SPOTLIGHT: Chicago

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here and there pink melon joy
Sabina Ott with sound installations by Joe Jeffers
installation view at Chicago Cultural Center (2014/15)
Photo: Clare Britt, courtesy of the artist and Aspect/Ratio

In the sunny, carriage house studio nestled in the backyard of multidisciplinary artist Sabina Ott’s home in the Oak Park suburb of Chicago, she remarks: “It took ten years for a neighbor to come up on the porch and say hello.” Ott, in addition to her careers as an artist and an educator, runs Terrain Exhibitions. For this alternative exhibition space, Ott invites artists to create site-specific works on her own front yard and porch, which remain on display for all the neighborhood to see 24 hours a day. While Ott is careful to point out that Terrain is an endeavor separate from the kind of creation that goes on inside her studio, it’s easy to identify the dual nature of her ideas overall that appeals to the insider art community and a wider audience alike. Work at Terrain is both family-friendly and highly conceptual. Her own artwork combines the familiar and the unfamiliar, the lowbrow and the literary.

Ott’s uncompromising vision for her artwork and her life as an artist has resulted in a career of accomplishments on both coasts and throughout the Midwest before coming to Chicago 10 years ago; this past year-and-a-half has tacked on even more accolades to her lengthy resume, including a 2015-2016 Guggenheim Fellowship and a major exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center that was widely received as an overwhelming success.

Ott’s 2014-2015 Cultural Center exhibition, “here and there pink melon joy,” occupied three vast galleries, each thematically suggesting the narrative of Dante’s Inferno injected with a healthy dose of gestural abstraction and the poetic influence of Gertrude Stein. “Writing is always really a part of my work. I go back and forth between even just a few authors to work from,” Ott says, clarifying, “I don’t illustrate them. The storytelling aspect is inspirational to me.” As viewers traversed from room to room in the exhibition, massive Styrofoam-based sculptures were accompanied by noisy sound pieces by fellow Chicago artist Joe Jeffers, from an ‘inferno’ themed space of fiery orange cage-like forms, to a “purgatory” of mirrors and ticking clocks, to a video projection of swirling texts in a dark room that constituted “paradise.” For Ott, the structure of Dante’s tower in purgatory resembled the rose so prominent in Stein’s oeuvre. “There’s something about the whole Stein-ian project that’s so important and so radical,” says Ott, “For me, it’s the way that she makes language be familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. I want my work to do that.”

Installation view from the First Terrain Biennial
Robert Gero
Photo: courtesy of the artists and Terrain Exhibitions

With “here and there pink melon joy” as a culminating example, Ott’s work of late has indeed embodied that dichotomy of the ordinary and the strange that the artist so admires in her literary inspiration. With Styrofoam blocks as a base, Ott will envelop sharp, geometric forms with bulbous wads of foam and smears of latex paint. Integrated with the same intuitive zeal, objects like plastic clocks, mirrors, houseplants and light bulbs are folded into the mix. The entire amalgamation created from this process is also subject to Ott’s painterly treatment of various pastel and neon spray enamel- a palette that imbues her pieces with a Teletubbies-meets-Alice-in-Wonderland kind of hallucinogenic playfulness.

“There was a time when my work was very tasteful,” Ott laughs, as she remarks on her current preoccupation with the vulgarity of kitsch and pop. “I’m really interested in the idea of the grotesque, and how that could break down the barrier between viewer and object.” With these fluorescent colors, the humble medium of Styrofoam and her Target store sourced objects, the artist draws not from art history’s tradition of fineness, but from the base stuff of ordinary life. “There’s something about that ugly/beautiful [duality] that creates a space for conversation,” Ott explains.

here and there pink melon joy
Sabina Ott with sound installations by Joe Jeffers
installation view at Chicago Cultural Center (2014/15)
Photo: Clare Britt, courtesy of the artist and Aspect/Ratio

As a teen, Ott was inclined toward ceramics, though she counts her time in the early ’70s “living as a Dadaist” in San Francisco as particularly formative. Hanging out with a slightly older generation of artists like Anna Banana and Bill Gaglione, Ott embraced performance art and an irreverence for traditional aesthetics, supplemented by an appreciation for the likes of Joan Snyder and her deconstructed paintings. In 1985 at the young age of 29, Ott’s solo exhibition at New York’s Charles Cowles Gallery garnered her quite a buzz, as at that time, exhibitions of California artists in New York’s galleries were rare. Although for many years painting was Ott’s primary medium, for over a decade the artist has abandoned painting proper in lieu of a multidisciplinary practice. “I stopped painting as a solo act,” she explains, “because if I’m dealing with re-proportioning relationships, I felt like it needed to engage with multiple mediums and movement in space.”

In tandem with Ott’s fine art career is her academic one. Involved in higher education consistently since 1989 with posts at California State University, Washington University in St. Louis and (her alma mater) San Francisco Art Institute, the artist moved to Chicago in 2005 to take the position as the Chair of the Department of Art & Design at Columbia College, later transitioning to Professor of Art. Currently on sabbatical, Ott takes advantage of the proximity to other notable local artists who have also chosen the western suburb as their home. Ott’s close friends and Oak Park neighbors Michelle Grabner, Alison Ruttan and Michelle Wasson are constant studio visitors. “I feel very collaborative in that sense,” says Ott of the social nature of her studio, “I talk to everybody as if they were really interested! I need their ideas and pushback… [My] students are surprised to hear this. They think it’s all about developing autonomy, and it’s not. It’s about developing your connections.”

Installation view from the First Terrain Biennial
Karolina Gnatowski and Dan Gunn
Photo: courtesy of the artists and Terrain Exhibitions

Outside of her personal practice, Ott also draws the art community to her through her artist-run space, Terrain Exhibitions. Exhibiting emerging and established artists since 2011, Terrain is a unique twist on the DIY/apartment gallery tradition that is so prevalent in Chicago. “Terrain is different because it’s not inside, that you don’t have to know me to come,” she explains. With the site-specific works installed outside the house, a viewer doesn’t have to feel as though they’re entering exclusive territory to have an artistic experience. “The artists have a very different relationship to the site than they’re used to,” Ott says. “And the people who walk by are incidental audiences that we don’t usually get as artists. Also, the viewers have a completely different relationship to where they live. It becomes something bigger than what it is.” And Terrain is not Ott’s first rodeo. From 1978-1982, Ott ran an alternative space called Jetwave in San Francisco with a
group of fellow artists, Fredrica Drotos, Randy Hussong and Bruce Gluck. Describing their scene as more ‘punk’ than other more institutionalized spaces of the time, like 80 Langton Street, Ott explains it as feeling as though “the city was your studio.” And she sees the same impetus in Chicago. “You make an audience for yourself of your peers. It doesn’t have to be for Mom and Dad down the street, or some idea of a perfect audience. You’re the perfect audience! And that’s enough,” she says. “It’s not about the marketplace, it’s about making. Chicago has a lot of that, out of need. Everybody deserves this chance to play.”

Indeed the communal spirit of Terrain has been so embraced by Chicago’s art community that the Terrain Biennial was born. 2015 is the event’s second iteration, far outpacing that of its 2013 inaugural year. Expanding upon Ott’s original concept, the biennial features works by over 70 artists installed in front of 60 different homes internationally. Many of these sites are in the Chicago-Oak Park area, including local artist Emily Hermant at the original Terrain site and Chicagoan Robert Burnier at the home of Alison Ruttan. Paul Druecke is on display at the new Milwaukee location of Michelle Grabner’s The Suburban gallery. Homes in Memphis, Knoxville, Dallas, Oakland and Los Angeles are on the bill as well, as is artistcurator- author Lise Haller Baggesen’s parents’ home in Viborg, Denmark. The opening reception on August 23 will be packed with performances at Ott’s house, and the event at large will be on display through September 30, 2015.

In the midst of orchestrating the massive Biennial, Ott keeps the momentum in the studio ever moving forward. As the 2015 Jackman Goldwasser Chicago artist-in-residence at the Hyde Park Art Center, Ott will be debuting “who cares for the sky,” a site-specific installation involving a 16-foot mountain inspired by Gertrude Stein’s only children’s book, The World Is Round, on February 7, 2016. Also ahead for the artist is a dual exhibition with Joe Jeffers at SideCar Gallery in Hammond, IN, in November 2015, and a 2016 solo exhibition at Aspect/Ratio in Chicago, where she has recently been added to the roster. Says Ott of her continually expanding practice, “I want to be changed by what I make. You want to be changed by love, and because we love what we make, I want to be changed by it-something bigger than myself.”