SOFA / Chicago 2008 – Streams of Artistic Consciousness

By Val Lyle

(preface by Venus Zarris)

Val Lyle is a gifted and renowned sculptor and art educator. VAL LYLE : Figurative Sculpture, Gestural Art, Paper Clay

We went to art college together a couple of decades ago and have remained beloved friends over these past 20+ years. I received some prepress about SOFA and forwarded it to Val, as she had attended in the past and I knew that she would be interested. This facilitated an artistically alchemical reunion, a meeting of old friends on a weekend bender that could best be described as an ALL-OUT ART OVERDOSE. 

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, or in this case even more passionate about the boundless creativity that encompasses art in all of its brilliant manifestations. 

We would have had an amazing time if the weekend was spent on the couch chatting and reminiscing but we decided to save that trip for our older age. Instead, more culture was chocked into 2 1/2 days than most experience in 10 years. 

I asked Val to write her impressions of the trip, an artist’s vision of her whirlwind weekend in the Windy City. Here are her thoughts…

SOFA / Chicago 2008

A weekend of culture and dialogue, art, theatre and great food.

What makes great art?

“You’ll need the full range of tonal scale, from light to dark, you’ll need variety in mark-making including wide to narrow, light to heavy, excellent composition to move the eye around the page and activate the entire space, and for this assignment you will need engaging content. We are moving from “how do we draw” to “why do we draw.”

My college lecture from the day before is stuck in my head on a loop. I am looking forward to four days in Chicago! It’s mid-semester, a dangerous time for teetering between shifting gears and stalling out. This trip is a top-shelf cultural break from my routine of teaching art and making art in rural Tennessee/Virginia.

It is a chance to see the 16th annual  SOFA exposition (Sculptural Objects and Functional Art), 100 international galleries representing several hundred blue chip art object makers from around the globe. A chance for creative nourishment and renewal, and a chance to visit my friend Venus’s household.

We lived next door twenty five years ago under mammoth, Spanish moss draped live oak trees in Sarasota, Florida. I followed art to New York City, she followed theater to Chicago, and I am excited to have a local tour guide. Should have guessed she’d save the best for last.

What makes great art great?

After a marathon nine hours of world class art and lectures at SOFA on Chicago’s Navy Pier (on two hours sleep) I retrieve my carry on suitcase just as my hosts pull up to whisk me away. There’s barely time for greetings and silly gifts before we are in a darkened theater facing a constructed set of convincing period and structure that is physically impossible in the space.

I won’t lie-I was off balance, reminding myself it was “theater”, while still whipping my head around to find the true corners of the room, orienting myself to the ceiling and lighting apparatus, and mentally trying to gage how much of this sensation was my lack of sleep, how much was my eye-stigmatism warping space, and how much was space warping around me. “You’ve seen Dorian Gray before, right?” Venus asks as the lights dim.

Over a feast of mom and pop food at “Garcia’s” on Lawrence Avenue (try the guacamole!) we discuss the impressive play THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY by Lifeline Theatre in detail. Venus tells me this is a medium sized theater, but it seems smallish to me. The steep arrangement of audience seats and near two-story set gave me the sense of a funhouse where the back rows curve up to meet the top of the facade.

Venus explained that many of the sets in this theater were “stacked” vertically due to the “short” stage. I ask candidly how should I separate the writing from the performance, from the set design, costumes, and dazzling special effects, while contemplating critiquing the play?

This dialogue developed over the entire four days, being shifted back and forth from the visual arts to the theater, giving each of us insights into the other’s world of expertise.

“What were you most impressed with at SOFA today?” she asks me. “The fearless pursuit of vision,” I summarize. “These showcase artists are not held back by any of the set rules- Permanence? Scale? Cost? Shipping? Not an issue! Only the pure pursuit of passionate vision matters. All the barriers are blown out of the water.

“But what does that look like?” she pressed me, with honesty and trust that only occurs between old friends or strangers.

“At SOFA there are big shiny things, things that sparkle and that dwarf you. There are so many hybrids of the next-latest thing based on a combination of the last- latest things that you can actually trace artist’s developments within the show to the first ‘original’ work. When you actually come upon a new, truly original work, it’s stunning. It’s jaw-dropping. There is nothing else like it in the show.

For example, there is a Dutch artist named Marian Bijlenga represented by CERVINI HAAS GALLERY who creates huge wall works, made out of little bits of fiber color nothings, hues and textures in spots the size of a half dollar that have surprising detail and texture with delicate fringe around them. Hundreds of these “dots” of eye-candy, are applied about 10 to 20 inches apart in a systematic and scientific pattern predetermined by the artist onto water soluble fabric with a minimum number of lines of almost invisible thread.

When the fabric is washed away, the network is displayed on a large wall with lighting that makes the lines disappear. The textiles float magically several inches off of the wall, defying comparison or description. I think of Wassily Kandinsky’s paintings of music, with accents, staccatos, compositions flowing around the wall, but better.

‘Consider theater companies,’ begins Venus. ‘The big ones have enormous budgets. You expect dwarfing shiny over-the-top effects, costumes, and stage design. But when you see a performance like Dorian Grey, where a deeper than the deepest blood red light flashes on a quivering just -hung by the neck body, or the startling sound of a weapon’s unexpected discharge sends the whole audience vertical two feet, you realize it’s not the budget that makes the play.

It’s visual and auditory genius, bits of colored transparency film, a touch of well placed smoke and scrap wood.’ The conversations begin to merge and I can’t always  remember who said what. The red and the smoke were accents. The set design must activate the whole space, move the eye around with a variety of textures and colors.

What makes really great art really great?

The unexpected! The unimagined. The never before conceived. The original?

Day two of the Chicago Odyssey brings another dimension into the world of fine craft and fine art-that often blurred, often argued, yet rigid and unyielding distinction. I make a bee-line to familiar top-notch galleries like Ferrin and Duane Reed.  Great new-to-me galleries leap out from the rest like browngrotta and Next Step Studios and Gallery. Brief greetings with old friends and chance meetings over shared dining tables make new friends at SOFA. The square footage of art is staggering. It took me the full two days just to walk up and down every single isle and pause briefly in front of each gallery to try to absorb their particular aesthetic and statement. It was all I could do to scribble notes on the floor map as to which ones I needed to research further online.

There were multiple lectures simultaneously for two days straight that were put on by the leaders in each of their respective fields-information that is not easy gotten elsewhere. Yesterday I learned I was a lost member of the gentle fiber arts clan. Today I learn that Asia, China in particular, is already in control of the world aesthetic, being the most powerful and wealthy country and therefore the dominate aesthetic, and the sooner we wake up to embrace every aspect of what this means deeply, the better.

Artist Li Lihong’s series at Dai Ichi Arts of ceramic McDonald Golden Arches decorated with traditional Asian ceramic brushwork is haunting and un-nerving. I wanted them badly. KEIKO Gallery is also noteworthy with it’s contemporary Japanese Arts and Crafts. I could have attended all lectures and skipped the enormous exhibition and felt the trip well worthwhile. I tried to do both.

There was constant film screenings and two different live demo areas, one for hot glass and one for woodturning. There were too many publications to count, and a room to teach you how to inventory your collections digitally.

That evenings’ theater entrée is Radio Macbeth at the Court Theatre. SITI Company  adapts the Shakespeare classic, followed by extensive discussion over the best pizza that I have ever had in my life at Ricobene’s on 26th Street, and I ate a lot of pizza in New York City. When I learned that all the plays we were going to see were adaptations, I was mystified.

Why would one want to go see a play you’ve already seen before? I risk losing the respect of my friend by actually asking her. She patiently explains they are such classic themes, such great material, that you are hoping the production brings new life, a new interpretation or twist to it. She does admit that done badly, it can be terrible, and that is always the gamble of adapting familiar material.

The dialogue inevitably makes the comparison, why would you want to re-visit a master painting or sculpture? Because it is so profound you cannot possibly absorb it all in one sitting! Not to mention that the same piece will have a different impact on the same person, from one day to the next. Try changing the lighting on Michelangelo’s Pieta, thereby giving it intensely different emotions.

Try changing the lights on Shakespeare’s Macbeth! And the year, and the context, then blur heavily which plane of reality exists, whether you are watching performers perform, or they are watching each other perform, in and out of context…sparse stage set with changing flood-spot lights focus on the performance. Here’s a case where they could have blown a lot on fancy stage craft, but didn’t need to and were smart enough to know the less-is-more aesthetic. I’m deeply impressed.

Day three in The Windy City is sleeping in, gourmet home-cooked breakfast, rummaging through stacks of complementary art magazines and show cards, playing with the pooches, and the grand theater finale.

Bo Ho Theatre’s Bernarda Alba – a musical is an adaptation with an original musical score and live accompaniment in a 30 seat bread-box of a black box theater that I’m guessing is, no kidding, 20 feet by 35 feet. OK, now I get the “small” and medium size theater comparison part, and realize that most of the plays I’ve ever seen have been in auditoriums because that is the ONLY theater venue in many of the towns I have called home.

There are 10 excellent women actors, often inches from the front row, singing their hearts out until the wooden risers in the chilly theater quiver along with your soul. It was one of those ‘OK-now I can die and go to heaven because it can’t get any better than this’ plays. Better just to stop at excellence than risk contamination.

Dare I try to describe it? How did it touch-no grab me on so many levels? How can it be so ambiguously about the mystery of the human experience, and yet so very specific? How can it be so ultra-women’s rights and be set in the worst of rights denial? How did I just witness one of the most electrically charged sexual scenes ever, with only one actress on stage? My jaw is still agape to think about it. Right up there with Edward Albee’s The Goat, or, Who Is Sylvia in my limited theater palette.

We duck into Heartland Cafe, the neighborhood restaurant/store happening establishment, next door from the Heartland Studio Theatre for me to pick out thank you chocolate for the chef at home and appropriate souvenir stickers from the recent political events. Next we steal time to drive through a beautiful old cemetery, for the pure shared absorption of art and culture, emotion and beauty as the last of the stubborn fall colors face the blustery snow-specked sky along the lake.

I turn to Venus and ask her the unasked; “What makes great theater?”

She thinks, then answers, ”There’s the obvious, the production, the theater company, the given performance, the stage craft like we’ve been talking all weekend about, is the stage interesting all the way around, believable, functional, but on a deeper level, which is what I think you’re eluding to, is “Does it give you an emotion?-Does it make you happy or sad or angry or whatever-does it get you in the gut!? Is it believable? Are the characters believable; is the story believable, do you care?”

Can you sense that actor has put so much of themselves into that role that it makes you want to cry-or whatever emotion you should get from it?

We pause in the midst of giant scarlet fans of maple trees, huge oaks look like they are on fire next to weeping granite angels of every size and form.

“It’s really Alchemy, then, isn’t it? No set formula, no recipe, no media will guarantee success. It’s magic when it’s right. Just like the visual arts.”

There must be a full range of light to dark, so that we can find our bearings. There must be variety in mark-making, whether with voice, music, or pencil, for emphasis and interest. There must be well placed focal points, and texture. But most of all, there must be engaging content. Is it believable on some level? Do you get the sense that the artist has put so much of themselves into it that you are given to care?


Author: VenusZarris

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