• Review

  • April 22nd, 2014 04.22.2014

    The Beast: 75 Years of the Hyde Park Art Center


    by Nina Litoff

    Through good times and the bad, the Hyde Park Art Center (HPAC) has upheld its vital goals: to exhibit bold and daring new exhibitions, to bolster support for arts in the neighborhood, and to educate a new generation of young artists. Its commitment to this vision has made the center a pillar of the Chicago arts community, and an enduring home for cutting edge contemporary art. This year, HPAC celebrates its 75th anniversary with a look back at its illustrious history as well as forward to a promising future.

    A fitting tribute to the legacy of the space is the current installation, John Preus’ The Beast, which opened at HPAC the weekend before last. The large-scale architectural intervention in the shape of a steer forges an interactive site specific-installation with socially minded political critique.

    Exterior of John Preus’s The Beast. Photo By Joel Wintermantle.

    The Beast itself is very large, but not quite imposing. It lays huddled in the corner of the main exhibition hall, raising its head gently with sleepy eyes. Its soft and plush surface is made of draped carpets and felt, creating a wooly exterior that is dusty, gritty, and as industrial as it is warm and inviting. The main belly of The Beast, no doubt a literal take on the cliché, lies adjacent to the moveable garage doors of the gallery, which can be opened to the street. In addition to activating the space sculpturally, the piece will also serve as its own room for performance and programming. Events such as a Beastly Story Slam, art making, and lectures are planned. “The Beast is both a platform for activities and an art installation…transforming physical space into a site charged with lively conversation promoting civic engagement,” writes curator Allison Peters Quinn.

     “I think that the installation is fitting because we really view the Hyde Park Art Center as a town square, and make it available for all different kinds of activities,” said Executive Director Kate Lorenz about the significance of the project, “We are trying to blur the boundary between art and life through our space.”

    The inside of The Beast is made up of a wooden armature mostly consisting of two-by-fours and wooden slats. Punctuating the inside skeleton are bits and pieces of old furniture and tables, discarded materials from the recently closed Chicago Public Schools. This political commentary conceived as an interior space make The Beast at once a formidable symbol and subversive presence.  Even while creating a communal experience, the figure of the steer evokes its darker side – the sacrificial, mythical, and tribal notions of collectivity.

    Interior of The Beast featuring found wood assemblages. Photo by Joel Wintermantle.

    HPAC itself was founded on the cusp of WWII, and despite uncertainties caused by the war, it thrived, moving from building to building, offering studio art classes as well as exhibitions. From the beginning, the center reclaimed alternative and less-than-glamorous exhibition spaces. The first was an abandoned saloon, which was later moved into a corner storefront, where large windows installations such as wallpaper created from drawings made by local elementary schools captured the attention and interest of the community. The center’s longest tenure from was from 1980 to 2006 in the del Prado building, a former hotel lobby, where the Center was tucked in the back of a hall full of offices, empty desks and locked doors.

    The current building that hosts HPAC was an Army warehouse purchased from the University of Chicago for $1. In a New York Times article, the architect, Doug Garofalo, said, “It was a blessing to get such a mundane building. It had so little character that there was no fear of losing anything significant.”

    The Hyde Park Art Center. Photo by Jason Smith.

    Throughout its history, the space has maintained its south side roots, even as different locales became the centers of Chicago’s gallery scene. In 1956, artist and educator Don Baum started his tenure as the Director of the HPAC’s exhibition program. In the 1960s, a series of seminal exhibitions entitled the Hairy Who featured prominent Chicago artists who came to be known as the Chicago Imagists. The popularity of exhibition openings skyrocketed, and the historical significance of HPAC had become solidified.

    The 75th anniversary celebration on April 13th was cheerful and lively attended. The night was also marked by the announcement of a gift to expand the center with a new wing. The Guida Family Creative Wing, sponsored through a gift from Julie and John Guida, will be used for expanded artists studios, a digital lab, and collaborative and educational spaces. These expansions, coupled with landmark interactive exhibitions such as The Beast will bolster the Hyde Park Art Center in the future as it continues to thrive as home for creative learning and art making.

    The Beast runs through August 3, 2014. Consult the website for the full schedule of The Beast events.

    Nina Litoff is a photographer, artist, and writer. She currently works at the Art Institute of Chicago.