Chicago’s Art Institute is populated with treasures from around the world. Pausing here for a moment, we considered the use of natural rubber in this mask that we thought was intended to mimic the texture of human skin. The object information however reveals a different use, as this is in fact a backing once used to hold bright red Abrus seeds in place. We briefly searched for a sculpture from the Americas that rendered human skin with an interesting technique but it was nowhere to be found in the museum’s labyrinths of galleries. Elsewhere we found textiles, jewelry and sculptures impeccably crafted by hand. Harold has a curiosity about materials and craft that is ignited in moments like this, our conversation soon turned to the use of natural dyes in the Americas and Africa. Early on in his career Harold travelled to Ghana to learn and work with these techniques. One of his sculptures titled Burial Party & Panic dwindled..., 2011 repurposes a hand painted black Kente funeral cloth traditionally worn when mourning the dead. The cloth is in fact not a solid black but gradations of black sealed with a waxed coating.
Incidents (of Travel)
In the itinerant lives of artists and curators, studio visits can be rare moments of convening. Since 2013 when I first visited Chicago, I have had a meeting with artist Harold Mendez on my agenda. Then, as with now, our individual trajectories meant that we were unable to share the same space for an extended period of time. So we nevertheless engaged in rudimentary conversation via email, social media posts and the occasional mail delivery. A couple of months ago when we finally got to meet following my recent relocation to Chicago, it was over drinks and dinner at the popular Hyde Park Chicago spot The Promontory that our conversations came to life. Without physical works at our disposal, our exchange ranged from discussing mutual artists friends, to new lives in new contexts, and to the varying themes that drive the work – history, memory, materiality and spatial politics.
A Chicago native of Mexican and Colombian descent, Harold works across sculpture, drawing and installation. He is a deft hand at interrogating the material cultures and histories of the old and new world. Earlier this year, in Mexico City where our paths connected once more, we spoke about landscape and affect, belonging and transnational identities, narrative retelling through the archive, and the ethnographic paradigm in art. Chicago was once again our meeting point for Incidents (of Travel) and our conversation meandered through these familiar themes, brought into relief by Harold’s hometown knowledge and insights into his former life as a graffiti artist. Tales of early years spent working on the fringes of city’s urban fabric—old train depots, tunnels and railway tracks—speak to Harold’s interest in spatial matters. Yet graffiti’s stylized illustrations and its bold tagging seemed at first somewhat removed from the unassuming gesturesgestures that ground his Harold’s work today. Through the course of our conversation, I would come to understand that the two are not unrelated—the handicraft, DIY culture and detailed rendering in graffiti sowed seeds for the strong material concerns and surface exploration of Harold’s recent work.
With the loss of cell phone reception and endlessly meandering roads, it’s easy to get lost down here. Like Lewis Carroll’s Alice we were looking for a door, one that Harold used to access the subway tunnels in his earlier years. We never found that door, but we passed by many others along the way. This is a space of entryways and exits, portals to buildings up above or indeed other undiscovered places. This is also a space of fantastical imaginings, having played host to several Hollywood Blockbusters. The ultimate non-place, Lower Wacker Drive is certainly not as spectacular as Chicago’s famed architecture up above, nevertheless it hints at the endless possibility of the city itself. There is surely a metaphor in this.
We stopped at Margie’s Candies briefly to cater to my sweet tooth. Harold would often stop by here with his brother en route to school, foregoing paying for the ‘L’ (Elevated train) to spend his monies on their offerings. While in Mexico City together earlier this year, I beamed ecstatically as we came across a table of colorful Mexican sweets—the salty-sweet taste of a tamarind ball reminding me of homemade confectionaries ecstatically consumed during my childhood years in Lagos. How does one represent home and the space of the domestic? Harold often uses unconventional materials in his work—popcorn, cotton candy, and other found objects—to evoke the texture, smell and sentiment of home.
There is something unbelievably democratic about the Lakefront in Chicago. Stretching the length of the city, it is the connecting artery of an urban landscape that is starkly racial and economically segregated. The 1909 Burnham Plan expressly declared: “Not a foot of its [Lake Michigan’s] shores should be appropriated to the exclusion of the people.” This plan has been kept largely intact by the city with one or two exceptions. Like many other post-industrial cities of its kind in the Midwest U.S., Chicago is currently exploring ways to repurpose its industrial architecture and address its vast stretches of vacant land. Neighborhoods are being gentrified and communities continue to be displaced. But the lake remains available to all, calling forth an ethos of social democracy that was the backbone of America’s golden era of industrialization.
The bright colors of these discarded birthday candles reference a cotton candy sculpture Harold made for the 2015 People’s Pop-Up Sculpture Park organized by fellow artist Robert Pruitt in vacant property lots in Houston’s 3rd Ward. Harold set it on fire and watched it disintegrate – the colors turning darker and black over time. Working with material residues—both literal and figurative—is a recurrent theme in Harold’s work. There is something nostalgic about these familiar tokens from everyday life, a feeling that is only deepened by their slow destruction.
En route to find The Dead Yards in Skokie, we serendipitously came across this street vendor at a stoplight. We rolled down the windows and hastily grabbed a few shots as he worked his way through the army of stationary cars. As he approached our car, he waved at the camera and smiled.
With much of our conversation revolving around notions of home, it was fitting that we would end the day at the house of close friends of Harold’s. The Franklin, directed by artist Edra de Soto and her designer husband Dan Sullivan, is one of the many apartment galleries that make up Chicago’s unique art scene. Located in Chicago’s East Garfield Park, a popular neighborhood for artist studios and artist-run initiatives, it is a warm and welcoming space for the avid art lover hoping to find some of the city and the nation’s up-and-coming voices. On view was the exhibition transmissions: algoritmos, polyrhythms, karuraqmi puririnay curated by William Cordova. The main gallery is in an outdoor pavilion designed by Dan, open to the elements and open year around, it defies the infamous Chicago weather. The Franklin is a site of radical hospitality – Edra and Dan are great hosts, and during our visit we were treated to soup, wine and conversation.
As if by design, when we arrived at The Franklin, Harold’s book Texts for nothing was front and center on Edra and Dan’s coffee table. This publication was produced in 2011 for Future Plan & Program, a publishing project organized by artist Steffani Jemison featuring book-length conceptual literary works by artists and was presented at Project Row Houses. The Studio Museum in Harlem commissioned Harold in 2013 to do a live performance (working with two actors) titled A blurred and generalized projection of you and me. The performance was part of the exhibition Fore, which was the fourth installment of the Studio Museum in Harlem’s ‘F’ series, following Freestyle (2001), Frequency (2005–06) and Flow (2008).
An expanded phase of a project conceived by Latitudes (Barcelona) in 2012, this new series of tours is conceived as fieldwork and an expanded studio visit. It is presented as reportage and dispatches from invited curators and artists working around the world.
Yesomi Umolu is Exhibitions Curator at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, where she is also a lecturer in the humanities division. Umolu specializes in global contemporary art and spatial practices and has held curatorial positions at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis and the Serpentine Gallery, London. www.yesomiumolu.com