In Taverns

March 18—April 16, 2017 Hume Chicago, 3242 W. Armitage, Chicago, IL 60647 Opening Reception: Saturday, March 18, 6-10pm Gallery Hours: Saturdays, 12-5pm or by appointment 

I’ve been drawing in bars since before I was allowed to drink. Like coffee shops, subway cars, and any number of other public gathering places, taverns allow an artist to observe without necessarily being observed. Bars are neither home nor work, they are third places, where people gather to make community. Because they are engaged with others or with their own thoughts, people in bars make for great subject-matter. But what of the rooms themselves?

Over the past five years I’ve been taking my paints to my favorite haunts. I set up in different parts of the room each time and try to catch some of the atmosphere and feel of these places which play host to so many different kinds of people night in and night out. The three taverns portrayed in these paintings are ones I know well. Each has played a part in my personal history and there’s no way that bits and pieces of that history don’t make it into the pictures in some way.

The Rainbo Club has been an artists’ and musicians’ bar since back when creative people could actually afford to live within walking distance. Today it is a lonely holdout in a neighborhood glutted with strollers and sports bars. I’ve been a regular for over twenty years. My wedding pictures were taken in its photo booth, I’ve put up art on its walls many times, even worked the door a few nights. It all comes back every time I go through the door.

I’ve worked at the Skylark for a couple years but coming in since it opened some fifteen years ago. Like Rainbo, many artists have darkened its doorstep; unlike Rainbo, some can still afford to live nearby. Pilsen is well along in the gentrification process which swallowed up West Town years ago. One of the bitter pills of this transformation is that the very reasons which attract people with money to these neighborhoods are destroyed by their arrival. It’s one thing to dig the way artists make do with what they’ve got and quite another to live without the comforts and amenities one’s wealth has made one used to. Soon dry cleaners and sushi shops sprout like mushrooms and bars like the Skylark are but a memory.

Bernice’s Tavern has been run by Steve Badauskas’ family for over fifty years. Bernice is his mom and she still lives in the apartment behind the bar. Before Steve’s father bought the bar, another Lithuanian immigrant ran it. When I moved to Bridgeport the place drew me in as if it had been waiting for me to come in for years. The regulars are a mix of neighborhood old-timers and kids just out college and still figuring themselves out. It’s a place which welcomes all comers.

The paintings in this show may not directly address themes like gentrification but they definitely record specific places at specific times and thus cannot help but reflect the changes which make themselves felt nearby. The three taverns portrayed in these pictures are in three neighborhoods which are each at a different point of transition. Whether bars like these survive will determine whether these neighborhoods continue to be their own places or become cookie-cutter subdivisions no different than any other. These paintings are a way to pay tribute to particular places in particular times with the hope that they don’t disappear anytime soon.

Straight White Men

I told Alex at the coffee shop jokingly that I was going to see a play called “Straight White Men” because I wanted to see something about people just like me. I couldn’t have been more wrong. As the audience walks into the upstairs theater at the Steppenwolf, a hiphop tune blares and two transgender actors in bedazzled jumpsuits shake their hips to the booming bass when not showing people to their seats or handing out earplugs. When the show begins, the same pair go up on stage and explain that the music was meant to make us uncomfortable the same way that people like them—neither he nor she but they—often feel in the larger culture. Then they reassure us that the rest of the evening will only concern normal men who identify as men so we can all rest easy. I was hoping they’d turn the music back on after they were done talking, but no such luck.‌
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‌The set is a typical American living room. Our host/ushers escort two white men onto the stage and place them on and behind the centrally-located couch. The one sitting down starts to manically jab at a video-game controller, aiming his efforts out at us, the fourth wall, while the other one harasses and distracts him, trying to get him to stop playing and pay attention to him rather than to the game. They are meant to be grown brothers lapsing into childishness on a Christmas visit to their childhood home. The father and third son arrive and more horseplay ensues. Just so us rubes in the seats don’t miss the message, the sons play a customized version of Monopoly renamed Privilege. I get up and leave after twenty-five minutes.‌
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‌Walking down Halsted in the pelting rain toward the shelter of the Apple Store’s overhanging roof to wait for the bus home, I wonder what pissed me off so much about the play. The characters seemed based on sitcom archetypes rather than living people. Judging by the hearty laughter of the rest of the audience at their antics, this was not a problem for anyone but me. The abrasive intro set up an expectation of something that might challenge but what I sat through was a tired pastiche reenactment of scenes from TV shows. I wondered whether the playwright had met any actual people in her life, let alone the titular straight white men.‌
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‌In an interview I found online the playwright talks about challenging herself to write about what she dislikes and makes her uncomfortable. She wants to write the play she herself least wants to see. Well, she certainly succeeded in writing a p[ay that one straight white guy couldn’t sit through. I wasn’t shocked or offended during my twenty-five minutes at the Steppenwolf. Straight white men in this country have reached our nadir at this point; a glance at the news any given day will convince any idiot of that. I have no problem with critiques of the patriarchy or knocking those in power off their pedestal; I just didn’t see anything on that stage which reflected any sort of lived experience or had anything meaningful to say. ‌
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‌In the couple reviews I read when I got home there’s mention of conflicts between the brothers about life-goals and direction later in the story; some kind of critique of capitalism as well. I didn’t stay long enough to see any of that. Ideas are fine in a play (or in any art) but they can’t be delivered without first selling one on a premise. If you’re gonna write a polemic you better be damn clear on what it is you’re haranguing about. The magic of theater is its capacity to take us into another world—be it kitchen-sink or flight-of-fancy—but this night I was just left fidgeting in my seat. I kept thinking back to the booming music before the play started and those two actors in jumpsuits dancing up and down the aisles. I wanted to watch more of that. Instead, what I got was a failed attempt at a dramatized lecture on the hollowness of the dominant culture. I would’ve been glad to’ve had my assumptions undermined or to’ve even been offended a little. Some of the reviewers of this play wondered whether the playwright was on the side of the white guys or making fun of them. My confusion was more fundamental: I couldn’t believe a single thing I was seeing before my eyes.‌

Porkchop

Porkchop and I didn’t always get along. But because he had been Shay’s companion for about eight years by the time her and I got together, dealing with him was the price of admission. Like his owner, Porkchop had personality to burn. For a being who weighed under twenty pounds he had a mighty gravitational pull. There were few rooms he ever entered in which he wasn’t the center of attention.

For the three years we lived together I walked him around the long Beverly block from Shay’s house almost every day. The first couple hundred steps would usually be a sprint with me huffing and puffing to keep up. Then, like a rubber band, he’d change direction and investigate the first of a dozen smelling spots along our route. We’d stop-start our way all the way back home. In the winter months, when there was salt on the sidewalks, I had to put little orange balloons on his feet to protect his paws and a sweater to keep him warm. He tolerated it until the instant his feet hit the ground; then he was ready to run.

Because I didn’t have a day-job most of those years, Porkchop and I were in the house alone a lot. You’d think he’d get used to me after awhile. But almost every time I’d get up from the table he’d start barking as if I was an intruder in the house. Little dogs can be pretty neurotic and nervous about movement in their vicinity but I couldn’t help but take it personally at times. In my darker moods or when Shay and I weren’t getting along, I’d interpret the way he looked at me as malevolent; like he was just biding his time, secure in the knowledge that I’d be gone soon enough and he could have her all to himself again.

A lot of that is projection of course. We’re always projecting feelings and motivations on those around us, be they two- or four-legged. But of course he did outlast me. He was Shay’s faithful companion for about fifteen years. Up until last weekend. He had lost his sight and hearing over the past couple years, but his tail still wagged and he still had an appetite, so Shay would make sure to keep him away from stairs and not leave him alone too much. However, in the past few weeks he had stopped recognizing her and she made the decision to put him down. I offered to be there the way I was when she had to do the same with her cat, Gustav, but she declined my offer. I understood, as we had only just begun to be friends again after little to no contact for about a year. Still, I would’ve liked to have been there to pay my respects. I raised my glass in his honor at the bar more than a couple times that night.

RIP Porkchop. You were a pistol.

p.s. I’m honored to be drawing the band during a performance of Herbie Hancock’s “Flood” LP on Wednesday, March 1st. I’ll also have a show of paintings up on the walls for the night as well. Details here.

p.p.s. I wrote more about the Raymond Pettibon show for Vol.1 Brooklyn and took my first stab at theater-reviewing for the Reader.