What does it mean to be an artist in Chicago? Those of us who have decided to stay here in the Midwest, as opposed to moving our operations to New York or Los Angeles or Berlin or wherever else is touted as being “better than Chicago” have made a conscious choice to go against the grain. Or at least, many believe this to be the case. I, however, have a slightly different opinion on this topic.
The DePaul Art Museum’s Re:Chicago show (September 2011–March 2012) got me thinking about my career here. DPAM asks, “Rather than submit to the label of 'second' city, can Chicago be seen as a center in its own right with an artistic perspective and community as distinctive as its geography, economy, and politics?” Well, we certainly do have an amazing city, but let me tell you what I think. I was born in Chicago and have lived here most of my life. I’ve lived in Quito, Houston, and New York, and I’ve visited too many cities and countries to name, but at the end of the day, I keep coming back to Chicago. In my opinion, we have the best of everything here. Ask any Chicagoan you run into, and they will confirm that they will not take a backseat to anyone. But ask a "Chicago artist,” and you might get a different answer. Which truly disappoints me. What’s it going to take to change the global opinion of Chicago’s art scene?
I have to give DPAM a lot of credit for that extraordinary show. It was absolutely groundbreaking, truly one of the best I’ve ever seen. Not just because it inspired me and gave me hope, but because it was a show of some of the greatest works by Chicago artists. These are the ones who made it, despite living in Chicago. So if Chicago is that inferior, how did they do it? In a recent issue of Chicago Gallery News, artist Rashid Johnson (who grew up in Evanston, Illinois, and went to Columbia College and SAIC here) says, “I don’t consider myself to be classified with any particular region. I‘m not a Chicago artist or a New York artist. But a Chicagoan? Absolutely.” He goes on in the interview to say how great it was growing up in as nurturing a place as Chicago but that his path just led to New York…
The artists who make it beyond Chicago create exceptional work, yes, but how do they get the recognition they need to get to the level of stardom that they aspire to? It so often seems to be a matter of simply “being in the right place at the right time” (at least, these are the stories we always hear about), right? The belief that we are being shunned because we are from Chicago is enough to fuel our (innate Midwestern) need for a good fight, and rather than focus on getting better at our own work, we are using that valuable time and energy to fight a fight that just can’t be won. As much as I believe in the art and artists and the general scene here in Chicago, I am just not an activist. I will, however, be thinking a lot harder on what organizations and institutions I support socially and philanthropically. Wesley Kimler, one of Chicago’s elite artists, had an excellent point when we spoke last week. He said “…be aware of who you are supporting…question their authority…” This discussion was generally about a Brooklyn Rail article on Michelle Grabner, but there was some very heated talk about the unfair discrimination of Chicago artists among many of Chicago’s great institutions, and what (too many) of them are doing to perpetuate this unfortunate problem. The fact is, we do need to think very hard about what our local institutions are doing to support our burgeoning local art scene. The bulk of them are looking to New York for their next exhibitions or acquisitions, and that, my friends, is why Chicago will remain “second.” Continuing to overlook the amazing talent that lies right here in this beautiful city will forever keep things just as they are.
And with that, I leave you to get back to work!
René Romero Schuler was born in 1968 and raised by her Ecuadorian grandparents in Quito and Chicago. Legendary nightclub designer Ray Paseka mentored Schuler, and she quickly became his chief muralist responsible for working on a wide range of site-specific projects and mastering the artistry of trompe l’oeil, fresco, encaustic and oil painting. Many of these early works still remain in their original Chicago venues. In 1991 she formed Romero Design, a fine art gallery dedicated to contemporary art rooted in traditional artisan processes. The gallery showed the work of several local and national artists, as well as her own work. Schuler’s paintings are literally “sculpted” out of oil with a palette knife. She taught painting at Illinois Institute of Art and Chicago City Colleges, and has lectured at Northwestern University. Her work is widely exhibited internationally, with current representation in Paris, Chicago, Miami, Palm Beach, Indianapolis, and Traverse City.
Written in Spring 2012.