By Cathryn Mathers
The first Friday of each month signals the open invite of glass doors as galleries just north of the Chicago River display their newest works. This city is an international destination for art, and the wealth of talent it has to offer is not just confined to the halls of its museums. There are a large number of commercial galleries throughout Chicago that showcase contemporary artists, with the River North Gallery District as its indisputable center. Like many fellow artistic establishments, it has changed and evolved through the years, only recently coming into its own over the past few decades.
Though a small number of galleries flourished in the years following World War II, it was not until the 1980s that the galleries of Chicago became truly noteworthy. Artists were attracted to River North because of its economic cost of living and soon rows of what were formerly warehouses were converted into lofts. Since then River North has transformed from an industrial block to the epicenter of the Chicago art scene.
However, the progression of time and the gradual renovation of the area since the 1980s has led to some less inviting changes.
The gradually rising cost of rentable spaces north of the river has forced some galleries to shut down and driven some artists to other areas, including the West Loop, West Town, and Bridgeport. Over the years a significant number of gallery owners in the area have simply retired. Nonetheless, the River North Gallery District remains the most concentrated cluster of galleries in the Unites States outside of New York and represents a formative base for artists in Chicago.
While the crowds this November were modest—likely drawn to the SOFA exhibition— the stunning works of art to be seen are fabulous. Everything from glassware, photography, paintings, sculptures, and crafts could be found, with numerous techniques from each genre being showcased. The great variety between galleries, and even within each gallery, is testament to the wide scope of art to be seen in Chicago.
There’s a draw for any art-lover and far too much to be seen in just one evening, so I’ve highlighted here just a few of the galleries from my recent visit to River North.
Founded in 1988, the Addington Gallery is dedicated to timeless contemporary art in a variety of styles and forms. Its current exhibition features work from Kathleen Waterloo, Jeffrey Hirst, Molly McCracken Kumar and Rebecca Crowell. Also notable is Robin Denevan, a painter whose haunting landscapes are done entirely in encaustic, also known as hot wax painting.
To produce encaustics pigments are added to hot wax and then applied to canvas or wood with brushes and metal tools. Denevan uses both resin and beeswax in his paintings, creating many layers of color before scraping and removing them with solvents, sandpaper and various sharp tools. His paintings are inspired by his travels to Asia and Latin America, capturing the dazzling landscapes from these journeys in a somewhat abstract manner.
“Autumn Canopy” by Robin Denevan
Carl Hammer Gallery is an eclectic gallery with a large variety of acquisitions and a special focus on outsider art. There is a current exhibition of works by Jay Kelly, whose primarily metal miniature works are abstract and delicate. The found objects restored by Donald Lipski—part of the gallery’s permanent collection—caught my eye as well. Taking in everyday objects that had been broken and discarded, Lipski fixes each piece in wholly unique ways, transforming the pieces into something entirely new.
“Untitled #435 and #421” by Jay Kelly
Found Objects by Donald Lipski
Echt Gallery features a daring mixture of sculptures, glasswork, and photography, all with extraordinary attention to detail. Echt represents a large variety of artists but some of the ones pictured include Jonas Leriche, Oben Abright, Alexander Abajian, J. Lin-Hsien Kung and Marek Zyga. Each work pushes boundaries and captures the best of what contemporary art has to offer.
Works by Oben Abright, Alexander Abajian+J. Lin-Hsien Kung, and Jonas Leriche
Ken Saunders Gallery, formerly the Marx and Marx-Saunders Galleries until Saunders took up the reins in 2009, exhibits a variety of glasswork, supporting a great number of artists from the Studio Glass Movement.
The gallery’s current exhibition highlights the work of glassblower Dante Marioni. His works strongly echo ancient amphoras and other Mediterranean pottery, interpreted in modern and imaginative elongated forms.
Just downstairs from Ken Saunders Gallery is Vale Craft Gallery, which offers a vibrant collection of crafts. Established in 1992 by Peter Vale, the gallery fills an often unexplored and overlooked niche in the art world, providing an interesting alternative to most of the other galleries in the district. For those looking for affordable pieces of jewelry, pottery, sculptures, textiles or furniture, this is definitely the place to visit.
“Fantasy of Trees” by Alice Benvie Gebhart
“Ribbon Vessels” by Rebecca McEntee
Catherine Edelman Gallery, opened in 1987 and is home to a broad range of photography. Its current exhibition centers on the works of Kate Breakey, Dan Estabrook and Jerry Spagnoli. The theme “Today is History” is elegantly expressed through the historic techniques used by each artist to produce their work.
Kate Breakey’s prints on glass made using gold leaf provide an interesting examination into our cultural fascination with the metal. Dan Estabrook’s works are also retrospective, made with tintype on aluminum and other metals. Popular around the 1860s and 1870s, tintypes were one of the first quick methods to producing photographs.
“The Source” by Dan Estabrook
“The Mourners” by Dan Estabrook
Jerry Spagnoili explores daguerreotypes, another early form of the photographic medium. Unlike tintypes, however, the daguerreotype is one of the most arduous to produce.
Printed on reflective metal, daguerreotypes require a cauldron’s brew of chemicals to properly take on the intended image, with further treatment to prevent fading (and all that effort is not even counting the lengthy exposure times).
All of this seems worth it when taking in Spagnoli’s rendering of three-dimensional glasses on this oddly flat and reactive metal, creating an interesting contrast.
“Glass 10-9-12” by Jerry Spagnoli
To learn about the history of the River North district and its development I spoke to publisher and executive editor of Chicago Gallery News, Virginia B. Van Alyea. Promoting Chicago art events, artists and of course galleries, Van Alyea’s magazine is an invaluable resource for those interested in keeping up with Chicago art scene. It’s accessible online and in print, with print editions published three times a year in January, May and September. For the busiest of art lovers their calendar will keep you up-to-date on all gallery events, with alerts also available through the magazine’s social media pages.
Both the magazine and the district started off small; Chicago Gallery News itself was born out of and by the people involved in the nascent River North scene. Van Alyea’s mentor and the founding publisher, Natalie van Straaten, was part of that group.
“Although there were a couple of pioneering galleries in the 1970s—Zolla/Liberman, Gruen, Fly-by-Nite—in what is now called River North, the River North Gallery District gelled in 1980-1981, when there were 16 galleries in a concentrated area centered as it is now at Superior and Franklin Streets. It wasn’t even called the River North Gallery District yet, but rather ‘Su-Hu,’ as coined by a Chicago magazine writer.”
Chicago Gallery News also began with a different name and form: it was first a four-page black and white pamphlet called Superior/Huron Gallery News. From there, it became an active pillar for the community.
Van Alyea explained how the magazine’s former publisher, who retired in 2007, came to the River North Gallery District.
Van Straaten was a journalism major from the University of Michigan who founded an art gallery with her husband on Michigan Avenue, the post-war center for galleries in Chicago. As a part of the “Original 16” of gallery owners who moved to the River North area, she sought to share with the public more information about these developing galleries.
“Natalie was tapped to organize the group of 16 galleries and promote the openings and more, which is how Chicago Gallery News began. Eventually, as the art scene expanded, Chicago Gallery News grew to also cover other districts,” Van Alyea revealed.
All of their work has helped bring more information to those interested. Under the new moniker the magazine expanded, as did River North. With that growth came more community engagement, prosperity and unity.
“As River North developed into the largest concentration of galleries in the city (65 within a three-block radius), the River North Gallery District name became fixed within a couple of years. Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, the community developed a coordinated ‘opening of the gallery season’ in September, as well as other dates. Annual festivals were held, gallery tours were offered regularly, international visitors were shown the ‘cultural jewel’ and shuttles were coordinated between major exhibitions—such as Art Expo and SOFA—and the gallery district.”
Still, River North hasn’t been without its own tribulations. In April of 1989 a building that housed a total of nine galleries was decimated by a huge fire. Although there had been signs of structural problems in the building beforehand, no one had anticipated an outcome this devastation. Even after the loss of hundreds of works of art, the River North phoenix rose from the ashes.
“Undaunted, more than half of [the galleries] reopened within a block or two of demolished building,” Van Alyea explained. “And even within a changing art market today, the River North Gallery District lives on. It remains one of the largest centers for galleries in Chicago and the United States. “
But even beyond these hallowed grounds just north of the Chicago River there is a thriving community of artists on the rise.
“Spaces exist in many more neighborhoods now, and many dealers and artists are more free to be where they want, whereas maybe in the past they relied more on the district communities that were so important before—the Internet and commercial art fairs have changed it all. Many galleries call Chicago home but do most of their sales out of state.”
With that change comes freedom too, even if River North is not what it once was at its height. To have both may mean less people walking through gallery doors, but it does strengthen and expand the community in ways never possible before. Chicago art is now more accessible on a global scale, and I feel having both options presents a bright future for the community.
While some may only deal art in Chicago in name on the labels of their envelopes, the doors of River North continue to open each month, and all are still welcome.
Carl Hammer Gallery
Catherine Edelman Gallery