Art & Artists by John Coyle Steinbrunner

August 20th, 2010

I’ll tell you one thing: it’s not easy to find any information on the Chicago Artists Coalition’s Work on Paper Residency at the Merchandise Mart. The CAC posted a press release with no address, floor numbers or times. The Merch Mart put forth no better effort. At first this was slightly maddening, but with a mental shrug I aimed to arrive on a Thursday, mid-day and see what I could see. I saw a lot.

The Work on Paper Residency is located in Mart space 1562. Hours are – well, I still don’t know those, but go during the work week and you should be fine. The residency is housed in a vacant showroom casually divided into a front gallery and six workstations in an open-plan space. When I arrived, artist Mark Moleski was working at his drafting table and heartily waved me in, chatting me up and eventually giving a full tour of the space and background on the artists.

I wasn’t sure what I would find snookered up on the 15th floor of the gargantuan Merchandise Mart but I ended up really liking what I found. I’m leery of the watch-the-artist-work mentality – it’s about as fun as watching, well, paint dry and it certainly doesn’t help the artist focus. Perhaps being tucked away like they are is a plus. Moleski admitted that visitors were few, but that relationships with decorator showrooms had been very valuable. The Mart also allows the artists a surprising 24-hour access to the space. The work stations are tight but open; the artists (who have been there since April and wrap up in October) seem to have coexisted peacefully. Scraps and cards and CDs are strewn about the floor. Work is pinned, taped, framed or leaned against the wall with works in various stages of finish fill in the rest. The room’s got a good energy. What we thought might be a quick tour turned into several visits to each “studio,” looking a little deeper, lingering a bit.

And the work is good. It’s engaging and comprises six radically different approaches to paper. Moleski’s India ink-on-paper drawings with newspaper address the sensationalism and one-sided nature of the media he reads. His work is gestural and edit-heavy, evidence of a mind constantly searching, searching, searching until he pulls his own story out of the muck. They are rough with touches of care; they have great energy. His newest work based on bodybuilders (one of my favorites) is more deliberate and just as energetic.

The other work pushes paper in completely separate ways. Lisa Goesling’s scratchboards of floral compositions have a Dürer-esque level of detail and care. This is reflected in a more modern mirror by Zach Mory’s obsessive mark-making on a vast roll of paper. To look at either too long is to get a little lost. Mory’s work with it’s aseptic but incredibly deft compulsion was probably my overall favorite, but Jaime Lynn Henderson’s lipstick riot opposite Mory became a runner-up. At first glance I hated it. So I looked again. Henderson’s work charmed me and glibly knocked down my defenses. Made with beauty products, wallpaper scraps and glitter in addition to boring old art supplies, the work runs loud loops around notions of beauty, societal norms and their circumvention. It’s lusty and engaging and funny and contradictory work, as if James Ensor and Henri Toulouse-Latrec had been commissioned to paint a debutante ball overseen by Marilyn Minter and Elizabeth Peyton.

Alexandra Lee set herself the daunting task of marrying the belief systems of Chinese and Mexican cultures in what looks like cryptic, Soviet-influenced propaganda posters that smell like cinnamon. (Lee grinds spices and teas into her paper.) A back closet hosts a shrine of heavy oil pastel work. Inara Cedrins’s linocuts are the sole printmaking approach. Her “Dolce Vita” series on Italian life and prints of Chicago building facades round out the mix.

The residency is a good show and I’m glad it’s a little hidden; it’s worth the searching. For those interested in process, it’s there. If you have to know why, the artist is there to discuss it. If you just like poking around in someone else’s stuff (and who doesn’t?) you can do that too. And if you want to see a cross-section of how six Chicago artists take a common medium and run with it, you’ll most definitely get your fill.

– John Coyle Steinbrunner

J.C. is a painter in Chicago. He also founded and hosts The Salon Series to bring audiences and creatives together over dinner for an evening of discussion. He prefers Mexican lagers, Gibson guitars and the window seat. More about his art and work can be found at

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