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David Lee Csicsko
CTA Red (Howard)/Brown(Ravenswood) Lines
It makes me smile. Commercial! Who funded it? It's just so us! Yea! Ugh? Yea, again!
On the trestle of the Belmont "El" stop, Red/Brown lines, are twelve mural panels, six on each side; and there are three more at ground level. They attract a wide range of reactions, but few see them without some comment. They are the work of Chicago artist, David Lee Csicsko.
The "Belmont 2000" mural project is sponsored by Ann Sather's Swedish Restaurant, Chicago, and is part of the Chicago Transit Authority's adopt-a-station initiative. Ann Sather's, actually three restaurants in Chicago, has long been known for its community involvement. And the work of David Lee Csicsko is well known: his illustrations appear in numerous magazines and newspapers, galleries and even in such books as Behind the Lions: A Family Guide to the Art Institute of Chicago (A.I.C.: 1998).
The murals, simple, direct and brightly colored, raise the inevitable questions about the boundaries between popular, commercial and fine art. They also stir the on-going debate about private vs. public funding of art, what art can and should do, and about the role of artists in it all.
David Lee Csicsko's recent work has shown a smoother, gentler (some would say 'slicker') edge. He has more often been noted for his use of fanned serrated elements and an edgy, feral, even explosive 'wild guy' sense of composition: qualities which commercial patrons find appeals to a younger crowd. And, at times, he has favored a somewhat 'Miami Deco' color scheme in his work.
On his animated website, he explains some of his intent in the murals: "Belmont ain't fancy, it's not Michigan Avenue, it's funky and very real." In person, Csicsko notes that he wanted to create an upbeat and bright contribution to the neighborhood surroundings. And he wanted it welcoming as well as representative of the area's wide diversity. Csicsko -- "My goal is to make people of any age smile as they walk down the street." The artist lives in the area and has a pretty good idea of his aims. In the specifics, Csicsko characterizes the content of the murals as "inspired by the blue and yellow colors of the flag of Sweden, Folk Art, West African barbershop signs, Japanese cartoons and the personalities of the neighborhood."
In recent years, there has been a growing trend to enlist private sponsors in a number of public art projects. Where Federal spending has been cut back, government has often successfully coordinated, supplimented or, sometimes, initiated public art. Public art, like commercial art, is subject to some degree of expectation: "give the customer what he wants." Where the artist supports, and is a member of, the constituency, this is neither controversial or bad. Csicsko's murals are an asset to the community. They are slated to remain for at least the next two years. And other sponsors in the Lakeview area (which includes Belmont) are plannng more public art venues with other artists. The debates about Federal subsidies for unpopular or antisocial art are of a different order. In a very intelligent book,The Shape of Content(Vintage Books: 1961), artist Ben Shahn, asked: "What if Goya, for instance, had been granted a Guggenheim, and then, completing that, had stepped into a respectable and cozy teaching job in some small -- but advanced! -- New England college, and had thus been spared the agonies of the Spanish Insurrection?" Shahn's essay, "Artists in Colleges," applies all the more to Federalized subsidies. When People buy an artist's work, it is a benefit to both: when The People are made to pay for art, its status becomes problematic. One should note, for the record, that projects like "Belmont 2000" are a welcome addition to Chicago's neighborboods and artists; and that private businesses, and not just activists of agendas, often contribute public art worthy of comment.
Csicsko's fifteen mural panels also demonstrate how often popular image and fine art cross-fertilize, improving both. David Lee Csicsko also has work in "Art For Animals' Sake," a benefit showing at Las Manos Gallery, 5220 North Clark (Tel.773/728-8910). One cannot characterize his work as 'Pop Art'; it doesn't recycle popular image. As art among the public, it generates popular image as much as it draws upon shared and desired norms, and as such it is much more a living expression than Warhol or even Keith Haring. And they have their place in modern art.
Since the nineteenth century, debates have raged about illustration and fine art. A recent observation by author, Michelle Helene, summarizes: "In recent years many have argued, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, that the boundaries between fine art and commercial art have relaxed once again. Much of the discussion has centered around the work of postmodern artists like Barbara Kruger and Jeff Koons, as well as the notorious Museum of Modern Art exhibition 'High and Low' (1990), which focused on the impact of (low) popular culture -- like advertising -- on (high) modern art. But those fearful of an imminent collapse of distinctions have little to fear. ... The integrity of art-art remains very much a given. It remains a common assumption that a discrete category, 'fine art,' has always existed but that the last one hundred years have seen its broadening or demise." Artists, Advertising, and the Borders of Art , Michele Helene (University of Chicago Press: 1995)
The question of merit and role ultimately lies with time and the viewers of art. And its funding can be left to those who seek the value and wish to support a common benefit. David Lee Csicsko's fifteen mural panels, "Belmont 2000," can be seen for the coming two years at the Belmont "El" stop. Ann Sather's Restaurant supported the project. Everyone in Chicago can decide what they enjoy and will support. And the art will keep on coming. Trust the art, and the artists; and common sense.
Editor's Note: In 1978, Guide to Chicago Murals: Yesterday and Today, was published by the Chicago Council on Fine Arts. The volume is long gone, as are some of the murals. Perhaps a new volume will eventually appear, but artscope.net welcomes information on new murals executed in Chicago, particularly work initiated by the private sector and accessible to the general public.
--G. Jurek Polanski
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