The exhibition “Present Standard” red-flags the pleasures and terrors of touch. On display at the Chicago Cultural Center in the Loop through April 24, “Present Standard” assembles art by twenty-five U.S.-based, Latino contemporary artists with connections to Chicago. The show, curated by Edra Soto and Josué Pellot, spans three galleries and is accompanied by educator Pablo Helguera’s pop-up bookstore, “Librería Donceles.” Loosely organized around questions of what it means to fly a flag, and identify with a people or place, “Present Standard” really rallies beneath the banner of feeling objects and surfaces, wanting to turn things over in your hands.
In doing so, “Present Standard” plays with the two words that make up its name. What does Latino art look like, right now? What objects can be held up as a pennant or symbol for this art? Each individual artwork dives a little deeper into those words, posing its own questions about identity, nationhood, migration, and home. But the show also wonders if it’s even correct to talk about one, singular type of “Latino art”—to “standardize” it. Recognizing and respecting shared experiences is important, but sometimes we talk about this cultural knowledge too much and expect a one-to-one connection between the artist and the art.
The best way to move between these competing ideas is to deal with the art itself. A little room defined by walls of fluorescent string; inflatable paintings, and paintings that wrap around corners; perforated sheet metal beaten across a circular, wooden stretcher frame; a microphone that bangs itself into the wall every fifteen seconds. Some of the coolest art in “Present Standard” doesn’t sit still for a photograph. Soto and Pellot chose to exhibit art that you have to go in person to see, to sniff, and—when permitted—to run your fingers through.
Diana P. Gabriel’s “Fleco” celebrates the giddy and playful side of the fiber arts. Four wooden posts and overhead spanning beams mark out a boxy pavilion of about six or seven square feet. Gabriel stapled long lengths of mint, lime, and bright yellow cotton string across the top beams, creating vibrant, porous draperies on all four sides of the wooden frame. “Fleco” is an abstract salute to the chintzy bead curtain, or the venerable vertical loom.
In visually referencing weaving and meticulous labor, “Fleco” could be said to respond to ideas about power, the domestic sphere, and work. It’s the most direct, literal reply “Present Standard” has for its interpretive title, regarding the theme of flag-like textiles. However, these thoughts don’t entirely match the happy, electric, and innocent effect “Fleco” had in the gallery on “Present Standard’s” opening night. Eight children and a grown man camped out, cross-legged, inside the box. Visitors pawed at the colorful strands—spreading their fingers like a cat its claws, letting the material slide past.
“Fleco” shakes up the expectations that fill the quiet, important, and whitewashed gallery. When there was no one inside “Fleco,” nobody dared touch the piece, but as visitors gradually entered and exited, they signaled the safety of the space—they unconsciously invited the next beholder through the curtain. While one is inside the piece, the strings cast bright vertical stripes over the outside world, making it hard to bring distant people into focus. They map weird patches of high contrast onto exterior images, creating odd, shadowy hazes, straining the eyes the longer you look. “Fleco” narrows your attention down to the people inside “Fleco.”
In a way, “Fleco” was something like the sculptural sister to Pablo Helguera’s more expansive “Librería Donceles” installation. Taking over its own, fourth gallery separate from “Present Standard,” Helguera moved in a highly browseable, pay-what-you-like, Spanish-language bookstore. It’s an answer to the death of bookstore culture, and the general difficulty of finding books in Spanish. Helguera’s “Librería” is a hierarchy of intimate spaces, subdivided with densely-packed shelves. There’s a cozy performance arts area, a living room with deep armchairs, a centermost enclosure with a ring of semicircular ottomans, a kid’s nook with pint-sized furniture near the children’s titles.
Just as “Fleco” invites the beholder to experience the whimsy of weaving, “Librería Donceles” gives a warm, grandfatherly charm to the experience of literature. Both invite viewers to learn with touch. Leafing through pages is just the start of Helguera’s sensuous repertoire. Leather upholstery, heavy wooden furniture, lamps with cut-glass shades in tortoiseshell patterns all comfortably weigh down the visitor. There’s plenty of strong raking light, but no bright ambient light. Lanterns focus all their power into the bookshelves instead of onto people. Bulbs are filmed over with brown sheets of plastic, heightening the off-white cream-color of acid-free paper, the beaten tan of crumbling pulp publications.
However, “Fleco” and “Librería Donceles” only account for half of the art on display. Touch, sight—sensation—can be equal parts brutal, dangerous, and frightening. Sofia Moreno’s “Untitled I” and “Untitled II” are thin mixed-media and paper paintings that look like sheer slices of diseased skin. Luis Sahagun’s “Conflicts of Desire” works nail polish, lipstick, screws, cardboard, and three different types of paint into a meaty, three-dimensional outcropping. Juan Angel Chávez bolts a metal barn door to a circular frame and suspends it from the wall. The cladding is beaten into a coral-like web of indentations, blasted through by repeated pumps of red-hot birdshot.
The eeriest example of this touch-as-terror trend is a six-foot-tall shed-snakeskin-and-beeswax sculpture of a Madonna-like ghost, executed by Mariano Chavez. Chavez’s “Ghost” makes the obsession with tactility morbid. The differences between each strand of skin, used to make up the ghost’s hair and cloak, aren’t simply formal. It’s not a difference between long, matte, clearly segmented skins and withered, drawn-out rinds. The use of snakeshed means conjuring up the many slithering creatures that made these materials. Each texture is one true-to-life fingerprint: the trace of a living thing. In the same way, the beeswax doesn’t just mimic the cellular texture of the snakeshed. It also gives off a faintly perceptible, sickly-sweet odor, reminding the beholder that this is soberingly “all-organic,” produced by life that slithers, buzzes, stings or suffocates.
“Present Standard” runs two flags up the same pole: playing, swishing, turning, and stroking starkly contrast with scalping, gouging, and shooting. Although “Librería Donceles” exists outside of “Present Standard,” Helguera’s bookstore aligns with a group of objects in the exhibit that are thrilled about dynamic, sculptural making in the round. The artists all share an intimate, down-to-earth relationship with their materials; their practices seem to bounce between artistic and artisanal. “Present Standard” asks about Latino art in the U.S., and its representative artists respond with technical triumphs in working neat materials. The exhibit beckons us to break the gallery’s cultural prohibition against touching, and come to grips with great art.
Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St. Through April 24. Open Monday–Thursday, 9am–7pm; Friday–Saturday, 9am–6pm; Sunday, 10am–6pm. Free. (312) 744-6630. chicagoculturalcenter.org