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Eye Exam
Immoral values

Michael Workman

How we all love our moral values, those superhuman powers to peer into another's soul and pass judgment. Is this how we exercise democracy? The very idea of the various ways in which we exercise democracy comes under scrutiny at a new exhibit that opens this Sunday at Hyde Park's Renaissance Society, in "A Perfect Union...more or less."

In places and among people whose customs differ from our own, we're more inclined to let our pants down than lend a hand, a stance Chicago photographer Joeff Davis has documented the political seedbeds of in our own electoral process. A photography instructor at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Davis' photographs have appeared in Time, Rolling Stone and the Chicago Tribune. The series of nine images appearing in the Ren exhibit were taken on location at the Democratic and Republican national conventions during the run-up to this year's presidential election. Clueless Democrats will want to pay close attention particularly to the RNC images. All the usual suspects are present: John McCain, Reverend Billy Graham. Alan Keyes. A listless Dick Cheney peers back emptily into the lens. But Davis' crowd-level photographs tell a more compelling tale: two fresh-faced young Republicans weep during the 9/11 tribute, "A Nation of Courage"; placards litter empty seats and are hoisted aloft in a sea of hands. A kind of indecision lingers in the space between these images: does our need for the world to see us as courageous justify acting as though it were true? Does it matter? Riot police swarm blurred streetlights. Many of the artists in the show take a stance critical of the political circus and the obsessed clownery used to bolster the discussion surrounding cultural values. Rob Conger, who creates portraits of public figures such as Leona Helmsley and Jane Goodall in latch-hook rugs, offers his "Greenspan Praying" and "Greenspan Attentive," photorealistic woven acrylic yarn on quarter-inch canvas. They're a smirking critique of how, as the artist puts it, "we confuse our desire for beauty with our desire for money." St. Louis artist Van McElwee offers "Flag and Its Shadow," an image of an American flag processed so that its colors are reversed. Renaissance Society curator Hamza Walker points out that the image demonstrates how "you can't have the colors come out that way and still have the flag," much like you can't preach moral values and act in direct contrast to them.

Tale of the tape
"In this exhibition, one thing I wanted was for people to think about how in the seventies, when cassette tapes were first coming out, the industry had this reaction that mix tapes were going to kill music," says Terrence Hannum, curator of the show "Mix Tape," open this week at Gallery 400 at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "I'm hoping that people can put this in perspective. You have this kind of thing where democracy enters in and then the industry comes out with all this stuff that plays on our fears and tries to quell that." If there's a message in this show, it's the kind of song collections that we've all made in a bid to express heartfelt emotions or express our tastes. Inviting thirteen artists, Hannum approached two companies here in Chicago, Teletech and The Tape Company, for donations of some 2,000 cassette tapes. A thousand were used to duplicate artist's submissions for visitors to take away with them at the exhibit and the second batch of 1,000 are for visitors to use to make their own mix tapes. Artists' mixes will be available for the taking, stacked on pedestals throughout the gallery, sometimes integrated into an installation or sculptural piece, and visitors can mix their own on a head-to-head reel mounted in the hall. "Part of this is that I knew it would be a little easier to approach people for cassette-tape donations. Everybody's trying to dump their stock," says Hannum, who also asked every artist in Gallery 400's upcoming annual At the Edge series to participate.

Among those who obliged, Elijah Berger assembled a complete pre-Riot Grrrls history of women in punk rock, spanning ten years from 1978 to 1988, available on three sixty-minute cassettes. Dawn Reed and Carl Warnick produced T-shirts with cassette pockets. Dan Tinenda and art collaborative Total Gym paired up and made recordings using original sound that Tinenda played through speakers he made in birdhouses and tufts of moss. John Phillips compiled a collection of obscure Chicago rock and blues recordings. Hannum made his own collection of one-minute mixes, contrasting thirty seconds or so of classical selections such as Schoenburg with thirty seconds of "power violence" screeches and banging.

"A Perfect Union...more or less" shows at the Renaissance Society, 5811 South Ellis, (773)702-8670. Through December 19. "Mix Tape" shows at Gallery 400, 1240 West Harrison, (312)996-6114. Through January 29.


Also by Michael Workman

Eye Exam
Everybody with a tattoo knows the odd curse of flesh and ink

Eye Exam
Eileen Finn's hidden postcard book is part of art group Red76's Black Market Exhibitions, a project that consists of "individual artists' work surreptitiously placed in public spaces."

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