"Africa's Legacy in Mexico: Photographs by Tony Gleaton" at a
Chicago 'Pop Up' Gallery

310 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL

reviewed by Felissia Capelletti (November 2010)

I love living in Chicago. I have ever since I moved here two years ago. Chicago is a thing of beauty. Everything about the lake and the lake front trails, the streets and alleys, the people and structures, are endless and gorgeous. I learned from the editor and founder of U-Turn art e-zine (www.uturn.org), Mr. Jim Hugunin himself, that to really step into the glory of a city and gain an appreciation for the visible beauty of it, take an architecture tour like the ones the Chicago Architecture Foundation give often. The city is built with beauty in mind. It was built artfully and art is still in its veins, flushing the metropolis with living color. The loop is the scene of many current art exhibitions and special events. These, of course, I can never get enough of. In 1978, the City Council approved an ordinance called 'Percent For Art'. Businesses and contractors looking to build or renovate property in Chicago have to put 1.33% of the project's total expense into original artwork on the premises. At least half has to go to a local artist. As benefit of this, pop-up art galleries in the loop have been initiated.

Filling the loop with pretty things to look at is good for business. Think of advertising. Companies use stunning visual photos, commercials and packaging to intrigue the eye. Nothing is plain anymore. Color, form and pattern are all the rage. By stocking the loop - the city's top tourist destination -- with art, Chicago makes itself eye-appealing and swoons the visitors. The natives benefit, too. I'm sure citizens of Chicago have noticed the pop-up art galleries in the news and in the neighborhood. The Chicago Loop Alliance has mediated a partnership between property owners and local artists which encourages the owners of store-fronts that have been vacant for a while, to temporarily house art galleries sponsored by local artists and art collectives. The deal is symbiotic, allowing artists to rent for only a couple months at a time and get their art seen in Chicago's most prominent neighborhood, while bringing in tenants to the otherwise abandoned, unattractive spaces and getting those spaces noticed, at the same time opening free art exhibits to the yearning public. Since they are only temporary, the spaces themselves are usually un-glamorous and switch out every couple of months or so. If you're not paying attention, the colorful facades seem to "pop up" from nowhere.

I visited one of these pop-up art galleries. The one at 310 S. Michigan. The show is called "Africa's Legacy in Mexico" by Detroit-born photographer Tony Gleaton. The show is a selection of black and white photographs exhibiting portraits and compositions of African descendants in Mexico.

The gallery itself is rough, unrefined, intriguing. A quick, drywall barricade separates a small section near the window from the vast emptiness of the rest of the store. The walling is chipped apart and iron wiring peeps out at the corners. The ceilings are criss- crossed with pipes and girding and the floors are printed with swipes of linoleum adhesive. It is completely colorless and unfinished, except for the hanging art. What better setting for an art gallery, yes? Rustic, un-showy, this gallery is not distracting to the eye.

With the art pieces themselves I was very impressed. These black and white portraits are handsomely composed and showcase the radiance of the people in the photos. So often portraits of people in gritty foreign settings try to illicit sympathy by showing the harsh sadness of their ragged faces and bodies. These instead inspire awe, coaxing the beautiful even from unsmiling faces in which there is a pride and a self-assuredness. The artist's photos have a rich saturation of dark shades. There is very often stark whiteness or deep, warm black. Shadow play has a huge role in intriguing composition. Whether the light source has been captured at an odd and striking angle so that the figure stands in the crux of light and dark, or there are interesting shadow patterns from plants or peripheral figures, the shadow overtaking the lightness of the figure, telling or visually textured. Composition of images is strong, often creating a pillar in the center of the photo but with a tendency towards asymmetry which comes not so much from placement of figures as from juxtaposition of light and dark shades. Background is relatively unimportant, all relevant information for the most part stays in the foreground and has a direct conversation with the viewer. The tone is somber, proud, stoic and reflective.

For example, 'Las caras de mis amados is structured with slight asymmetry stemming from the dark male figure who is bigger in the foreground, but which is balanced by the female figure's bright shirt. Although she is smaller, she attracts the eye with the brighter tone. The eye is then carried down toward the bottom center of the photo, and then the substantial weight of the male figure, aided largely by the striking whites of his eyes, is brought over and up. There are several examples of this same sort of smooth motion directed by vertical figures and the contrast of light and dark.

A piece like Sin titulo (1986), simple, direct, and powerful, showcases the photographer's mastery of balance, motion, tone and mood as he works to do justice to his subject. Again we see the strong central pillar of form, the topmost lock of the boy's hair just gently brushing the top of the frame. The most striking part of this image is the boy's eyes because they are centrally located, well placed on the wall to be eye level to an average viewer. The eyes are concentrated with both the brightest and darkest hues in the image, a pattern of hypnotic dots within dots within dots. The angelic sheen of environmental light on the boy's dark skin contrasts devastatingly with the set, concentrated look on his face which also contrasts with the movement from the diagonal lines of his body.
One thing that can sometimes be difficult to cope with in a body of work displayed under glass is the glare. The gallery is lit from above, and during the day, by the large windows facing the street. The light in the room can sometimes interfere with the images. In the right situation, however, a striking phenomenon occurs when looking at dark shades under reflective glass which I was able to appreciate during this show. You are able to see a ghostly reflection of your own face in the black flesh which, if not too distracting to the viewer, can work as an intimate metaphor for the connectivity of humanity and the fact that through Gleaton's artwork, you as the viewer enter into the privacy of the captured moment with the subject.

The pop-up galleries are only open temporarily, but there are many of them and as far as I know, the program is scheduled to continue so there is the promise of new and wonderful collections to explore now and in the coming seasons. Each gallery has a different theme, a different aesthetic. This is a gift from lovely Chicago! Art lovers are encouraged to take full advantage of the FREE exhibits. Map out your art adventure at www.popupartloop.com. Tony Gleaton's work will be shown until November 27th. And if you'd like to take an architecture tour of Chicago, check out the Chicago Architecture Foundation at www.architecture.org.

--The End --