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Photos: New Color Block Installation Brightens Grant Park In The Dead Of Winter

By Carrie McGath in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 23, 2016 5:45PM

The Chicago artist whose three-story eye sculpture once creepily gazed at Loop pedestrians from Pritzker Park has a new, large-scale public installation downtown.

Tony Tasset's latest, Artists Monument, was unveiled in Grant Park on Saturday. On Michigan Avenue near 9th Street, the 80-foot-long, eight-foot-high color-blocked installation is, Tasset told Chicagoist, a “love letter to artists.”

“Most of the artists I know feel under-appreciated," Tasset said. "I wanted to make a piece that took away all the hierarchy [of] who's up, who's down and simply honor as many artists as I could."

On the monument, the audience can read the names of almost 400,000 artists (392,485 to be exact), laser-etched onto Plexiglass and then mounted on shipping containers. Listed alphabetically, the artists—ranging from Picasso to emerging artists—are not being ranked or evaluated. Instead, they are listed through the alpha-etching on the plexi with the very thing that is an artist’s brand: their name.

The work debuted at the 2014 Whitney Biennial in New York City, but it will call Grant Park home throughout the summer. The ultimate goal is for the work to be a permanent installation on the University of Illinois at Chicago campus. Tasset has taught there for almost 30 years in the Art and Art History department—yet another reason he's a central player in the Chicago arts community.

He still approaches the art world with an underdog mindset, though.

“It’s become a given that most of the public doesn't really like contemporary art," Tasset said. "It’s usually portrayed as a joke in popular culture. Most of the art world finds public art hacky.”

He continued, “There’s also a lot of bad public art out there. I love working in this un-hip area. I love the challenge of trying to win over a grumpy audience.”

Thanks to Tasset’s engaging, tactile pieces, it is hard to be cranky when in the presence of one of his works. Between the bright palettes and the humor, it is very likely that even the most cantankerous of viewers to squeeze out a smirk.

Think back a few years to the three-story sculpture, Eye, that gawked at passersby at State and Van Buren streets. Modeled after the artist’s own eye, the result was an astute and hyperbolically immediate interaction between the artist and the viewer. The installation of the work, with the iris dangling from a crane, pointed to the Duchampian farce so often present in Tasset’s process and resulting work.

“Humor is probably the most personal aspect of my work. I just think funny,” he remarked. “I used to be paranoid the work wasn't being taken seriously enough because of the humor. I see everything as tragic / comic.”

Fittingly, at least one renowned comedian has been drawn to Tasset's work. His 1994 photograph, I Peed My Pants, was purchased by John Waters and it fits perfectly with the cult filmmaker’s gritty, loathing and deeply human, humor-addled oeuvre. To make this ode-to-self acquisition all the more surreal, Waters bought it at an Enron auction, so at one point it hung in their corporate offices, adding an absurdist provenance to the image. Tasset said, “When I made the photograph of myself peeing in my pants I thought it was heartbreakingly human, but other people find it hilarious.”

This mix of emotion is markedly Tasset, making a seemingly straightforward work into the existential tragicomedy that is being human.

“When I was younger I made art about art for an in-the-know audience. But as I got older I simply wanted to speak to a wider audience.”

On Artist's Monument, he does that in part by including a tremendous range of artists from the 20th and 21st centuries. Tasset collected their names from internet searches for artists. Many people know Picasso or Warhol, but Tasset wanted to “bluntly display all the unknowns.”

Chicago has a democratic inclusiveness that is reflected in Artists Monument.

“Ultimately the piece does its job when artists or friends of artists locate someone they know. I've had so many sweet experiences of people's appreciation for being included.”

This egalitarian perspective is key to Tasset's Midwestern sensibility.

“Part of the content of the work is that we are now at a new time in history when you can collect this kind of large data," he said. "One could easily make a monument to other cultures, say-duck hunters, politicians or yoga instructors. But I'm an artist so I made the monument to my community."

The color-blocked, barge-like shipping crates possess a joyful quality, with its bright colors, but also a somber feel—the work conjures images of a memorial wall. But it is a work that celebrates artists, literally bringing their names (and brand) into the very public realm of Grant Park. Here, there is no overt humor like Eye or Exhausted Paul Bunyan, who stands slumped over and defeated in University Park, Illinois. However, the sheer scale of this undertaking beckons a humor that comes through in the absurdity of a project so massive.

Coinciding with Artists Monument, Kavi Gupta Gallery is opening a Tasset solo exhibition, titled Me and My Arrow. His sculptural paintings of arrows have an opposing viewpoint to his Grant Park sculpture, as these paintings become small moments of evaluation (thumbs up / thumbs down), possibly a comment on the art market’s fickleness. Opening on March 18 and running through April 23, the solo exhibition is a great opportunity to further delve into this beloved artist’s complex and engaging body of work.

Artists Monument is on display in Grant Park at Michigan Avenue and 9th Street and Kavi Gupta Gallery is located at 835 W. Washington Blvd.