among The moon and the stars and the world at Golden and Less Delicate Than the Locust, in the living room of Ebersmoore.  Upcoming, Eddy will be be participating in Fountain LA at Hungryman Gallery and a group drawing show curated by Mark Brown at Galleria Ninapi in Revenna, Italy.  Joel Dean also graduated with his BFA 2009.  Since then he’s participated in some fantastic two-person exhibitions, such as But the sea which no one tends is also garden, with Jason Benson at the now defunct Monument 2 and Really, Something with one of my favorite San Francisco artists, Alex Heilbron at Hungryman’s SF location.  Dean has a solo exhibition lined up with Alderman Exhibitions for 2012.

Jonathan Gardner, who received his MFA 2010, has since exhibited New Paintings, a solo exhibition at Corbett vs. Dempsey, has showed at the Evanston Art Center, and was curated into Laughing as a Young Man: New Art From Chicago, a two-person exhibition with Timothy Bergstrom by José Lerma at Southfirst in Brooklyn, NY.

Work by Rachel Niffenegger


Rachel Niffenegger
has since shown with many heavy-hitters, and is now pursuing her MFA in Art Theory and Practice at Northwestern.  Entering the dialogue of the traditional portrait, Niffenegger’s sculptural piece was a particularly striking addition to Seeing Is a Kind of Thinking: A Jim Nutt Companion at the MCA, which mostly consisted of pieces from their collection, and was exhibited in unison with Jim Nutt’s retrospective Coming into Character. She’s also now represented by Western Exhibitions.

Carl Baratta most recently showed in A Sense of Place, representing Chicago at The Italian Pavilion in the Venice Bienale.  He was also part of the 6/6/6 exhibition: Six Artists, Six Cities, Six Connections, a travelling group exhibition that made its stop at Chicago’s Lloyd Dobler.

“Something is wrong,” Baratta was quoted in Chris Miller’s review of the show in Newcity back in 2009. In the interview, I was referring to my own paintings,” says Baratta, “And what I meant by ‘something is wrong’ was that beyond the imagery, there is a way in which the painting is painted [that evokes] a palpable urgency in its construction. It’s that same feeling intimated in the work that gives a complicated and unsettling feeling for the viewer”.

Work by Carl Baratta

This sense of urgency, it seems, permeated most of the works in the show.  More than that, the collection of paintings communicated a sense of unease beyond the often lustrous and saturated textures of each work’s surface. Although it certainly privileged painting, Big Youth was not an annunciation of Chicago’s new generation of painters in the traditional sense – there was no indication that the viewer was supposed to experience the birth of a specific movement; it refused summarizing the works as a pointed statement on the state of contemporary painting. Perhaps this unease came from the fact that the individual pieces didn’t add up to an easily packaged and definable whole. When asked why that might have been, Baratta suggested “Maybe it’s because our generation is all fucked up? … I don’t know”.

Although Big Youth was not necessarily aimed toward marking a specific movement among Chicago artists, there is something to be said for being able to engage with young artists in a provocative setting through curated exhibitions of local work on a thoughtful platform.