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Toward Common Cause: Art and Social Change

by Margaret Hawkins


Nicole Eisenman, “The Triumph of Poverty,” 2009, oil on canvas, 65 x 82”. Courtesy of the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles

“Toward Common Cause: Art and Social Change” is not like any show previously mounted in Chicago. By the numbers, here it is: Seventeen sites. Twenty-nine artists. Hundreds of works. Four years in the making, Six months on view. As many causes as there are artists. And, oh yes, one mission — global change. 


Organized by the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, in collaboration with partners across the city, the show celebrates the 40-year anniversary of the Chicago-based MacArthur “genius” Foundation awards, featuring work by MacArthur Fellowship-winning artists. The Smart Museum is the hub of the show, with nearly half of the participating artists on exhibit there, along with the sixteen other sites.


Fazal Sheikh, “In Place (Four Corners region, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado),” 2017–2021, 66 archival pigment prints, an offering (basket with landscape fragments) from Jonah Yellowman, and seismological sound recordings of natural landforms made by Jeff Moore. Courtesy of the Artist, Jonah Yellowman (offering), and Jeff Moore (sound).

“Toward Common Cause” attempts to answer key questions of the moment at a time of turmoil and dysfunctionality, when it seems like this city and this planet can’t agree on much except that things must change. The issues are the big ones, and they overlap: Authoritarianism, systemic racism, poverty, climate change, lead poisoning, to name a few. 


The show does a lot of things at once. It shines light on how messed up our world is. It demonstrates that artists are not going to shut up about it. It shows that we can work together. And it proposes specific changes. Sometimes, most radically, it acts, and invites the public to join in. These works of social practice may be the most engaging.  


Fittingly, to enter the portion of “Toward Common Cause” ensconced at the Smart Museum, viewers must pass “Triumph of Poverty,” Nicole Eisenman’s allegorical update of Hans Holbein’s 17th century etching of the same title. It’s an apt and humbling introduction to the ills of modern life. The painting shows a ragtag troupe of unfortunates packed in a broken car, dominated by a man in a top hat who is leading ass-backwards, literally. It’s an apt introduction, bitter but mostly just sad, a reminder of the grotesque inequities in income and standards of living, even in our own country, that forces a shift in consciousness and prepares us for the rest of the show.

Around the corner, the focus zooms out from personal misfortune to vulnerable and vast uninhabited land. Fazal Sheikh’s 66 photographic views of Four Corners, where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet, fill a darkened room. We see canyons, riverbeds, mountains, desert, scrubland, whole millenia etched in the sides of cliffs. There is almost no human presence here, not even pictographs, except for a few handprints left on a cliff face. This is nature at its most sublime. Here is what we were given, Sheikh seems to say. Here is what we are squandering. A speaker emits seismological sound recordings of the natural landforms at the location. The sounds: a low rumbling. The earth speaks. How oddly comforting to see and hear what is here without us. As a reminder of who might be welcome, there is a woven basket in the center of the room. A sign advises viewers to keep their distance – the basket is sacred. We understand: so is the space depicted in the photos. 


Rick Lowe, “Black Wall Street Journey,” 2021, installation view, Smart Museum of Art.

Eisenman’s painting and Sheikh’s gallery of photos are made to be looked at. Rick Lowe‘s “Wall Street Journey” instructs, and demands action. Lowe calls it a “social sculpture,” referring to the multi-city, multi-site project’s educational mission as much as or perhaps more than its aesthetic one. He takes it city-to-city to teach about and promote Black wealth. In this iteration, we read it, and handle it, in the form of posters that state uncomfortable truths.

The polite museumgoer stands back and looks, or at most leans discreetly forward to read wall text. When you do that in the presence of “Wall Street Journey,” museum workers approach and tell you to take one each of the 11” x 17” posters home. This violation of the standard no-touch policy has the effect of making the statements printed on the posters personal. “White self-made billionaires are a myth,” we read. “Black families in Chicago lost between $3 billion and $4 billion in wealth because of predatory housing contract-buying during the 1950s and 1960s.” “When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, the Black community owned less than 1% of the United States’ total wealth. More than 150 years later, that number has barely budged.” And my favorite: “What if Black people owned beauty supply stores?” 


Xu Bing, “Forest Project: The Blue and Green Wonderland,” 2014, Nepalese paper, 98 x 744 cm

Urging viewers to accept these posters into their grasp, physically handle them and carry them awkwardly out of the museum, has a delayed but powerful effect. They’re too big to tuck into a notebook. Too stiff to easily fold and stash. Their slight unwieldiness is a perfect metaphor for the awkwardness of their pronouncements. I took my rolled stack of posters home and unfurled them and now they sit on my desk, a nagging reminder. They’re large and eye-catching, demand to be looked at, dealt with. They don’t fit neatly on a stack any more than the ideas they represent fit neatly in our lives. I don’t feel I can put them out of sight until I do something constructive in response and that’s the genius of this work. 


[Lowe’s “Black Wall Street Journal,” a streaming video, is on view at other “Toward Common Cause” venues. —Ed.]  


Like Lowe, Xu Bing focuses on the importance of money in the cycle of art production and consumption. His ongoing “Forest Project” is the result of his work in partnership with UNESCO, teaching art to children in Kenya. He has them draw trees, then sells the work online to art collectors. That money is donated to reforestation projects. The work on view is a small sampling of what the children came up with. I don’t know how he got them to make these amazing drawings. The project is about collaboration and hope and tapping into an existing market to benefit developing economies, but not only. It’s also about beauty. The drawings are wildly inventive and, yes, beautiful. 


(l.) Mel Chin, “Fundred Project,” 2008-ongoing. Students draw Fundreds on the handcrafted cherry tables.

(r.) Mel Chin, “Fundred: invest in a quest for a future free of lead poisoning.”

A few blocks from the Smart Museum, at the Hyde Park Art Center, is another “Toward Common Cause” exhibition. Here, as part of his ongoing “Fundreds” project, artist and activist Mel Chin has installed a long desk with nine chairs and cups of drawing materials. He’s provided printed fundred dollar blanks that children, or adults, can use to make fundred dollar bills to “pay” for removal of lead from water supplies in the United States.  Chin collects and carts these hand-made bills to Washington in a protest of sorts, to call attention to the ongoing problem of lead poisoning of children, since the government is not doing anything about it, he points out. This is his invented currency, a currency of action, of caring. 


Kara Walker, the artist responsible for one of the multi-site exhibition’s most affecting works may have summed up best why artists make socially conscious work, and predicting, 14 years in advance, the purpose of this show. In a 2007 interview with Frieze, she was asked what art was for. Her reply: “Figuring it out.” 

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