Subway Abstractions, Chicago

More than 20 years ago, when I first came to Chicago to study art at The School of The Art Institute of Chicago, the city shocked me. I was constantly in awe of the people, the exchange of pressure between the land and the lake, and the iconic architecture and spaces that mark this quintessentially American city.

I spent a good deal of time at subway stations and riding the L train rails. So much of what I remember about Chicago is from the vantage points the CTA afforded me. A lot changed in the years I spent there, and I witnessed a lot of those changes aboard the L or from the buildings where I took my classes at SAIC. I was always seeing through the modulating weather and variances of sunlight and season. It all kept my attention. Light, glass, rock, water, cloud, steel, snow, or asphalt; they all intrigued me.

My dad’s trusty Minolta was with me during those years, and I took many hundreds of photos. It was an attempt to understand what my eyes were being drawn to, and how my Eye – my aesthetic sense – wanted to see. It’s wonderful now, in looking back, to see how I was being developed (through education) and developing (through instinct and choice) the categories of judgement and intuition that would inform all of my work right up to today.

Among those photos is a series of pictures of empty signboards within subway stations. Often they would be left open for a while when advertisements were being changed out, but many times they stayed vacant for weeks on end. They had an austerity, and seemed to me to speak the language of modernist abstraction and abstract expressionism. What was interesting to me, beyond that formal similarity to intentionally crafted artworks, was that these were the result of the natural environment of the subway. The dust and grease and grime combined with blowing air – almost like a lung or the systolic/diastolic rhythms of the heart – to create strange inflow behind the placards of ads.

In other cases, workers who routinely painted around the frames designed to hold the placards, would inadvertently create dynamic fields of shapes via over-spray. This was a rhythm, too, a movement of maintenance and service reflecting the attempt to keep these arterial passageways operating. The spaces within the ad frames were a different kind of arena, moving at a different pace from the rest of the L train structures.

Thus that area behind the ads became a kind of palimpsest of the subway, but also of the city itself. The deposits of dirt accumulated in swaths of gray scale gradients. Intimately connected to the subway tunnel textures and layers of paint, the dust-fields were allowed to stick, protected behind ad boards for who knows how long.

Once revealed, these delicate, dirty paintings, which had been made by the trains and the people and the detritus of Chicago, held (it seemed to me) beauty. I loved them. I rode the L looking for them at every stop. I took dozens of photos. Perhaps one day I’ll try to publish them in a better form – I still have the original negatives, after all – but for now, I present a few of them here.

2 thoughts on “Subway Abstractions, Chicago

  1. He speaks of a real thing. I live in Evanston very near a place were Professor Ballou once lived. I have journeyed many times upon the L tracks of Chicago. Imagine the differences of children born today. Their views of Chicago, oh so dear. They will come from drones flown 100’ up. Then 1000’ up then ? What?
    The changing of the adds was always an issue with me. But I thought you were speaking of something slightly different but on the same level. I remember where certain ad signs had been partially torn off revealing parts of a previous signs, pictures or words sometimes both and from years ago signs partially appearing now again mixed with parts of stuff not torn off. It got surrealistic if you were to dwell on it. I think that’s what he is speaking about. The overlapping of time and real thought. We were once there, I remember that sign but her head and her ass were not all the same. GOLD BOND! Movies! They used to include cigarette signs. Now all but forgotten. You could even smoke on the L smoke on the plane, smoke anywhere anytime……l.everywhere but Church and Hospital. They are so much the same. If you are speaking of places of real preyer. There and in fishing boats floating out and about at their own special speed.
    A nother amazing bit of thought from the aging prof. Thanks We need you to remind us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s