There’s More To See Than The Obama Portraits At Art Institute Of Chicago This Summer
By Chad Scott. July 21, 2021.
The Obama Portraits headline the Art Institute of Chicago’s summer exhibition schedule. Chicago is the first stop on a national tour for the instantly iconic paintings by Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley which are typically housed at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C..
Visitors who take time exploring the rest of the museum will be rewarded with the nation’s premiere collection of, “hey, I’ve seen that before” paintings, images familiar to even the non-art going public. Bisa Butler’s stunning portrait quilts remain on view. They have revolutionized what will be expected of art museums from this day forward.
Two new exhibitions also deserve attention.
The song “I’ve Been Everywhere” tells the story of a man travelling far and wide across the countryside from big cities to small towns with little more than the clothes on his back. It could have been written about Joseph Yoakum (1891–1972).
Iola, Kansas. Stockholm, Sweden. Paso Robles, California. Saudi Arabia.
Did Yoakum actually visit all of the places for which he painted and titled his dreamy, flattened landscapes, roughly 100 of which are on view now through October 18th during the exhibition, “Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw?”
“I think it’s highly likely that he visited many of the locations he claimed to have visited, but even if he did not, suspending my disbelief leads me to conclude that his focus on the specific land masses and bodies of water were a portrait of his spiritual self–his surrogate visual self-portrait,” Mark Pascale, Janet and Craig Duchossois Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, told Forbes.com. “He claimed to have visited the places based on memories from his youth, so, as an older man, isolated in a city far removed from all of his subjects (Chicago), he is expanding his immediate surroundings. It’s very beautiful to me to imagine this as part of his thinking.”
Boise. Vancouver. The Andes Mountains. Honolulu. Alaska. China. India.
However many of these places Yoakum laid eyes on, he was astonishingly widely-travelled. Born during Jim Crow in Missouri, Yoakum left home as a boy to work for circuses. He worked on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1902. He served in France during World War I. He rode the rails around the American West. He lived in Iowa and Florida and off-and-on in Chicago before settling there for good.
By 1962, at the age of 71, when Yoakum reported having a dream that inspired him to draw, he had been everywhere. The day following that dream, he began a daily art practice that produced some 2,000 works over the next 10 years.
“Recognizing that Yoakum’s drawings were consistent throughout the known corpus of his work and the high achievement of his compositions, touch, and invention is what sets him apart from the masses of so-called ‘self-taught’ artists,” Pascale explains. “He was an artist, plain and simple.”
Other Chicago artists recognized Yoakum’s achievements, leading them to collect and support his work, bringing him to wider attention than he could have achieved himself as a Black, art world outsider in the late 1960s and 1970s.
As fate would have it, Chicago turned out to be the ideal place for Yoakum to become recognized and appreciated.
“In Chicago, there has long been an interest in the art of world cultures, not as ‘primitive’ art, but as objects produced by artists and artisans who did so from a spiritual and cultural mandate,” Pascale said. “This idea was taught in Art History classes at School of the Art Institute of Chicago, first by Kathleen Blackshear, and later by her student Whitney Halstead. They led SAIC students to the Art Institute, the Field Museum, the Oriental Institute and other places such as Maxwell Street Market, and by doing so, prepared them to be open to things that did not follow any strict Western Anglo-aesthetic pattern.”
Pascale also notes that Chicago collectors had a well-developed interest in Surrealism, a genre Yoakum’s work tends to lend itself if it must be categorized.
“Jean Dubuffet delivered his famous lecture ‘Anti-Cultural Positions’ at The Arts Club in 1951 (in Chicago),” Pascale said. “In it, he argued for the celebration and elevation of Non-Western art as art. All of these things combined to make Chicagoans with open eyes have a propensity for work that was intensely personal, aesthetically convincing, yet lacking the elements of art school training–drawing from life, perspective, etcetera.”
This atmosphere allowed for Yoakum to have his first commercial exhibition in 1968, in Chicago, and at least three of the artists who loaned to the current exhibition saw and purchased his drawings.
Yoakum saw the world and painted it; Chicago brought those paintings back to the world.
Mimi Cherono Ng’ok
A contemporary world traveler, Mimi Cherono Ng’Ok (B. 1983, Kenya) uses a camera–a film camera–to share her visions of the tropical climates of the Global South, primarily focused on the area’s vegetation.
Her first solo museum exhibition in the United States, “Mimi Cherono Ng’ok: Closer to the Earth, Closer to My Own Body,” presents photographs and a film made across Africa, the Caribbean and South America, all as part of an ongoing inquiry into the rich and diverse botanical cultures of the tropics.
“Because Mimi makes most of her work during her world travels, sometimes many months go by before she has the film developed and is able to see the results,” Antawan Byrd, Associate Curator of Photography and Media at the Art Institute of Chicago, told Forbes.com. “This distance, a kind of deferred gratification, is part of her process–it allows her to see the images anew and thus discover details and associations that might not emerge through an instantaneous engagement with the images through digital format.”
Ng’Ok’s work connects to a longstanding tradition of plant photography, albeit from a dramatically different perspective.
“Some of the earliest known photographs such as the ‘photogenic drawings’ made by William Henry Fox Talbot during the late 1830s depict plant forms,” Byrd explains. “Throughout the 20th century, artists ranging from Imogen Cunningham and László Moholy-Nagy to Robert Mapplethorpe all employed photography to visually analyze botanical specimens. Mimi is conscious of these precedents and would say that her approach is distinguished by the particularity of her life experiences growing up in Nairobi where she developed a reverence for the botanical diversity of tropical regions.”
Photographs in “Closer to the Earth, Closer to My Own Body” lack frames, titles, or any indication of place. The artist intends for this to offer viewers an experience that is immediate, intimate and vulnerable.
“Mimi is really interested in audiences having an unfiltered engagement with her work; she likes to leave it open so that viewers are encouraged to draw on their own associations and stories as they experience the work,” Byrd said.
To help visitors dig in, while the artist is interested in the formal character of the plants, think about what she might be trying to say about their broader links to domestic and social life, indigenous culture and histories of imperialism.
Think about where else florals are prominently depicted in the museum.