December 17, 2021 through February 12, 2022
By VITTORIA BENZINE, February 2022
Rock candy balloons and painted plexiglass share one regal room at a reimagined place of worship in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood. There, fifteen material-based American artists of all principles, styles, and circumstances congregate at Idol Hands, a group show centered entirely around craft. On view since Dec. 17th, Idol Hands is now extended through March 5th at Epiphany Center for the Arts. The exhibition’s title riffs off the adage “idle hands are the devil’s playground,” exploring humanity’s ability to conjure god forms through mere mortal bodies.
The group show is curated by Czr Prz—a Pilsen-based fine artist whose public artwork proves prolific throughout Chicago and beyond, on walls in Memphis and Akumal. Prz’s Fall 2021 installation for public institution Cook County Health paired fabrication with painting, incorporating plexiglass birds laser-cut by the artist’s own machinery for a tropical scene with real dimension. “Being a fabricator myself, I felt there weren't many group shows dedicated to sculptural work in the pop/urban art scene,” Prz told me. He grew inspired to focus Idol Hands on craft, with a spiritual slant.
Much like the stunning 42,000 square foot arts campus this exhibition inhabits, its artworks offer a lot by way of visual variety. Two abstractions built from layered baltic birch frame one entryway, courtesy of Phoenix-based JB Snyder and Janel Garza. Inside, Radiant Hues by Anthony Lewellen sculpts color theories with spray enamel on mixed media bas-relief sculpture. LA-based Mr B Baby translated her Cheshire grin into a wooden doll, while Detroit-based Denial exhibited his laser cutting and stencil practice perfected over twenty years, blending graphic design with traditional graffiti and street art techniques.
Denver-based CLS contributed two wall-mounted sculptures from found wood, inspired by Bauhaus sensibilities and his daughter Mercedes. “The story that each piece of wood carries with it until it reaches its destination in being part of my abstract curiosity is priceless,” CLS wrote over email. His two works in Idol Hands are from the Catskill Mountains circa Summer 2021.
Pronounced undertones of pop surrealism present themselves through works like Delicious Love—a candy-coated custom vinyl character by Elloo—but Idol Hands accounts for all brows in its objects. Balloonski included his “Forever Balloons,” coated with glass to capture the ephemeral in perpetuity. On opening night, he installed an oversized gold balloon chain on site—an homage to his Midwestern roots and the artist’s first time showing in Chicago.
Zeye One crafted a captivating light box called Respiro por la Herida that arranges micro-memorabilia collected across the artist’s travels alongside sculpture. “I wanted to showcase the beauty of Death and what comes from it—life—in which we create a new normal after we mourn the death of a chapter in life or the death of someone very close,” Zeye explained. “I recently lost my brother tragically not even a year ago and the only way I was able to—and continue to—cope was by keeping my hands busy.”
A community-wide survey, Idol Hands comprises a natural web of connections. Many of its artists are friends and fans of each other—LA-based Woes Martin has worked with NTLCRU, a mural group featuring artists like Caratoes, who Detroit-based muralist, artist, and Idol Hands participant Phybr counted amongst his inspirations. “They’ve taken their work far beyond the scope of walls and canvases to really create something unique and special,” Phybr explained. Their work inspired to push himself with pieces like these specially-cut panels of wood he’s painted.
Prz cited six intensely detailed works of embroidery depicting creatures of all kinds by Philly-based Sea of Doom as a particular testament to revelations available just beyond the picture plane. “Where originally her art form is essentially a craft, the way she produces her work looks almost like a painting,” Prz said. “To me, that transmutation is the mark of a true artist.”
Additionally, Sea of Doom is a painter and aerosol muralist learning how to make stained glass. “I love a methodical process, and embroidery definitely brings that to the table,” she wrote. “I also think that there is no lack of surprising subject matter to choose from for a medium that has long since been regarded as ‘soft’ and ‘domestic.’ I am neither of those, and I’d like to think my work reflects that.”
Craft rides the art world’s natural ebbs and flows. While its disciplines have gone under appreciated throughout art history, they’ve also enjoyed recent new life. Some niche scenes represented here, like designer toys, have reliably avid followings. Examining our ever-prevailing love for objects elucidates an innate humanity uniting these artists across disparate materials and geographies.
NYC-based Sarah Best contributed a mixed media altar of sculpted paper and posited that recent interest in craft “makes a lot of sense in a time when people are re-examining their culture and history,” because “craft-based work is perfect for this type of critique—the materials and skillsets that are often used can hold social, cultural, global, and political significance.” Woes Martin independently remarked, “I’m all about moving with the times, but we come from analog and there's nothing like it.” He’s been releasing resin figures like his one-off work for this show since 2009.
Hawaii-based Ian Kuali’i offered similar sentiments. His nine hand-cut paper artworks are the product of a practice spanning nearly 30 years and beyond: “I feel the spirit of craft-based work has been unbelievably strong and undefeated since the time our first human ancestors created the first stone tools to work, woven baskets to gather food, and clay vessels to carry water or store food and seeds.”
Focused group shows like Idol Hands encourage versatile artists to create works indulging the 3D areas of their wide-ranging practices. Worcester-based Hank VonHellion wrote he rarely works in sculpture alone, preferring to pair it with other elements like painting or conceptual art. “Connecting with work physically has always been an emotional oasis of sorts for me,” he elaborated. “Material based work has the potential to commandeer the kind of space that can’t easily be brushed aside.”
Visual delights provide a religious experience in craft-based work. Hands are our real bridge between dreaming and having. The ephemeral and vibrant dialogue underpinning Idol Hands remains on view at Epiphany Center for the Arts through Saturday, February 12th. WM
Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // firstname.lastname@example.org // vittoriabenzine.com
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