The earthy red of Chicago Common bricks allows the facade to disguise itself amidst the neighboring homes and apartment buildings. Large, trees obscures the view of the four-story structure from across the street. However, a domineering black fence and solid gate with a sleek intercom indicate that Wrightwood 659, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Tadao Ando, is more than just another residential building tucked into the predominantly residential neighborhood of Chicago’s Lincoln Park.
I can’t help but compare the entrance to the experience of entering or exiting a butterfly house at a zoo. Staff usher visitors into a small foyer to scan their tickets with handheld devices before they unlock and open the weighty glass doors, allowing visitors into the narrow atrium. The atrium is a three story, geometrical concrete structure that glowers over me. I cannot help but peer upwards into the expansive, open space. Each floor has a small terrace that recedes back, allowing for the quiet murmur of other visitors to echo throughout the space. I clamber up the winding concrete steps to reach the second floor of the building where the traditional, white-walled gallery space begins.
Described as a private, non-commercial initiative envisioned as a new kind of arts space and cultural resource for Chicago, Wrightwood 659 is the pet project of Fred Eychaner, founder of Newsweb Corporation and President of the Alphawood Foundation. The gallery space was built on a lot directly east of Eychaner’s 80-foot long concrete mansion, which was also designed by Tadao Ando. Eychaner’s home is famous for having hosted fundraisers event for Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton and former President Barack Obama.
Eychaner ranks fifth nationally among lifetime donors to the Democratic National Committee and was appointed to a six-year term on the board of the Kennedy Center by Barack Obama—an appointment often considered a reward for being the fourth-most-prolific contributor to the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 elections.
Eychaner founded Alphawood Foundation in 1992. The foundation has more than $100 million in assets and typically makes grants between $50,000 and $100,000 to organizations, primarily in the areas of advocacy, architecture and preservation, the arts and arts education, promotion and protection of the rights of LGBT persons and people living with HIV/AIDS, and other human and civil rights.
While Wrightwood 659 touts itself as a novel arts space, the gallery is similar to other privately owned art spaces, such as The Brant Foundation Art Study Center in New York. Founded by Peter Brant, Chairman of White Birch Paper and Brant Publications, The Brant Foundation exhibits Brant’s private collection of art, which visitors have to make advanced reservations to visit. In 2015, New York Times writer Patricia Cohen criticized the gallery for essentially being a federal subsidy because Brant received federal tax-breaks for the nonprofit operated space. The same criticisms could be levelled at Wrightwood 659, which features a fourth floor atrium where visitors can peer down into Eychaner’s bleak, brutalist home.
In contrast to the Brant Study Center, the museum hosts exhibitions organized with external partners and rarely features work from Eychaner’s collections (besides for an egregious and frankly orientalist display of MIT professor Michael Hawley’s Bhutan, A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom.)
As a cultural resource, Wrightwood 659 failed to deliver substantive public programming during the museum’s first two exhibitions, Ai Weiwei’s Trace in Chicago and Ando and Le Corbusier: Masters of Programming. An inclusive model of programming, suggested by both Wrightwood 659’s description and the mission of The Alphawood Foundation to work for an “equitable, just, and humane society” would require the institution to collaborate with the communities that it aims to serve and to focus on programming centered on the education and participation of visitors.
Currently, visitors are required to reserve tickets for allotted windows of time offered three days a week during exhibitions. If wealthy individuals such as Peter Brant and Fred Eychaner receive federal tax-breaks by building private galleries to heavy handedly flaunt their wealth, then these institutions should be made accessible to the public beyond the current, limited reservations. Private institutions of this kind are usually operated by the individual’s private foundation, allowing funders to dictate programming, exhibitions, and access, while still enjoying the tax benefits of traditional nonprofit philanthropy. This model promotes charitable giving without the oversight of a Board of Trustees, removing the small modicum of accountability nonprofits are currently held to.
Having recently celebrated their official one-year anniversary this fall, the museum has made some strides towards improvements. About Face: Stonewall, Revolt and New Queer Art, an exhibition curated by prominent LGBTQIA+ historian Jonathan D. Katz, had 14 programs in conjunction with the sprawling, expansive, and marvelous exhibition. Previously, Dimensions of Citizenship: Architecture and Belonging from the Body to the Cosmos, the U.S. entry at the 16th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, had 5 associated programs.
Wrightwood 659’s current exhibition Tetsuya Ishida: Self-Portrait of Other, organized by the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid is a sweeping survey of Japanane-artist Tetsuya Ishida’s prolific ten-year career. Born in 1973, Ishida came of age during Japan’s Lost Decade, one of the longest-running economic crises in financial history. Economic growth in Japan halted for over ten years while the country experienced low growth, deflation, and a record-low stock market. Often, Japan’s suicide rate, which is 60 percent higher than the world average, is attributed to the despair and uncertainty of those who had uncertain jobs and futures because of this economic crisis. Tetsuya Ishida’s work captures the feelings of hopelessness, claustrophobia, and emotional isolation that pervaded Japanese society.
Ishida’s paintings have been described as depicting “dark Orwellian absurdity,” a conclusion that feels apt and somehow also underwhelming after confronting two-floors of the artist’s formidable work. Despite the fact that all the paintings were completed before the artist’s tragic death in 2005 after being struck by a train, the work feels remarkably contemporary. Confronting a society which has yielded to the machinery of production and infinite consumption, Ishida’s subjects convey the morose, miserable despair endemic to late-Capitalism.
A particularly mesmerizing image from the exhibition is tucked away in a small alcove at the end of a long hallway on the third floor. Search /Sōsaku (2001), a large acrylic painting confronts the viewers as they enter the space. The painting features the stock male figure that repeats throughout Ishisda’s paintings, curled on his side in a fetal position as he is absorbed into a model railroad. The figure is lying with his back to a glaringly white, muted background of a window to the outside world. Another figure can be seen passing by outside the window. The painting conveys an overwhelming sense of loneliness and isolation through the listless expression of the subject’s face as he turns away from the window and the outside world.
Metamorphosis of the human body as it merges with different animals, insects, technological devices or means of transportation, is a common thread throughout Ishida’s work. By obscuring the boundary between human and animal or human and machine, he suggests a bleak view of the world where our jobs and our production is the sole way we can define ourselves.
Ishida’s painting Wake (1998) captures the monotony of the professional, academic, and economic competitiveness that pervades the farce of meritocracy in both Japanese and American culture where the masses are convinced that grueling, dehumanizing work will offer them the opportunity for social mobility. The students in Wake all share the same face, alluding to the idea that school has reduced them to mere clones of one another. Several students are falling asleep at their desks, while the central figure is a surreal crossover between microscope and boy, emphasizing how children are dehumanized and reduced to tools for production.
As the United States approaches an inevitable economic slowdown and potential Recession, the anxiety produced in Ishida’s paintings feels familiar and inescapable. The irony of Tetsuya Ishida: Self-Portrait of Other, an astounding survey of a masterful artist grappling with complex, shared human experience, being shown at Wrightwood 659 exacerbates the very themes of economic and social inequality in the artist’s work.
Fred Eychaner constructed this private gallery space, often used for his own private events attended by Chicago’s ultra-wealthy such as former Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, by amassing vast, private wealth. The gallery itself is located in the heart of Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, which has a median household income of more than $100,000. Wrightwood 659, and similar private arts organizations, should not receive tax-exemptions while providing limited, meager opportunities for public access while simultaneously concentrating resources in one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. The discrepancy between the stated purpose of the gallery, the work being shown on its walls, and the systems of power that allow a single person to construct, operate, and govern an institution of this scale are irreconcilable.
|Event||Tetsuya Ishida: Self-portrait of Other|
|Date||Oct 3 - Dec 14, 2019|
|Address||659 W. Wrightwood, Chicago, IL 60614|
|Website||Tetsuya Ishida: Self-portrait of Other|