When Water Street Studios first opened in its temporary space near the corner of Water Street and Wilson in Batavia, IL, my mind was filled with preconceptions about the art that would be on display. Having attended various art fairs in the western suburbs, I assumed the art of Water Street would be more of the same: nature photography, realistic paintings, and predictable abstraction. Upon entering I was taken aback. What was once my hometown’s candy store had become a space containing striking metal sculptures, mesmerizing paintings, and surprising textile pieces. Now into its second year in its permanent space, Water Street Studios has continued to attract high caliber artists from Chicago’s west suburbs. On Friday January 28th, I stopped by the opening of their winter exhibit and was not disappointed.
A slogan on the Water Street website reads, “Sixteen thousand square feet occupied by 28 humans of infinite creative possibilities.” Needless to say, with that many artists and that large of a space, it takes a long time to get through an opening. The curated artwork is spread out between the spacious main floor gallery and a smaller upstairs space which holds more
frequently rotating shows. Beyond that, artists’ work adorns the outer walls of their studios and, of course, within the studios themselves. Walking through the hallways of the main floor and upstairs space, nearly all of the doors were open, most with the artists inside, often drawing visitors in with refreshments and conversation. The crowd at the opening was more mixed than anything I’ve seen in Chicago. This is most likely due to the fact that Water Street is the only art center of its kind in the western suburbs. Parents, high school students, local teachers, and Chicago artists originally from the area all came out for the opening. In the first twenty minutes alone I bumped into my best friend’s mom, an artist I met through an internship in the West Loop, and my high school art teacher.
What surprised me most about the show was the high number of sculptures. Large pieces dominated the gallery floor and were accompanied by numerous smaller works along the walls. Looking around the room, it was no wonder that four of the five honorable mentions (as well as the best in show) were all sculptural pieces. One that Ifound particularly striking was For Louise by Rita Grendze. The piece was composed of a multitude of dark steel balls that opened at the top. They came in a variety of sizes and were arranged in a cluster on the floor. The work was a focal point of the show because it was the only one that could be touched. In her artist statement, Rita writes that she “allow[s] herself to be seduced by shapes and materials” and “inserts materials like spices [and] hand written notes [in her pieces]…that use other senses to involve the viewer, to possibly invoke a memory.” With For Louise it turns out she engaged the other senses without even planning to. “An unexpected bonus of this piece is the sound that the balls (bells) make when…roll[ed] or…struck together,” she wrote. Sure enough, throughout the show, curious patrons approached the piece and began lifting the spheres and clanging them against each other. The sound was instantly familiar.
The piece that took best in show, Swine Tonight by Peter Kenar, gave off a different feeling entirely. It resembled something between a pig and a figure from a nightmare. The skin of its large, black form twisted and crinkled against its obscure framework. There was no head where the neck ended. Instead, viewers were greeted with a large cavity whose pitch black interior gave no clues to how the beast was constructed. What was the skin made of? What did it cling to? Anna Kenar, sister of the artist, commented that it “create[s] a feeling of uneasiness or even violence” and that it “stay[s] with you as you leave and…walk away from it. It still marks a very strong presence in space…and demands attention from the viewer.” It’s no wonder. The piece exudes a dark quality that goes beyond Kenar’s color choice. “Maybe this is one of Darwin’s creatures that didn’t make it,” commented Anna Austin, a friend of the artist.
Two years ago I never realized that such stunning artists were living in the western suburbs. I had assumed that they had all relocated to Chicago. This, to me, is what is most powerful about Water Street Studios. It gives suburban artists a voice and builds an arts community where one would least expect it. When the center opened, I told a professor of mine in Chicago that it was located in a suburb 43 miles from the city and had real cutting edge work. He joked that “cutting edge” and “suburb” were oxymorons. Taking in the show, it’s evident that the reverse is true. Art is not just represented at Water Street, it’s flourishing.