Museum of Contemporary Art replaces UBS 12x12 with Chicago Works
The MCA's UBS 12x12 program has launched the careers of dozens of local artists. But its demise could be a good thing.
Scott Reeder’s Untitled (pictured, 2011), the 14' x 25' painting hanging in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s atrium, is so elegant it’s hard to believe the River North resident made this magnum opus using spaghetti. And, no, your macaroni collage–making kid couldn’t do the same.
Untitled introduces visitors to Reeder’s new solo show, which launched the MCA’s “Chicago Works” series this past Tuesday. The 41-year-old School of the Art Institute of Chicago associate professor painted around uncooked noodles so that when he removed them, chalklike white traces remained. Reeder says the painting’s large size and elegant straight lines evoke one of his favorite works by the late Cy Twombly. Upstairs, the MCA displays a cooked-spaghetti painting that he describes as “more squiggly and sloppy. It looks more expressionistic, like a Jackson Pollock.”
On view through January 24, Reeder’s “Chicago Works” exhibition represents a seismic change not only for the MCA, but for every young artist in the city. Overseen by associate curator Julie Rodrigues Widholm, the program replaces the UBS 12x12 series, which ended in October after showcasing 108 local emerging artists over the past ten years. Almost every month, UBS 12x12 enabled MCA visitors to stumble on edgy works in all kinds of media, often introducing artists just before their careers took off.
Now the recent M.F.A.s who dominated UBS 12x12 must compete with Chicago artists of any age, and for fewer exhibitions. But their loss appears to be museumgoers’ gain. “Chicago Works” will showcase more seasoned pros: midcareer artists who have built solid reputations but remain under-recognized by the general public. Visitors will have much more space and time to get to know these artists: “Chicago Works” occupies twice as much real estate (5,000 square feet, in a more prominent third-floor gallery) as its predecessor, and its shows last three months rather than three weeks—a pace that reflects how often most people visit museums. While the UBS 12x12 shows often felt cramped, “Chicago Works” gives Reeder enough room to present both his pasta-related homages to American abstraction, which hinge on hidden jokes, and his overtly funny figurative works. The latter “get more serious over time,” he says, as viewers grasp the paintings’ references to art history.
Reeder considers “Chicago Works” a big deal because it’s his first solo museum exhibition. “The MCA is a respected institution, so having that clout behind your work is a vote of confidence,” he says. “This wall piece: [It’s too large to] do in most commercial galleries in the world, so that’s a big opportunity. And you’re reaching a wider audience.”
According to Widholm, who joined the MCA more than a dozen years ago, UBS 12x12 was supposed to be a “springboard” for its artists, propelling them “to the next level or [getting them] some attention from outside Chicago.” The series began in 2001 after former MCA director Robert Fitzpatrick visited a London gallery that was doing a different show every week. “It triggered something in my mind,” he recalls, “because I was really struck by the fact that [MCA] visitors, particularly those from outside Chicago, were asking, ‘Where can I see some Chicago artists?’ ”
Highlighting emerging artists was practical as well as visionary. Because of UBS 12x12’s fast turnover and unusually low budget, it “just didn’t seem fair for us to ask really established artists to participate,” says MCA curator Lynne Warren. Artists had to help install and remove their own works, and there wasn’t enough money to fund the brochures or catalogs that typically accompany shows, which still bothers Michelle Grabner, chair of SAIC’s department of painting and drawing.
“I’ve had a lot of students and colleagues who have [participated in UBS 12x12],” Grabner says. “They were so thrilled to be invited, but from the outside, I don’t think they were treated the same way as other artists.” Warren and Widholm emphasize that each “Chicago Works” artist gets an eight- to ten-page brochure with an essay, which visitors can pick up for free in the gallery.
The MCA is also planning more programs to accompany each show, which offers visitors more opportunities to meet the artists and better understand their works. Whereas a UBS 12x12 artist only had enough time to give one talk, Reeder inaugurates the museum’s Culture Catalysts lecture series Tuesday 8 and screens his film Moon Dust at the MCA in January. On December 13, Widholm leads a tour of his exhibition. And instead of competing with the crush of First Fridays, opening receptions will be on Tuesday nights, when admission is free for Illinois residents.