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ART FEATURE//PILSEN ART DISTRICT Chicago is a city full of art. Whether it be fashion, music, or galleries full of local artwork, there is something for everybody. The Second Fridays Gallery Night in the Pilsen Art District is drawing a cool, diverse crowd that is expanding every month. The Chicago Arts District, founded in 2002 by John Podmajersky III, whose parents and grandparents had lived in the neighborhood since it was a Slavic neighborhood at the turn of the 20th Century, puts on the event on every second Friday of each month. The CAD represents a coalition of both established and up-and-coming galleries in Pilsen. The galleries spread across a section of 18th that undercuts the highway and southwards along Halsted. Each gallery has a distinct character and crowd, but even that isn’t static from month to month. On my first Second Friday on October 10th, I started the night at what’s become one of my favorite spots, Elee Gallery on 18th Street. Elee sits on a corner just below the highway in a pretty unassuming spot across from a gas station. With its enormous windows and Zoolander-style loft feel, it stands out along with the gallery next to it in the sea of modest, nondescript homes in the area. When we arrived, the local artist showing at Elee that night, Barret Keithley, showed us around and told us a little bit about his art and what he does. Barrett, who dabbled in visual art and poetry throughout his childhood, didn’t start to paint in earnest until the age of 20 when he came home to Chicago from college in Maryland. “My first piece was on a poster board. It was a gift for a girlfriend,” he told us with a laugh. Now, Barrett’s works cover entire sections of the wall and grab your attention from across the block. When we were walking up, my friend Julianna looked in through the window about half a block away and exclaimed, “Oh that looks good!” Barrett’s largest piece, hugging most of the eastern interior wall at Elee, had a cartoonish feel, but 74 <strong>CUSP</strong> MAGAZINE WINTER ’14 ISSUE
was anything but juvenile. Subtle variations in facial expression and hand gestures really animated his characters, speaking to the real complexities of the community he was depicting through his art. When I asked him about it, he replied, “The figures all represent community. When their fists are raised up, that’s power. When they’re raising their hands like that, it’s an offering.” “And what about these guys?” I asked, gesturing towards a few ghostly characters interspersed with the rest of the community. “Those guys are tombstones,” Barrett said. “Whoa, morbid,” I replied. “Listen,” he told me. “Death is not something to be afraid of. Death is not a bad thing. Those tombstones also represent rebirth. I grew up on the South Side in the 100s, literally on the wrong side of the tracks and look at me now.” I kept in mind the hard realness of Barrett’s work and words while I traversed the other galleries. Not only did the themes vary; there were galleries that we explored in October that had mysteriously disappeared in November. A house that we went into the month before was closed to the public in November. The last time that we went in there, we ran into acclaimed Chicago artist Allen Vandever serving up corn and hot dogs to hungry art fans. Allen took me into the basement of the house and showed me a few pieces he had been working on. They were composed of varying layers of transparencies, overlaid on top of one another in a collage. Some of the layers had the same image, giving each image a depth that it wouldn’t have otherwise. Each piece had a realism to it that was evocative of what you might see in a dream. It turns out dreams are what motivate Allen. “I paint my dreams,” he told me when we went back upstairs, gesturing to a gorgeous painting of a woman underwater. “I sketch out the dream on Photoshop and then paint over it. Sometimes I repeat this process multiple times.” The other two artists who were showing at that house, Jason Davis and Vincent Vittorini, evoke similar dreamlike aesthetics with their work. Vincent’s <strong>CUSP</strong> MAGAZINE WINTER ’14 ISSUE 75