Friday, August 27, 2010

Playtime at Rotofugi

Whew. Tonight I was at a party for the opening not only of Chicago gallery/toy store/awesomeness repository Rotofugi's new location, but also the current show there: Playboy Redux. The show, which is in honor of Playboy's 50th anniversary, was orchestrated by Playboy Enterprises and the Warhol Museum, where it showed before coming to Chicago.

From Rotofugi's site:

Known at that time for her satin bunny suit, cotton tail and rabbit ears, the Playboy Bunny served cocktails and glamour in equal doses. Many luminaries once worked as Bunnies, including Deborah Harry, Gloria Steinem and Lauren Hutton. For Playboy Redux: Contemporary Artists Interpret the Iconic Playboy Bunny, artists were asked to create a new look for the Bunny, a veritable makeover to create the Bunny of the future.

So, first things first. Rotofugi's new location is amazing. It looks like social deviant art monkeys took over a nice Apple store and had their way with it. The size alone, compared to the cramped one-bedroom apartment style store they previously occupied on Chicago and Damen, blows you away. Add to that the fact that their gallery space is now integrated into the store environment and it makes for a perfect statement on the fusion of old-fashioned fine art, like painting and photography, and fashioned fine art, like graphic work, illustration, and DIY designable maquettes.

Now then, the show. It's pretty apparent that Playboy Enterprises had a hand in it, as this is not a collection of work you'd expect to see in an independent exhibition. The art doesn't really ask anything about the mid-century Playboy mentality, it's just fond reminiscing in the service of the Playboy look. This is the problem with a corporation/brand having a say in the curation of an art show about that brand's iconography and legacy, especially if those happen to be a controversial as Playboy's. I don't mean that the Playboy of today is controversial, it isn't. But the Playboy of the Playboy Clubs era--the period that inspired the show--that inheritance is probably still fair game for debate.

The press release quoted above notes that the list of bunny graduates include Gloria Steinem, which seems like somebody's little in-joke more than anything else. Steinem worked as a bunny in the New York club in 1963 as research for her article "I was a Playboy Bunny"... you can guess what she had to say about the experience. The Playboy Clubs were at best harmless and offensive, and more often misogynistic, patriarchal, and declassé. Obviously it's easy to forget about this, the casual disregard for women the clubs evidenced has been hopefully drowned by progress and is hard to recall, and artistically the colorful, retro, swingin' vibe that we associate with the time period helps to assuage what it's values really were. That's the real issue i take with the show's content, it's harmless fun jaunty work (most of it anyway), more pastiche of the period's aesthetics than content or commentary. It's a show that watches Mad Men and then says to you, "Wow, everybody back then really knew how to dress!"

There are exceptions. Some of the artists have taken the Playboy label and twisted it in unexpected ways, some of which reflect on Playboy and some on their own work. Rod Filbrandt's small goauche and ink drawing is so mindlessly energetic and positive that I can't help but think he's in on the joke. Isabel Samaras and Ain Cocke also deliver great pieces, neither of which ape the mid century Jetsons look, opting for the sort of paintings you could imagine Playboy purchasing for the offices, self aware cheesecake that looks more period but is also more self aware than most of the other works. Cocke's especially is an awesome gag that's made better by thinking only you and the painting are in on it. Brendan Fernandes's piece "Bunny Dearest" is probably the loneliest art in the exhibition. While everyone else indulges in pastel color and swirling pattern Fernandes's piece is all stark sparse black lines that are an incredibly refreshing break.

Tim Biskup has what is easily the most confrontational work in the show. While everyone else has chosen coquettish/sexy or graphic/grotesque, Biskup's is the only bunny that looks contemporary, self assured, and straight up pissed. This painting would be fine with leaving the club, locking the doors from the outside, and burning it down. Also, nestled in the back corner of the gallery is a Travis Lampe painting "Bump Mate" that quite simply represents what I think this show could have and should have been: titillating fun, and also gross and unsexy.

Lampe (left) and Biskup's (right) work

All in all it's worth seeing, if only for those few works and to remind yourself that art has a purpose. Allowing an opportunity to examine the meaning of a symbol like the Playboy Bunny to escape unscathed is a tremendous failing, and the show lacks a depth because of it. Still, Hef will have to kick it one of these days, smothered under a blanket of nubile (but disgusted) young flesh, and think of the show we'll have to look forward to then.

You can see all the work in the show here, but just nut up and see it in person.

The show runs through September 12th. Rotofugi is located at 2780 N Lincoln Avenue.


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