Review: THE MISSION and THE SUB-MISSION

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It is quite rare to see the worlds of D.I.Y. art spaces (for local, emerging artists) and commercial art galleries (for more mid-career and established artists) overlap in Chicago. I attended an opening this past Friday where this exact thing happened and in such a way that it instilled some hope for future discourse between these two groups of artists that seemingly exist on opposite ends of the spectrum, but yet have something in common.

Justificaciòn a priori by Gustavo Dìaz and Sentient Space: A Topography of the Senses by Laura Elayne Miller opened Friday, April 27 at THE MISSION in Chicago’s Noble Square neighborhood. Director, Natalia Ferreyra, describes the young space (only open for about a year and a half) as a gallery dedicated to promoting art of the Americas with a particular emphasis in exhibiting work of contemporary Latin American artists. While many of the featured artists are well known in their home countries, they bring something fresh to Chicago and begin to create a new perspective and broader definition of Latin American art. As Lauren Weinberg writes in an article for Time Out Chicago profiling THE MISSION, “Enough Frida Kahlo.” Why does the average Midwestern artist have such a narrow scope of Latin American art? The works of Kahlo and Diego Rivera are wonderful, but certainly not contemporary. Both artists died before my parents were even born. I am sure there are a plethora of other artists from countries like Mexico, Venezuela, and Peru who have made intriguing art during my lifetime. I am exhausted from walking into contemporary art sections of museums and being surrounded by work from the 60’s and 70’s. I want to see new work that I cannot just point to and call by name. I want to be inspired by people who are making work now, drawing from today’s society and culture and not from 50 years ago. Contemporary Latin American art to me consists of such living artists as Brazil’s Os Gêmios and their graffiti works as well as Mexico’s Betsabee Romero and her car culture inspired works. But I digress. I am thrilled to see THE MISSION bringing more mid-career Latin American artists to Chicago so I too can broaden my vision of this art and strengthen my connection to the contemporary cultures of the other countries of the Americas.

Laura Elayne Miller, Sentient Space, Courtesy of the artist
Laura Elayne Miller, Sentient Space, Courtesy of the artist

Ferreyra left Houston about a year ago to join founder, Sebastian Campos, and THE MISSION, bringing with her a strong commitment to create “dialogue among local, national, and international contemporary artists.” This dream was realized at Friday’s opening with Laura Elayne Miller’s Sentient Space, the inaugural exhibition of THE SUB-MISSION. This new space encourages local Chicago emerging artists to exhibit in the gallery’s basement space, fostering a dialogue with the work on the main floor. THE SUB-MISSION artists have been carefully chosen because of their work’s connection (either aesthetically or thematically) to that of the featured artist, creating unexpected intersections between the two. The current show’s works do just that.

Walking into the gallery, viewers are immediately wowed by Argentine artist Gustavo Dìaz’s Justificaciòn a priori, an exhibition of nine incredibly complex and impeccably well-crafted sculptural objects and drawings. The presence of the work feels so valuable and precious that at times the pieces seem more like rare museum artifacts housed in their vitrines than art. I am particularly drawn to the multi-dimensional acrylic sculptures, laser-cut with some added details cut by hand. The linear and geometric shapes speak of the architecture of both the manmade (buildings, etc.) and the natural (molecular biology, etc.) worlds. I am surprised by the intimacy of the works. Dìaz is somehow able to transform the coldness of laser-cut, acrylic, geometric shapes into an inviting environment into which I feel myself wanting to plunge further and further. The pieces have so much depth to them (both literally and figuratively), encouraging viewers to digest them from each angle and bringing new insight over and over again. They are smart, causing viewers to become aware of space, but yet at the same time feeling boundless. It is no surprise that in addition to studying art, Dìaz has a strong background in scientific research. “His work has been, and continues to be, informed by various scientific theories, such as: Chaos Theory, fractals, random processes, matrices, non‐Euclidean geometrics, as well as many others.” He also studied philosophy, music, architecture, and design, thereby giving him a truly interdisciplinary approach to his art-making. Dìaz’s impressive work is a perfect marriage between art and science, “reconcil[ing] the two unique schools of thought to which he subscribes.”

Possibly even more fascinating than Dìaz’s exhibition, is the dialogue it has with the work downstairs, Sentient Space by Laura Elayne Miller. By placing the work of these two very different artists (in terms of age, gender, nationality, background, etc.) alongside each other, unexpected similarities arise between the two, breaking down a great deal of unnecessary barriers. Miller’s work is an installation or “envisioned environment” that encourages viewers to become aware of their sensory experience of space and place both on a personal as well as a collective level. Drawing on the history of cartography and early notions of maps as depicting more than just the physical, but also the experiential and the spiritual, Miller invites her viewers into the gallery space with a topographical map painted on the floor. She attempts to lure her audience through the space to her three mixed media sculptures that are located at the map’s highest peaks. These floor to ceiling sculptures depict the three categories of space she defines as natural, manmade/industrial, and imaginative. Miller has carefully chosen each visual element (e.g., color, texture, shape, material, etc.) of each sculpture so that they physically embody the category of space being portrayed. A mossy, burlap helix represents natural space; a geometrical steel sculpture represents manmade space; and a colorful, floating, Calder-esque mobile of organza circles represents imaginative space. Miller intentionally gives her work a handmade quality that she hopes will make the environments more inviting and more personal. She utilizes cast shadows from the sculptures in a similar manner. Sentient Space is the first project of Miller’s new body of work entitled Nomadic Mythologies. Through her work, she is interested in exploring how our own perceptions and experiences of space and place (i.e., everyday environments, new cultures, etc.) become integrated as stories into our individual and collective lives. By depicting the experience of space, like Dìaz, she is “making the invisible visible.”

Gustavo Diaz, El universo como origen hipotético entre una cierta ambigüedad y una ambigüedad cierta (Universe as a hypothetical origin between a certain ambiguity and a ambiguous certainty), Courtesy of THE MISSION
Gustavo Diaz, El universo como origen hipotético entre una cierta ambigüedad y una ambigüedad cierta (Universe as a hypothetical origin between a certain ambiguity and a ambiguous certainty), Courtesy of THE MISSION

While I find the underlying themes within the two artists’ works to be hauntingly similar, Dìaz is far more successful getting his ideas across.  And the aesthetic differences cannot be ignored. The handmade and, at times, too crafty work of Miller does not hold up next to the clean, crisp, and perfectly constructed work of Dìaz. (I am not trying to undervalue handmade work; I often prefer handmade to machine-made, but in this particular case I think it is distracting.) Unfortunately, Dìaz’s work highlights the imperfections in Miller’s execution and underscores the differences between the two, widening instead of bridging the gap between their levels of artistry. THE MISSION’s mission of bringing the two worlds together (i.e., mid-career, commercial artists and emerging, community artists) is not an easy one. The gallery will need to be cautious, while also taking risks. I think this first attempt to show work in both spaces was intriguing, but I am hoping for stronger work from THE SUB-MISSION in the future. With this program only in its infancy, the potential is endless. It is so exciting to see this unique type of gallery space and its strong support for local, emerging artists. I look forward to the upcoming year’s events.

Justificaciòn a priori by Gustavo Dìaz and Sentient Space: A Topography of the Senses by Laura Elayne Miller will be open through June 30 at THE MISSION, located at 1431 W. Chicago Avenue in Chicago. Gustavo Dìaz was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1969 where he continues to live and work. He has exhibited in numerous galleries, mainly in Buenos Aires and New York. Laura Elayne Miller is an Interdisciplinary Artist based in Chicago. She received her Bachelors in Theatre from Fordham University, a Post-Baccalaureate in Architecture from Columbia University, and an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts and Media from Columbia College Chicago. Her artwork has been shown in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Europe.