The Life of the Ryan | Art Review | Chicago Reader

The Life of the Ryan 

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On a walk one afternoon in 1981 in his new neighborhood near the Dan Ryan, photographer Jay Wolke noticed "this very strange looking homemade yellow kayak lying on an old gravel road," he says. The river was several hundred yards away. "There was overgrown grass and a factory building, all on the underside of this monstrous expressway bridge." Wolke saw this East Pilsen scene as a microcosm of the city, juxtaposing "anachronistic human handcrafted stuff and above it this monumental contemporary structure with life speeding along. I saw a combination of the personal and monumental, the above and below, the old and the new." For the next four years he took thousands of pictures of the Dan Ryan from various vantage points, sometimes from a moving car. A 1985 exhibit of these images at the Chicago Historical Society helped launch his professional career, but he hadn't looked at them in years when photographer Bob Thall, who like Wolke teaches at Columbia College, expressed interest in a book. Sixty were published in Along the Divide, and there are 38 on view at City, including Yellow Kayak.

The photos of what was then the world's busiest highway are remarkable both for their blend of luxuriant colors with cultural commentary and for their many imaginative perspectives. Homeless people live under it, drivers traverse it, a man hobbles away from the car he's just wrecked. Wolke thinks that taking many views on a subject is the result of his Jewish upbringing: "In Judaism there are two sides to every question and two questions to every side." The cluttered View From a Living Room, Pilsen shows the bright-colored room itself, including a TV with a statue of Jesus on top and the window with a view of the expressway, reflected in a wall-size mirror decorated with gold leaves. To shoot View From a Bedroom, Robert Taylor Homes, Wolke paid a teenager $20 to be his "fixer"--to get him into an apartment and guarantee his safety. He'd been planning to shoot a huge dump of old tires on that side of the building, and he did take a few such images. Then he noticed the stained curtains and dolls on a bed and realized "that's my shot," with these things framing the dump and expressway.

As an undergraduate at Washington University Wolke once made what he calls a "hamburger painting," which included meat and a mop. He also created "reconstructive disaster pictures"--collages of items he found in abandoned homes, from personal diaries to shards of glass--in the hope of making work that would "resonate with a person's life." He participated in a group that threw eggs back and forth on a shopping mall escalator, a performance that ended when security guards chased them out. Inspired by Antoni Tapies, he created distressed surfaces by combining materials that didn't mix, such as oil- and water-based paints. Taking photographs of surfaces to emulate--cobblestone streets, snowy fields--he began to notice a complexity in the real world that he couldn't re-create in paint. By grad school, photography was his medium.

The complexity of human environments is an ongoing theme for Wolke. For one of his grad school projects, a series called "Relative Rooms," he photographed personalized home interiors, from a sexual playroom to a collection of FDR memorabilia. For the last five years he's shot "dysfunctional architecture" in Italy, such as planned cities that are only half-inhabited. Wolke says the Dan Ryan project taught him that "one of the fallacies of modernist urban planning is that there's a formula that can be overlaid on a place. In hindsight there are no universal fixes." St. Martin's Church shows a gold horse and rider overlooking the expressway, signs of a slower-moving, more prosperous time, when the saint would have been guarding the neighborhood demolished to build the road.

Jay Wolke: Along the Divide

Where: City, Water Tower, 806 N. Michigan

When: Through July 11

Info: 312-742-0808

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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