Gallery showcases wooden sculptures from local artists

By Brian Dukerschein

Although wood is one of nature’s most beautiful and versatile materials, in art it is more likely to be cast in the supporting role of a gilded frame than an object of creative expression.

The Chicago Urban Arts Society, a nonprofit art gallery and creative center located at 2229 S. Halsted St., hopes to change that perception with the opening of “Wood Worked,” an exhibition featuring wooden sculptures from local artists.

“Wood is this material we feel artists are using in very intriguing ways, specifically in Chicago,” said Kevin Wilson, co-curator of the exhibit. “Chicago is a DIY [do-it-yourself] city, which relates to the blue-collar mentality I feel a lot of artists in the Midwest have.”

The gallery will feature approximately 30 freestanding and hanging sculptural works from both new and veteran Chicago artists. While pieces vary widely in size and cost, Wilson said there will be artwork accessibly priced for the general public.

“One of the goals of the Chicago Urban Arts Society is to have group shows that are very diversified and mingle younger and more established artists,” Wilson said. “It’s a mix of recent graduates—people fresh from school—and artists like Steve Reber, who has a show at the Chicago Cultural Center, [78 E. Washington St.].”

Wilson said the gallery is excited to be displaying the work of Juan Angel Chavez, a School of the Art Institute of Chicago faculty member who is internationally renowned for his public art and massive sculptures. According to Wilson, the exhibit will feature rarely-seen dioramas of Chavez’s large-scale pieces.

Despite featuring work from diverse artists, Wilson said he and fellow curator Peter Kepha have found common themes in the sculptures.

“A lot of what we’re noticing is this connection to memory and the home,” Wilson said. “[Wood] is a material we’re more or less surrounded by. Most homes, especially in the Midwest, are built out of this material. A lot of the pieces artists are bringing in have connections to these spaces.”

The memory of what “home” used to mean served as the inspiration for featured artist Montgomery Kim’s “Vague Recollections,” a sculptural house that explores the relationship between traditional Korean and modern American cultures.

According to Kim, Korean homes were craft-oriented, and the artistry with which they were built dictated a person’s place in the social hierarchy prior to the 1970s. By replicating a traditional Korean home in Western materials, Kim said he is making a statement about cultural displacement and mass production.

“It’s a kind of ironic situation where tradition is being replicated by novel means,” Kim said when describing his piece. “Instead of using rice paper for the windows, I used drywall. For the foundations and walls, I used pine studs and the cheapest plywood I could find—really garbage materials for something that traditionally was much more sacred and important.”

Mass production is the idea behind Matthew Hoffman’s “ITSOK” project, which will have pieces featured at the exhibition.

Since 2007, the artist has been hand-cutting wooden signs bearing a simple message: “Its ok.” To date, he has made more than 5,000 with a goal of producing 1 million in his lifetime.

Hoffman said the idea for the project came to him when he observed an increasing number of artists and commercial manufacturers releasing limited edition products. He thought it would be amusing to come out with a mass-produced edition in response.

He admitted the project is not taking off as quickly as he had originally hoped. He is involved in several other creative projects, and said it is difficult to find the time to individually cut each sign with a scroll saw.

The artist said he has a plan for making sure “ITSOK” gets completed.

“I have a 3-year-old son who doesn’t know it yet, but he’ll carry on [the project] if I can’t,” Hoffman said.

“Wood Worked” runs from Sept. 23–Oct. 22 at the Chicago Urban Arts Society, 2229 S. Halsted St. Gallery hours are Thursday and Friday 6 – 9 p.m. and Saturday 1 – 6 p.m.