CHICAGO — There’s a funny little spoon on view at the Cultural Center. It’s one of those souvenir items you could purchase at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and it features a very fine two-sided carving of a woman at the end of its handle. The bowl of the spoon is engraved with the image of the Woman’s Building, the only one of the exposition’s many temporary neo-classical structures to have been designed by a female architect and the one that owed its existence in great part to the lady depicted on the spoon: Bertha Mathilda Honoré Palmer, a Chicago socialite, millionaire, and president of the fair’s Board of Lady Managers.
This footnote of feminist architectural history — which we definitely could complicate with a postcolonial read of an event held in celebration of the so-called discovery of the new world by Christopher Columbus, but which I’m not going to do here because it’ll get us too far off topic — is one of many told through two unrelated solo shows currently up in Chicago, must-sees for anyone who cares about feminism and how it intersects with modernist architecture, urban planning, and design. It helps, too, to have a preference for mischievous over pedantic historical revisionism. At the Cultural Center is Nelly Agassi: No Limestone, No Marble, containing that weird woman-spoon, enormous new sculptures and wall works, plus three series of witty and illuminating collages. Companionably down the street at the Museum of Contemporary Photography is Shannon Bool 1:1, replete with bold and clever photography-based tapestries, two groups of photograms, and a pair of blown-glass sculptures.
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The Israeli-born Agassi, who settled in Chicago in 2011, has an exquisite sense of scale and drama. It’s an apt skillset when dealing with design, craft, and bodies, as she has done for the past two decades, from the room-sized dresses she performed in in the early 2000s in Tel Aviv to her 2019 show at the Graham Foundation, where she installed curtains that flowed, like golden tresses, across an entire gallery. It comes especially in handy in the Chicago Rooms, a trio of galleries on the second floor of the Cultural Center linked by narrow archways that rise nearly to the top of the 32-foot ceilings, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Millennium Park. The grandeur has proved challenging to artists in the past, but not Agassi, who appears to have been electrified rather than cowed. She occupies the first room with a dozen and a half enormous white tubes of flexible ductwork, cascading out of the wall and spilling over the floor while emitting eerie rumbling sounds from within. The effect is of a frothy waterfall, a futuristic musical instrument, a monster’s sickly pale intestinal tract, or some beastly combination thereof. I felt a bit cheated to realize that the piping didn’t actually penetrate the building, exposing rather than merely evoking its inner workings and noises, but I guess that’s in keeping with being theatrical as opposed to interventionist. Also in the same room is a twisty knot of thick, dusty rose yarn finger-knit by the artist’s young son, Jonah. Fleshy and intimate, unruly and umbilical, it is the domestic opposite of the big white monster’s public prominence.
The three galleries of No Limestone, No Marble — a reference to the hefty materials used to construct the Cultural Center and so many of Chicago’s most important buildings — fit together like segments of a body. At the bottom are those white guts. In the middle is the torso, an installation of enormous rounded and rectangular mirrored plexiglass that playfully rearranges the shapes of the windows that line the walls, reflecting the world outside and the art inside. At the top is the head, or rather dozens of heads large and small: cut-outs of ladies’ hairstyles from vintage fashion magazines, collaged with pictures of Tiffany lamps and other home furnishings of the era, which turn out to make excellent proxies for women’s bodies and fashions. The queen of them all, blown up to billboard size, takes as her dress an image of the Cultural Center’s famed Tiffany dome, the largest in the US and perfectly elegant when worn with a twisty up-do. Much to ponder about the strictures faced by women at the turn of the 19th century as related to the aesthetics of the time? Oh yes, not least the recent discovery, related in an adjacent wall text, that Louis Comfort Tiffany did not design everything personally but actually depended on many talented women known as the “Tiffany girls,” designers and craftspeople forced to resign once married, and forbidden to unionize. Agassi offers her lamp-lady collages in their memory.
Shannon Bool, a Canadian artist born in 1972 and resident in Berlin since 2005, delves into design histories a few decades more modern, though no less sexist, than those that concern Agassi. 1:1 opens with a pair of photo-based tapestries that present headless female mannequins from a recent exhibit dedicated to the fashions of Dior. The silhouettes are instantly recognizable, but Bool has replaced fabric with images of the equally unmistakable skyline of Manhattan and the twisting towers of a Zaha Hadid skyscraper in Beijing. The substitution elegantly converges modernist architecture, luxury, fashion, and women’s bodies, a very real mix whose most esteemed analyst has, since the 1990s, been the Princeton professor Beatriz Colomina. Her writings on Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Carlo Mollino, among others, were some of the first to unearth the sorts of histories Bool explores here. Horses of Oblivion, a series of eight black and white photograms, meticulously amalgamates images of mares with fragments of famed modernist structures: Richard Rogers’s futuristic Lloyd’s building in London, Jean Renaudie’s pointy concrete housing complex in the Parisian suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine, Mollino’s curvy clubhouse for the Torino Horse Riding Club. The fusion is weird, machinic, sensuous, and revelatory of the sorts of unspoken desires that lurked under the clean sheen of modernism.
Likewise, the 12 photograms of Bombshells, in which drawings from Le Corbusier’s city plan for Algiers are overlaid with vintage erotic postcards of North African women. Corbu lived in Algiers in the 1930s while he worked on his sweeping, radical, uncommissioned, and ultimately unbuilt scheme; while there he sampled the local culture, including sexually. Bool’s photograms refer to this private-public history, but their genius lies in the overlap: roadways and structural lines caress the curves of the women’s bodies, divide up their anatomies, trace their veins, costume them in strappy bondage gear. It’s not always clear what’s superimposition and what’s inspiration but, as always, we know whose name eventually made it into the history books and who got to keep their clothes on.
Nelly Agassi: No Limestone, No Marble continues at the Chicago Cultural Center (78 East Washington Street, Chicago, Illinois) through February 26. The exhibition was curated by Ionit Behar and designed by Andrew Schachman.
Shannon Bool 1:1 continues at the Museum of Contemporary Photography (600 South Michigan Avenue) through April 2. The exhibition was curated by Karen Irvine, the museum’s chief curator and deputy director.