Second Fridays provide a fading oasis for UChicago arts seekers.
Neighborhoods in Chicago can be fluid. Hyde Park can attest to that. And some neighborhoods—like the Valley, which today is the Illinois Medical District—may disappear almost entirely. Still others suddenly appear: in 2002, on a site not far from the Valley—South Halsted Street in East Pilsen—John Podmajersky III, a third-generation East Pilsen resident and property owner, stuck a flag in the ground and declared it the Chicago Arts District. Why not? A city of neighborhoods can always use one more, and nobody will object to an artists’ colony on the Near West Side. A monthly pilgrimage for many UChicago students since the mid-2000s, Second Fridays (as in the second Friday of every month) began as an effort by Robin Monique Rios and Jerod Schmidt, original owners of the gallery 4Art Inc., to bring attention to the many artists living and working in Podmajersky’s Arts District. The official neighborhood governance was quick to embrace it, compiling maps to distribute to visitors, guiding them through the 30 or so gallery spaces on Halsted that throw their doors wide open. I often make the trek to Second Fridays, if only to grab dinner in Pilsen, and was there for August’s event. The artwork was all over the place, from pixelated portraiture of the Ice Climbers, Bob-ombs, and Pokemon characters in Gallery 27 to bawdy boudoir photography in the Sitting Room, a gallery resembling a Victorian drawing room. The Phoenix Art and Empowerment Space displays the abstract fiery color play of Chicago native Jennifer Bridgeforth. In a space on the fourth floor of the Fountainhead Lofts, Adam DeVarney hangs his sketchings without pupils intended, as he explains, to give the impression of a mask that any viewer may slip into. A floor below, photographs taken in Haiti and the Dominican Republic hang side by side with food porn. As I walked down Halsted from 17th Street to Cullerton, I passed several groups of fellow UChicago undergrads who, like me, were seeking escape into an oasis of urban artistry sometimes lacking in Hyde Park. Still, it is difficult to ignore the fact that Chicago Arts District seems like more of a trademark than an authentic neighborhood. Hundreds of people were sipping free-with-donation beverages, surreptitiously hoarding the yields of appetizer trays, and discussing the use of negative space by contemporary artists—but something was missing. Rios and 4Art Inc. packed up three years ago and moved down to Bridgeport, where she now hosts a monthly—you guessed it—Third Fridays event. Maybe she was on to something before the rest of us. But for now, the Chicago Arts District and Second Fridays still provide an opportunity for U of C students and other Chicagoans to play either side of a Woody Allen scene: the self-absorbed and hopelessly unaware pedant or the equally self-absorbed critical wit, and—is that a chainsaw attached to a mechanical bull frame?