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Art Fri Jun 27 2008
Homeless bodybuilders, high school students, heroin addicts, newlyweds: Since May 1, artist Mike Genovese has given all of them, and many others, opportunities to participate in his artistic process through his in-studio project, a program of the Chicago Cultural Center. (And you, dear reader, can also participate by stopping by Genovese's studio today for a special Gapers Block happy hour from 5-7 p.m.; 78 E. Washington St.) By working seven-to-nine-hour days, six days a week -- and accepting help and contributions from the public -- Genovese has nearly completed four projects:
• Black, red and white aluminum panels coated with enamel, upon which he has engraved his own designs, then invited others to contribute their own drawings and messages.
• Elotes carts that he fills with fruit, candy and snacks, then offers to a random street vendor in an intimate negotiation process that he documents through photographs.
• A giant sign featuring the Zora Neale Hurston quote, "All My Kin Folks Ain't All My Kinfolk," done up in Mexican black lettering (created at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, the piece will be installed on the South Side as public art).
• And, to advertise his in-studio, green "showcards" designed to look like the city's bright "no parking/street cleaning" signs. Genovese asked the Department of Streets and Sanitation's vendor to print up the signs, which he then tied to poles across the city using the same type of twine and knotting style used by city workers.
And that's not all: Mindful of the public's needs and wants, Genovese has also installed a computer station where people can check their email, hosted ESL courses, listened to a lot of people's problems, shared his wit and observations with myriad strangers, and -- with the help of iTunes -- given the people of the pedway a free education in 1970s salsa music.
The green signs are, at least for now, probably the most controversial of the four projects. Recently, DSS complained to Genovese that people might mistake them for actual parking signs and become confused.
"Well, too bad," he says. "So something isn't what you think it is." His point is not to be surly, he says, but to point out that the signs are meant to force people to look at what is in front of them, and to pay more attention to their surroundings. (One of Genovese's influences is the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, whose style combines intervention and prank).
The centerpiece of Genovese's in-studio are the panels covered in people's private thoughts. Expressed in 40 different languages (and counting), the messages, lyrics, and illustrations etched onto these pieces offer a psychological profile of pedway/downtown/Chicago/American culture, presented in collage format. Some messages are fairly context-free: "New word order." Some become part of larger conversations, as subsequent visitors respond to what's already been stated. Some messages are quirky: "Gnochetti loves gnochi." Many contain misspellings and linguistic quirks. More than a few are political -- oil rigs and references to the struggles of various oppressed groups are scattered throughout the pieces. One commenter opined,"The artist is hot!"
While most people who visit Genovese's studio chat with the artist for a few minutes, fill a few inches of panel with their spilled beans, and leave quietly, other contributors leave a bolder mark. A homeless man
named Tyrone used an entire panel to express his belief that, while "his time is being wasted ... God must have a plan in store for me." At the MCA, where Genovese presented some of the panels a few months ago, a woman took a nail file out of her purse and drew a sloppy, corner-to-corner X on an ornately etched piece that featured the Hebrew saying, "This is where your friends are."The woman told Genovese that she was Serbian, then added, "You don't know where my friends are. What do you think about that?" Instead of becoming irate with the woman for "ruining" his work, Genovese complimented her for expressing such raw human emotion: "It's better than 'HUNGRY,' or something like that," he says.
As the etching project comes to a close, it's time for Genovese to rein in some of the free expression left behind by his audience, take stock of the results, and try to turn each panel into a unified piece of art. Next week, he'll embark on a journey that will take him to San Antonio, San Francisco, and Miami for shows featuring his work -- and, sadly, it looks like he won't be returning to Chicago anytime soon. Miami, with its warmth, vibrant art scene, and sand, is calling.