REVIEW | BMO Harris Bank Chicago Works: Faheem Majeed
July 24, 2015
BMO Harris Bank Chicago Works: Faheem Majeed
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
Not all art will resonate, and you can’t like everything – these are my take-aways of the current exhibition BMO Harris Bank Chicago Works: Faheem Majeed. After such a build-up to this exhibition, I was expecting more – admittedly, more of what I’m not exactly sure; but in the end, it left me wanting. Intentional? Maybe. In Majeed’s artist statement, he notes: “On the whole, my art work functions like breadcrumbs in the forest leading my audience back to the people and spaces that I value or that I believe should be valued by others.” Those breadcrumbs are the sculptures, objects, and installation that make up the artist’s first solo museum exhibition where he set out to question how space becomes place, and further, how places can foster a sense of home and belonging – all within the confines of a public institution, a specific type of very public space. Unfortunately, the work failed to evoke any connection or emotion to push me to follow Majeed down the path I find so dimly lit.
A resident of South Shore Chicago, Majeed draws upon the material makeup of his neighborhood and surrounding areas as an entry point into questions around civic-mindedness, community activism, and institutional racism. In his own artist statement, Majeed states: “My perspective on the work I create and the role I play has evolved over time. In shifting roles from independent working artist to curator to non-profit director to teacher to administrator, I have grown to understand the difference between creating an object and creating a platform. I now view my work well beyond object making. It is an approach much more grounded in considering the impact and developing the object that plays its part in a larger scheme of change.” Herein, for me, lies the issue. As someone who is unfamiliar with his work, my access point to his broader message at large is through his individual works, his individual objects. At the crux of sculpture, or any artwork for that matter, in order to engage and concern myself with real contemplation – there must be a connection of some kind: technical, material, conceptual, emotional. It isn’t enough to have interesting concepts or noble intentions if the work cannot elicit any of these, even and especially after reading about both areas in the artist’s own words. As such, I’m unable to make the connections or appreciate the motivations and outcomes of the objects, places, or people Majeed desires for me to consider.
Part of Majeed’s studio practice is transforming materials such as particleboard, scrap metal, wood, discarded signs, and billboard remnants, breathing new life into these often overlooked and devalued materials. Utilizing these types of materials (either in type or locality) isn’t new, in contemporary art or otherwise – one just has to look to the work of artists like Henrique Oliveira, Richard Hunt, recent MCA resident artist Mark Bradford, or any number of art brut artists. Combining materials from where Majeed lives, works, and makes is obviously integral in his process and part of his overreaching conceptual message; but it is bold to say he is breathing new life in them. For example, the work Majeed Cares depicts a reincarnation of a poster of his father: large and imposing, the image and text are imperfectly carved into the surface of two sheets of particleboard that lean against the wall. Referred to as a sort of self-portrait by the artist as a recognition of his roots, referenced by his father, as well as the neighborhood where he currently resides, referenced by the particleboard, it is meant to signify the influence of both. Okay, it does; but it fails to take it further. Handcrafting an homage to one’s father, to one’s past, can be important personally as well as artistically; but to suggest that it opens a number of questions by complicating both references is an overstatement.
Untitled (cabinets), are three, raw, unfinished cabinets made of particleboard containing yellow painted plaster heads from the mold of an artwork in the collection of the South Side Community Art Center or SSCAC (where the artist has called his artistic and professional home for many years) of a young African American boy. Given the materials, it is more plausible to infer that these are shipping crates than cabinets; and in containing human bodies, even partially, directs the conversation in a different direction than the notion of space altogether. While they accurately, though somewhat and only from the back view, convey a state of transition, it is a stretch to imply that the cabinets have become objects without a resting place or home. They are sculptures, cast of existing sculptures behind glass, on view, in a museum. If there is a dialogue to be had here, and I believe that in earnest Majeed wants there to be one; again, it is difficult to find.
Planting and Maintaining a Perennial Garden is a room-sized installation built from of stained cedar paneling (similar to those that line the Margaret Burroughs Gallery at the SSCAC) that is meant to serve as “a place within the space of the gallery—a room within a room, an intervention that disrupts the cultural and sociopolitical coding of the exhibition space.” As I watch other museum guests clamor up and across the stage, weaving between the solid blocks; I am unencouraged to join in, but I hoist myself up on the platform none the less. Perhaps the hopes for congregation and/or conversation would be possible had I viewed the space during one of the events or performances the artist and his collaborators have planned, but as a stand-alone experience: it just didn’t make the penetration into the larger questions it is intended to raise about space and place. As an installation on its own merit, it lacked vitality and instead just felt like an empty stage.
In the booklet accompanying the exhibition, Curatorial Assistant Steven L. Bridges, appropriately sums up the exhibition (perhaps more so than he intended): “Like the objects and experiences it supports, and the processes its mechanisms set in motion, the exhibition also has its own life to live, and from this current vantage point there remain many unknowns. But therein lies both the risk and great potential…. There are no straightforward answers to these questions, but certainly that is the point.” The exception I have is that I wasn’t asking questions or seeking the answers; and as I walked away with this nagging feeling of disappointment, I kept thinking – I just wish there was more. Intentionally or not, so does Majeed, and this reaction of desperate longing I feel may have been the whole point that I am overlooking. Yet, in not experiencing what exactly I, or the artist, are longing for I am not able to ponder the larger questions Majeed poses. Or, as the curator suggests I should, am I able to consider them deeply or meaningfully.