Unconventional Center

After touring the permanent art collection at McCormick Place West, I decided it was time to rethink the use of the word massive. The latest expansion of the city’s famed convention center, which houses a 470,000-square-foot exhibition hall, includes work by 50 Chicago-area artists. In any other context, Nick Cave’s eight-foot-diameter Universe would be described as, well, massive. Hanging under a 50-foot-high ceiling, the round floral textile wall piece, blooming with scraps of sequined and beaded fabric, seems almost petite.

Paul Klein, the curator for MPW’s public art project, was fortunate to have crucial support in dealing with the scale of the space: “The architects were interested in how art was incorporated into the building,” Klein says. One might expect that level of consideration for art in a building project to be standard, but it’s really quite rare. This collaboration between the architect (for this phase of construction it was Dean Mamalakis of the Chicago-based A. Epstein & Sons) and artists allowed Klein to commission site-specific work with a Chicago or Illinois theme. The guidelines were broad, and Klein anticipated having to help artists hone their ideas, but he never had to. “Everyone came up with really interesting topics on their own and there was essentially no overlap,” he says.

The work ranges from the straight-on (photographer Bob Thall’s images of the Chicago River) to the abstract (graffiti artist Dzine’s 100-foot-long mural incorporating shapes inspired by the Columbian Exposition’s Ferris wheel).

In the months before the convention center opened for business, MPW was a cathedral-like space of glass and light, unmarred by signage and a dream setting for large-scale works of art. Eventually, all the necessary signs were installed, and on the day of my visit a vinyl advertising banner was hanging from a balcony in the grand concourse. Klein was sanguine; “It’s a mixed-use space,” he says.

Conventioneers (and anyone who feels like strolling the mile-long corridors) will be able to study paintings by such established artists as William Conger and Mary Lou Zelazny on their way to and from the exhibition hall and conference rooms.

The universal crowd-pleaser (judging by the reaction of MPW employees) will be Patrick Miceli’s installation Made in China. Miceli collected thousands of Illinois souvenirs (bottle openers, key chains, snow globes, etc.) and suspended them on steel cables from the ceiling, forming a tchotchke forest that’s six feet deep, 16 feet long and 17 feet high. All those tiny plastic and metal trinkets add up; when Klein was trying to determine whether to have the ceiling reinforced, he asked Miceli how much the piece weighed. The artist responded, “Two ounces times 10,000.”

Jason Peot’s Intersect (102), an installation in the center’s glam glass-walled restaurant, is composed of individually lit aluminum and poplar boxes representing all the counties in Illinois. The amount of wood used is in relation to population (Cook is the only solid block).

In March, when Sabrina Raaf’s Curtain Wall is installed, Klein’s work will be complete. Raaf’s interactive video sculpture toys with the Windy City moniker. When visitors speak into a microphone, the virtual curtain will react by fluttering and flapping. New media is also represented by the work of Lincoln Schatz, whose 5-foot-by-10-foot My View, comprising three plasma screens and cameras, collects and randomly sandwiches images snatched from the surrounding area.

A few years ago, Klein attempted to start a museum dedicated to Chicago artists. That idea foundered, but the MPW’s public art collection is a de facto museum of Chicago art. Pulling that off meant working in harmony with the state and city bureaucracy, namely the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which owns and manages the site. That’s a huge accomplishment. One might even call it massive.

By Ruth Lopez

Time Out Chicago | January 17, 2008 – January 23, 2008

© 2008 Time Out Chicago