Tenants With Benefits
Zachary Johnson Describes his own experience curating a show about apartments.
It’s no secret that the bulk of art produced by young Chicagoans is made in their apartments. Behind closed doors, living spaces are transformed into makeshift studios where countless art pieces are created, many never to meet the public eye. Some of these artists are supported by another kind of converted living space: the apartment gallery.
Intimately familiar with the apartment as studio, Jamie Fischer and I decided to try our hand as apartment gallerists after attending a panel discussion on the topic at Art Chicago. My brother Miles and Jamie were moving out of their apartment on Memorial Day. With a month to prepare, we thought, “What better place to have an art show than an empty apartment?”
The choice of whom to exhibit was an easy one. Jamie and Miles moved to Chicago a year ago with three other friends from the Savannah College of Art and Design: Michael Jewell, Jeremy Sorese, and Jon Wolfe. The three sequential art grads live together in Logan Square. With three desks in the living room and works in progress spilling into the other spaces, their three-bedroom can reasonably be called a studio apartment.
Since moving to the city, each of them had exhibited graphic novels through venues like C2E2 and the Chicago Zine Fest, but none had shown non-story based artwork in Chicago. Jamie and I had barely even seen their non-graphic art and didn’t know what to expect. After all, each of them worked full or near full time jobs, and we had only given them three weeks to prepare for the show. Returning two weeks later, we were thoroughly impressed by their pieces. Seemingly out of nowhere, they had whipped up striking and surprising works of art. Curious, I asked them what it was like to work all day and return home to the projects they truly cared about.
“It is a bit of a double-edged sword,” Jon replied, “Working a full time job to come home to working more can be draining, but at the same time it often inspires me to work even harder at making [pieces] I am happy with.”
Michael, on the other hand, sounded a bit more worn out by the process. “I’m balancing so many projects and when I get home…I just want to mix myself a martini and go to bed… I need a very particular environment with little distractions in order to draw with any seriousness. I muddle through, somehow.”
Jeremy acknowledged the challenge as well. “The juggle of full time work with art making has been tough, especially after having spent most of my…career being a full time student. I’m amazed, though, by how easy it is to make time, how personal work easily fills up the free space I have between the hours of my day job.”
Writing this article in my bedroom, after a nine-hour day, I can definitely sympathize.
With our three artists chosen, it was Miles who came up with the name of the show: “Tenants With Benefits”. The title implied the second life of artists’ apartments. “No longer just places to sleep and socialize, artists, out of necessity, transform their homes into studios and galleries,” read our invitation. Easier said than done. We spent all of Sunday loading furniture into a U-haul and minivan and making sure the apartment was presentable. By the late afternoon, the apartment was little more than white walls and wood floors. We were ready to begin installing. Having caught only glimpses the week before, the finished pieces were quite striking.
Jeremy’s new works were done in gouache, acrylic, and graphite. Each was a kind of figurative abstraction, depicting memories associated with Jamie and the apartment. He explained that he was interested in how moments are romanticized as they recede into the past, gaining an importance they never had when they occurred. Jeremy depicted his images in a kind of personal iconography, the surreal forms compiled from pieces of his memories. Staring at a shape made up of multiple, intersecting cones, I remembered the similarly shaped party hats Jeremy had stuck all over his head at Jamie’s birthday last summer. Studying the other pieces, it was exciting trying to unravel the meanings behind their cryptic imagery.
At the far end of the room hung some of Michael’s newest work, a series of small, warm-colored pieces that depicted cars and animals rendered in paint but obscured by varying layers of candle wax. Attached to the tops of some of the works were tea lights. Michael said that it was his first time working with candle wax, which proved difficult. “I was inspired by my friend Yi Hsin Tzeng, who very playfully blends 3-D fluid elements with photographs and found images.” He said he chose wax to evoke the “ritualistic quality of fantasy scenarios” as well as “certain bodily fluids”. Overall, Michael explained, “I was inspired by the ‘furry’ community, which is very open about how fantasy plays a role in their inner imaginative life…particularly by the aspirational divide between humans and other animals. The images [within] the pieces are about desire, form, and inner truth.”
Jon’s pieces hung in what had up to that day been Miles’ bedroom. The first was a found window partially covered with large diamond shapes rendered in gold enamel. Visible through the glass was a second layer. It was made of dark, bluish paper torn on the right side, revealing another layer of paper covered in faint illustrations. Red enamel seeped like blood from this deepest layer onto the blue paper. The gash on the right was partially stitched up with embroidery thread, as if someone had tried to mend it but hadn’t finished.
Jon’s second work was a triptych. Each of the three, two-dimensional pieces included a silhouette of a man’s head, made up of horizontally stitched embroidery thread. Behind them were the pale illustrations of bedroom nightstands. Jon explained that the pieces
were “inspired by the relationships we keep with the objects in our bedrooms, presenting this through the lens of my own experience and interpersonal relationships.” He commented that drawing and working with embroidery thread had a sort of meditative quality, which he felt came across in the works.
Accompanying the abovementioned works were additional pieces by Jeremy and Michael, an independent film produced by our friend Claire Smalley (screening in Jamie’s former bedroom), and, of course, discount wine from CVS. The show ran from six to nine and by the end of the night, many of our friends had been in attendance – though we did leave the front door open, with a sign inviting pedestrians to come upstairs.
Despite the temporary nature of the three-hour show, the six of us were all quite pleased with how it went. It reminded us that with a little resourcefulness, we can pull the hidden treasures out of our apartments and thrust them into the spotlight, whether that comes from a standing lamp or a ceiling fan. There are so many artists toiling away in their apartments. For all that work, they each deserve a little attention. I’m glad that we could spend a Sunday night making sure that they received it.