Chicago, my favorite city in the country for a number of reasons. Number one: scores of phenomenal art museums—okay, like six phenomenal ones, but still, that’s kind of lot. Number two: home to the best dive bars, especially in the Wicker Park/Ukrainian Village area where I like to stay. Rainbo Club, The Empty Bottle, and Inner Town Pub come to mind first. Just go sit down at, say, Rainbo on a random Sunday night, there’s a good chance you’ll stumble into great conversation with a lovely stranger. If not, you can just have a beer and admire the intricate quilts on display by Rainbo’s long-time bartender Ken Ellis.
Number three: you can have a car, or not, it’s no big deal either way. Four: Malort! Malort is a liquor you can only get in Chicago that tastes like—hmm, how to describe it—like spiced rubber? But in the best way possible. I had it for the first time last year and all I can say is this: you drink it, scowl, have a bit more, scowl, then somehow convince yourself you like it. I don’t know how it works, mostly it’s just fun to indulge in something unattainable outside the city limits. Last but not least, five: Chicago’s general lack of pretentiousness. It makes you feel right at home; there’s a lot going on, yet it’s still comfortable and cozy. Nothing better than that. It’s everything you could want in a city—during the summer at least.
Some time ago, I watched a video about Henry Darger’s reconstructed apartment at a small art museum called Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. I had not been to nor heard of the museum before, so I added it to my art bucket list (so long now it causes mild despair). On a recent overnight trip to the city, I crossed it off!
Darger, the reclusive poster boy of outsider art, lived in a bedless, hoarderish, one-room apartment in Chicago for most of his adult life. There, he wrote his brilliant tomes, like the 15,000 page novel The Story of the Vivian Girls (the actual title is much longer), and made prolific amounts of artwork that no one saw until after his death in 1973. When he died, Darger’s savvy landlords took over his estate and saved all his artwork and belongings. In 2008, the museum partnered with the landlords and meticulously recreated his room as it was. Stacks upon stacks of National Geographic and Life magazines, all his art supplies, curious framed art on the wall including a handwritten sign that says “No Smoking Under No Conditions,” and best of all, his manual typewriter. Looking around the room feels a little voyeuristic, as if we are time-travelling Peeping Toms.
The other shows were just as interesting. Stephen Warde Anderson’s celebrity paintings looked like what might happen if a Quattrocento Italian painter came back to life and became obsessed with American pop culture. Another exhibition included dozens of mesmerizingly detailed drawings on envelopes that artist Philip Carey wrote to a very lucky lady named Linda Ferreira while he was on dialysis. I’d say it was one of the most enjoyable things I’ve seen in a while. They were like the elaborate doodles of a severely bored, extremely talented middle schooler in the 1990s. Think Where’s Waldo? on steroids and without Waldo. I’ve never seen anything like it. And the best part is you could buy his wild envelopes in the gift shop, which of course I did, meaning a few friends will be receiving some cool ass mail very soon.
That said, I can’t write about the museum without writing about how problematic the term outsider art is, and thus, the premise of the museum in toto. Today, the outsider label is slapped onto any self-taught artist who shirks the mainstream and is, often, obsessive to some degree. Why is an artist who did not choose a traditional art education deemed an outsider? It seems pretentious, narrow-minded, and condescending to me. Most of what gets labeled outsider art or folk art is just Art Made by People. You don’t see this kind of harsh categorizing in literature or music, deeming authors and rockstars without a formal education in writing or composing “outsiders” to the artform; so why do we do it in visual art? The outsider label makes sense when it adheres to its original meaning (Jean Dubuffet’s “art brut”) of artists who have little to no contact with the outside world, such as those who are incarcerated, institutionalized, or isolated.
But Philip Carey, the envelope guy, has a BA in Exhibit Design from California State University, Long Beach. He was an Exhibit Designer at the California Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles and at California State Parks in Sacramento. He was the Director of Education and then a curator at the Roberson Museum in New York. He was a singer and won three Grammys. He travelled the country with Steve Martin. How the hell can you call that guy an outsider?
And Stephen Warde Anderson attended University of Chicago for a year and was in the Navy for four years. He’s a regular person who wanted to make art, so he did. The same goes for many other artists on display: Eugene Von Bruenchenhein from Milwaukee, woodcarver Albert Zahn, street preacher Josephus Farmer. Why are they heaved into a different category of art?
While Intuit’s exhibitions are fascinating and the curators are certainly showcasing artists who might otherwise have difficulty breaking into the contemporary art world, I do not believe artists who went to traditional art school should be so set apart from those who did not.
Ah, then we have the Smart Museum of Art. It is on the University of Chicago campus, you know, “the place where fun comes to die,” where the crème de la crème of intellectuals go to study under some of the brainiest faculty. I’m specifically thinking of Barbara Stafford, who has taught art history there forever.
The Smart Museum (named after David and Alfred Smart, not for its own perceived intellectual prowess) is consistently well-curated, insightful, and inclusive—which is why I make a point to swing by when I’m in the city. It’s the least bullshitty museum I can think of. The main exhibition, Expanding Narratives, was worth the trip alone. So many fantastic, unexpected works of art in one place: Sylvia Sleigh’s gaggle of nude dudes on Turkish rugs, a Nick Cave soundsuit, Cindy Sherman licking her fingers, a hot pink Kehinde Wiley, a Sam Gilliam drop painting, Dan Flavin neons, Mark Bradford, Kara Walker, the list goes on. And conceptually, it was airtight.
What I love most about the Smart is that it’s the exact amount of artwork you want in a museum exhibition. The Art Institute and MCA Chicago can be all-day affairs that leave the average visitor dazed and confused. But the Smart is just the right size to fill an hour or two and whet your appetite formore, in a way that lures you back again or inspires you to look up artists when you get home.
Finally, there’s a public art gem on the corner of Roosevelt and Halstead called Hard Scrabble Sky. It’s a James Turrell skyspace that you will most certainly walk right past if you don’t know it’s there. Skip the Anish Kapoor “Bean,” Jaume Plensa’s water-spitting digital faces, and the other public art everyone knows about in Millennium Park and go sit under this skyspace at night. Lie on your back and look up at the sky. Watch the light slowly shift colors. It’s like a sanctuary in the middle of the street. And you’ll probably have it all to yourself because no one realizes what the hell it is.
My heart breaks a bit every time I leave Chicago. There’s never enough time to see everything I want to see, but I always end up back there at some point. So until then, I’ll fantasize that I am sitting in Turrell’s skyspace, bathed in neon light, writing all this on Darger’s old typewriter with a shot of Malort next to me.
Sara Estes is a writer and editor living in Nashville. Her writing has been featured in The Los Angeles Review, The Bitter Southerner, Hyperallergic, Oxford American, BookPage, Filling Station, Number, Chapter 16, Empty Mirror, The Tennessean, Nashville Scene, and more.