Wide open places

Jean Luo

Sheet metal images of Iraqi insurgents, John Kerry and a posing Paris Hilton shine a narrow path toward open walls of larger murals done in metallic marker. Each cut-out and drawing reproduces a newspaper photograph from 2004, and they combine to form an artistic retrospective of the year in news. Created by Chicago artist Edra Soto, this expansive piece enjoys a special advantage. As opposed to a two-dimensional slice of cloth, its canvas is an entire art gallery at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In its third year at UIC’s Gallery 400 — 1240 W. Harrison St. — At the Edge: Innovative Art in Chicago welcomes artwork that pushes experimentation and poses a challenge to commercial spaces. The series consists of six exhibits, each featuring the work of a Chicago-area artist. While Soto’s piece, “Ornamentos,” is the last gallery exhibition of the academic year, the program will unveil three outdoor projects in the Spring.

“At the Edge” is the brainchild of Gallery 400 director Lorelei Stewart, who developed the concept in 2002 to provide a venue for artistic innovation and experimentation.

“It seemed to me what was getting shown in tart-up spaces was not very different than what was being shown in commercial galleries,” she said. “I wondered where adventurous work was being made. I knew there were people who wanted to make this work and just needed the opportunity to make it.”

To present the work of these innovators, a jury of artists, curators and UIC faculty members review a sizeable amount of project proposals, about 75 each year according to Stewart, and select the final six.

“We don’t set out specific criteria, and work is chosen by a jury that changes each year,” Stewart says. “We tell artists we want them to make something new, take a challenge, make something never made before and then offer them the entire space.”

Fulfilling the objectives of originality, diversity and compatibility with gallery space, exhibitions include a variety of artistic styles, forms and mediums. Past projects have explored the dynamics of audiocassettes; altered the architecture of space; and fashioned the gallery into a film set. Because artists plan projects with knowledge of the setting, most incorporate the gallery into their work, hanging installations from the ceiling or adding walls to create a visual effect.

The emphasis on originality and inventiveness reflects the evolving direction of contemporary art, no longer limited to traditional mediums. Modern art musuems, such as the Tate Modern in London, now devote entire rooms to interactive, multi-component pieces with an intricate plot.

“Artwork is made in so many forms now,” Stewart says. “One might think of how this is not a painting or sculpture in the way we understand it, but people have all kinds of ideas about art. The narrative aspect of what goes on is completely engaging.”

“At the Edge” exhibitions receive around 40 visitors per day, an impressive number for a small venue according to Gallery 400 assistant Melissa Holbert. Attracting visitors from UIC, Chicago and even Wisconsin, the increasingly influential program enjoys much positive re-enforcement.

“There’s been an immediate response, from people who will like specific exhibitions to people who think this concept or opportunity is great,” Stewart says. “I believe other venues are now thinking they can do this too.”

In addition to the visual appeal for audiences, “At the Edge” provides artists with the opportunity to fulfill their creative impulses. For Soto, whose “Ornamentos” exhibit covers both the walls of Gallery 400 and the news of 2004, an expansive, multi-faceted presentation reflects her wide range of influences.

“I think my art is sometimes all over the place,” says Soto, a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago and current high school art teacher. “Doing one project with all these things narrows down who I am and how I see the world.”

While a few Chicago studios hold similar exhibitions, the concept has yet to reach other university galleries, such as NU’s Dittmar Gallery. “At the Edge” thus remains a leading venue for experimentation among small public galleries, providing a coveted opportunity to push the boundaries of contemporary art.

“Galleries are not so interested in these kinds of displays just because it’s so difficult to put them up and take them down,” Soto says. “I think ‘At the Edge’ is doing a fantastic thing. This is every artist’s dream, to have a space to do whatever you want.”

“At The Edge” runs through January 29th. Gallery 400 is open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday, noon to 3 p.m. Admission is free.

Medill junior Jean Luo is a PLAY writer. She can be reached at [email protected].