Review: With Other People, With Other Sons

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With Other People, With Other Sons is a three-person exhibition by SAIC alums Ryan Chorbagian, Patrick McGuan, and Hao Ni. The show opened this past Friday at Heaven Gallery in Wicker Park. The exhibition title, borrowed from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, truly encompasses the overall themes of the work: “American genesis, expansion and hybridization, and the inevitability of disintegration.” All of the show’s nine substantial sculptural pieces touch upon the loss and accompanying nostalgia of something once great, whether it be an object, a person, a place, or a larger community of these things. Displayed in the gallery’s two rooms, the works create a quiet, and at times solemn, blueprint of personal and cultural memory belonging to the artists as well as the viewers.

At the exhibition’s core are Chorbagian’s assemblage pieces. Consistent in craftsmanship, materials, and tone, they serve as a strong path that weaves visitors through the space. The reclaimed materials and found objects bring their own histories to the works, but together with Chorbagian’s hand, create a new story reflecting on “broader human experience.” Chorbagian writes, “All of my work is created through a layering of conceptualization and fabrication. And from this continuous cycle emerges hybrid animal and machine, human and architecture, works I then consciously strip to their few essential elements.” What results from this process are exquisitely clean and precise sculptures that pull the viewers in, causing them to crave more of the histories, more of the stories. At times, the pieces also encourage the viewer to further relate these stories to their own experiences, underscoring the emotionality of the pieces.

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For me, this personal connection to Chorbagian’s work occurred with Valley. At the center of this large piece of hinged, reclaimed wood, stand two steer horns shaped like human lungs. The materials are reminiscent of barns and farms and farming, connecting human to animal to land. I was drawn to the inherent duality of emotions within the piece. At times, it felt altar-like with the soothing tones of the worn wood and rusted metal creating calmness. But at other moments, the piece felt aggressive, one narrow corridor leading to the sharp horns and their stark-white enclosure. This aggression was particularly interesting when juxtaposed with the piece’s unintentional shadow: a home with a picket fence, truly a special addition. The unexpected stillness and peacefulness of the flat image cast on the wall allowed for contemplation of my own relationship to the earth, thereby continuing the cycle of layering Chorbagian uses to create his work.

One of my favorite pieces of the show, and one of the smallest, was Chorbagian’s Bird I, a wall piece of a cast bronze hummingbird with a fright-inducing syringe for a beak. While I learned this piece explores a personal fear belonging to Chorbagian’s girlfriend, I could not help but to see a twisted version of a cuckoo clock. I thought about time, rapid like the beating of a hummingbird’s wings as well as slow, the soft chiming of bells signifying the top of the hour. I am certain this piece recalled a unique memory and created a different emotion for each viewer. All of Chorbagian’s pieces did. This is where I believe he is most successful, even surpassing his brilliant craftsmanship.

Also beautifully crafted were McGuan’s pieces, Elegy for Flannery O’Connor and Work Shirt Relic: St. Michaels South Chicago. The former is a stunning walker (used as an aid for the elderly or disabled) made of white oak and pine with a train of peacock feathers flowing from it. This piece laments the death of the famous American novelist, short story writer, and essayist, Flannery O’Connor, who spent many years of her life in crutches due to her sufferings with lupus disease, eventually dying of its complications. During her life, O’Connor collected peacocks on her mother’s farm and adored them as well as all other fowl. She often used peacock imagery in her writing. McGuan’s piece is at the same time somber and uplifting, creating an image of the writer on crutches, but as a being of as much importance as any royal or heavenly figure. Although at times the materials of the peacock train (white satin and cream feathers) do not live up to the beauty of the perfectly carved wooden walker, the piece is visually striking, immediately drawing the viewer in.

McGuan, Work Shirt Relic: St. Michaels South Chicago
McGuan, Work Shirt Relic: St. Michaels South Chicago

McGuan further explores ideas of cultural memory and history in Work Shirt Relic: St. Michaels South Chicago. Here, he weaves fabric to create a blue work shirt with the image of St. Michael’s church at the center. The loose threads from the image hang down and rest in a rusty pool of water. McGuan cleverly utilizes his materials to tell a story of great loss, the story of the closed steel mills in South Chicago and the Polish workers and patrons of the church who lost their livelihoods in the 1980s. By slightly abstracting his materials, McGuan creates distance between the viewers and the story, requiring them to search for the lost memory, mirroring the search for the lost history of the neighborhood. The heartbreak of Work Shirt Relic is impressively restrained, encouraging viewers to return to it repeatedly to mourn. Without some knowledge of the town, though, many will not know what they are mourning for, creating a collective, but also individual loss and desire for renewal.

Hao Ni’s work also explores personal and cultural memory and more specifically takes a closer look at the space between the two. As an immigrant (born in Taiwan, immigrated to Canada, now living in Chicago), Ni is interested in exploring mapping and mimicry. He writes, “Imitation can provide an understanding not only of the structures and systems that surround me in my everyday life, but also the exploration of the possibilities of restructuring the systems to construct new identities, signification, and functionalities.” In Path, Ni has created his version of a ship, possibly a boat to take foreigners to a new land, but in the building process, something has gone wrong. The wooden vessel is twisted like a snake, and the resin flags are wildly blowing. Another smaller boat, possibly a lifeboat, is off to the side, creating loneliness in the space between the two. Ni’s ship has entered into a world of confusion and fantasy. Communication is difficult. Language is untranslatable. Everything feels broken, including the landscape. Path explores feelings of anxiety and foreignness, encouraging the viewers to also feel displaced. While I think the piece is successful in doing this, I also believe something is lost when it is exhibited next to Chorbagian’s clean and quiet work. The unruly sculpture’s craftsmanship is called into question. This would be avoided by displaying the piece separately, allowing the fantasy world to fully take over.

Ni explores similar feelings in Untitled, a vinyl inner tube, partially filled with water and sunken wreckage, slumped on a pedestal. The piece’s posture alone holds so much sadness and loss. I was drawn to the diorama aspect of the piece and the irony of a tiny world drowned inside of an object that is supposed to keep its wearer afloat. The heaviness of this piece intrigued me, making me wish there were more like it in the exhibition with other fantastical lands to be explore. Ni’s piece and its disconnected narrative was one of my favorites of the show, although I yearned for a more interesting title, one that opened a window into the story being told. I also felt this work belonged in a completely different show. The bright blue vinyl stuck out among the other pieces. I would love to see this work as well as Path further explored and expanded upon and exhibited in their own space.

With Other People, With Other Sons is a cohesively themed and thought-provoking group exhibition that should not be missed. It will be up until the end of this month at Heaven Gallery located at 1550 N. Milwaukee on the second floor in Chicago.