UChicago artist in residence Eliza Myrie examines urban realities in new exhibitions at the Logan Center and the MCA.
In Local Metrics, the Logan Center’s new exhibition, artists in residence Cathy Alva Mooses, Faheem Majeed, and Eliza Myrie present facts of life from Chicago neighborhoods: surplus chairs from a Pilsen grade school, a sign advertising a housing development titled “Oakwood Shores,” a broadside newspaper depicting black youth involved in a recent tragedy.
The latter, from Myrie’s 2009 installation bright white/bright black, features a close-up of Vashion Bullock, one of the teenagers found guilty in the 2009 beating death of Chicago teen Derrion Albert, and Albert’s 11-year-old sister, Rhea, on the backside. Both images appeared on the cover of local newspapers reporting on Albert’s death. The broadside is displayed two ways: as a bound stack of newspapers and as a part of a paper spectrum in which the photo of Bullock on one end fades to black before materializing as Rhea on the other end.
Reproduced and morphing into one another, the images are strikingly similar in their framing: both are extreme close-ups of black youths looking away from the camera, one with a black eye and another tear streaked. Placing these images as two ends of a black spectrum, Myrie draws attention to stereotypical media portrayals of black youth as either criminals or victims. The work invites viewers to ask: What happens when we see a particular image over and over again? Do we accept it as truth? Alternatively, can it reveal underlying attitudes and prejudices?
Caught by these questions, in late June I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art to hear Myrie discuss her work on display in the museum’s current exhibit, Skyscraper: Art and Architecture Against Gravity. An interactive pulley system of small wooden buildings inspired by real Chicago landmarks, raze/raise-topple/top pull (2012) is materially and thematically distinct from the broadsides in Local Metrics. Myrie commented in a recent interview that the focus of her work is shifting: her work had been “blatantly racial for a while,” but she’s moving in a new direction to investigate optical illusions, motion, and distortion. While bright white/bright black is explicitly racial, raze/raise-topple/top pull directs its gaze away from people and toward the buildings we coexist with.
But as Myrie identified the wooden buildings’ real-world counterparts, I realized that in spite of initial appearances, the piece’s study of sites in the urban landscape necessarily traverses race. The Trump Tower and Cabrini Green—two buildings represented in miniature—signify radically dissimilar experiences of urban life. Both externally in their appearance and internally by their inhabitants, buildings function as markers of identity. As Myrie admitted in the interview, whether she is willing to talk about it or not, “there will always be a tinge of color to my work.”
Part of the motivation behind making the piece interactive, Myrie explained, was to explore the possibility of an intimate relationship between monolithic buildings and the individuals who inhabit them. With Myrie’s encouragement, audience members played with the pulley system by alternately pulling on the strings until the buildings had risen all the way to the top; once the tension on the strings was released, the buildings quickly slid back down.
After her talk, I asked Myrie how her works in the two exhibitions intersect.
“I live in Uptown,” she said. To get to work in Hyde Park, “I drive up and down Lake Shore.” For Myrie, Lake Shore Drive physically connects the two neighborhoods. “I pass this skyline everyday. I’m moving through the landscape in which this is taken from, so that’s a really direct connection in terms of my physical body needing to go places.”
Another connection she highlighted between the two pieces was the central role that repetition—the replication of photos in newspapers, the construction and razing of buildings—played in shaping the works. Through the recurrence and proliferation of things, she pointed out, “there is an effort to try to understand the structure or foundation of a concept.”
Every weekday morning, many make the same commute, or perhaps, in reverse: we travel up Lake Shore from Hyde Park to the Loop and beyond, passing many of the same buildings that inspired Myrie’s miniatures. Taking in these sites, what do we see?
Profile of artist in residence Eliza Myrie.