What’s compelling about the “David Bowie Is” exhibition at the MCA is not necessarily his music, as relevant as it remains these many years later, nor, dear god, his paintings, which rise at times to the level of derivative. Rather it is the entirety of his expression of himself as a public figure, as a pop artist who both absorbed cultural influences and created them simultaneously. But Bowie’s not even in the same league as the late Beatle John Lennon—who was known to doodle an artwork himself (he dropped out of art school for rock ‘n’ roll). No need for us to attempt to make our case for Lennon’s artistry beyond his songcraft; just let a few images play: “More popular than Jesus,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” Yoko Ono, John and Yoko’s full frontal nudity on the album cover of “Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins,” Mark David Chapman. Now imagine.
Audience Choice: Mick Jagger, Bjork (TIE)
Best of Chicago 2014
Cauleen Smith at the MCA
For the last two years, Cauleen Smith has been everywhere in Chicago: with teaching gigs at UIC and SAIC, visiting-artist events at Northwestern and UofC, group exhibits at SHoP, and solo shows at Threewalls and the MCA. In her Afrofuturist-inspired installation at the MCA this summer Smith presented a spatially disorienting hall of mirrors and a suite of videos shot in Chicago. One favorite involved a multi-camera shoot that elegantly captured a flashmob-esque intervention on a rainy day in new Chinatown Square where onlookers slowly found the space filled with members of the suburban Rich South High School marching band in full uniform playing a Sun Ra song.
Best of Chicago 2012
Bring Your Own Beamer at the MCA
BYOB is a potluck for video artists, who contribute to this one-night group show by bringing art and a projector (beamer). Although it first debuted in Chicago at Pilsen’s Kunsthalle New in March, the BYOB event at the MCA in October was meaningful because artists chose the art exhibited in the museum, at least temporarily.
Bring Your Own Beamer
Best of Chicago 2011
Heartland, Smart Museum of Art
If you think Midwestern art is all barn-scapes and hayfork-wielding farmer portraits, “Heartland” is happy to correct the misperception. The exhibition’s curators road-tripped across the flyover states to discover a contemporary Midwestern style, uncovering gender-bending, politics-spewing, concept-driven artists at every turn. “Heartland” was first presented at a Netherlands museum last year in the hopes of spreading the good word about the Midwest.
5550 South Greenwood
“Take Your Time”
Olafur Eliasson, MCA
Best of Chicago 2009
“Big Picture: A New View of Painting in Chicago” at Chicago History Museum
The Chicago History Museum was an unlikely venue for hosting the best art exhibit this year, but the museum’s context hammered home the show’s theme—paintings can tell the history of Chicago, from urban planning and political satire, in styles realist, Imagist and all points in between. Curators John Corbett and Jim Dempsey dug deep into the historical archive, exhibiting such rarely seen gems as a mural from the glory-hole days at Gold Coast—one of the city’s earliest gay leather bars—and gave privileged views to the backs of some paintings, revealing secret inscriptions.
Jeff Koons at MCA
Best of Chicago 2008
Jeff Koons at the MCA
This year’s Koons retrospective was a major coup for the MCA, generating attendance records while gaining the near-universal respect of the New York media, who had to travel to Chicago to see this important show, since it was not traveling. But it wowed more than the art cognoscenti, as visitors got to duck behind a warning sign to view a “peep show” of sorts in the brazenly graphic work Koons made for his “Made in Heaven” series, which featured the artist and his porn-star then-wife in various states of hard-core action.
Best of Chicago 2008