Robin Dluzen is a Chicago-based artist and art critic whose artwork has been featured in venues throughout the Midwest including the Auer Center for the Arts, Fort Wayne, IN; Morton College, Cicero, IL; South Suburban College, South Holland, IL; Zhou B Art Center, Chicago; Chicago Artists Coalition, and the Union League Club of Chicago. The former Editor-in-Chief of Chicago Art Magazine, Dluzen now writes regularly for Art Ltd Magazine, Visual Art Source and Art F City; her writing has also appeared in New City, The Reader, the New American Paintings blog and The Outsider Magazine. Dluzen received an MFA in Painting and Drawing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Robin Dluzen is a dynamo. Think Energizer Bunny with wild hair. I first met her at a book reading of Kathryn Born’s first novel The Blue Kind. Afterward Dluzen had to rush off to attend the Polish Film Festival where they were screening two films she had to review.
She is here, there and everywhere, and if you haven’t seen her name before you soon will. You may have encountered Dluzen jurying student art portfolios; manning an art publication booth at Expo Chicago while conducting spontaneous interviews and generally working the crowd; browsing for ideas at Home Depot; or installing artwork at a Pilsen gallery for her upcoming solo show.
Frequently she gallery hops to say hello and pay respect to various artists. There is a good chance that she can be found at A-list West Loop gallery, Linda Warren Projects, where she is their Web Content Manager, event photographer/occasional food coordinator, and Girl Friday. Oh, and did I mention ‘tweet queen’ 24/7? Beyond all of this, Dluzen taps away at her keyboard writing reviews/essays to meet deadlines for the publications she writes for, or she’s in the studio creating.
Dluzen’s current artwork is made from cardboard, duct tape, wire mesh…not your traditional art media. You may have noted that cardboard has been elevated in status with the recent Pritzker 2014 Architecture Prize being awarded to Japanese architect Shigeru Ban; among other things he produces refugee shelters made of cardboard for natural disasters.
What are your Chicago roots?
I was born and raised in southern Michigan, and I came to Chicago in 2008 for graduate school; I’ve lived and worked here ever since.
Where did you attend college?
I attended Adrian College, a small liberal arts school in southeastern Michigan. Fine art and literature were double majors. I received my MFA in painting and drawing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2010.
Why did you stay in Chicago?
I didn’t think it was possible to have an art career in Michigan. I don’t know if I still believe that’s true or not, but definitely I always wanted to come to Chicago. Part of graduate school is making connections and it would seem absurd, a waste, to leave once I graduated and start all over someplace else.
Have your parents been supportive of your creative direction?
They’re both very open to creativity. I don’t think they pushed me to being an artist or wanted me to be an artist but when it happened they were very supportive of it. My mom’s quite a good draftsman and illustrator so they were always happy to see me drawing. My dad is a furniture maker amongst other things and his mother is a self-taught painter. They have a fondness for art. It’s not foreign to them; they have an understanding for the artistic side.
Tell me about your first ‘breaks’ as an artist and writer?
I had some art awards in undergraduate school. The school purchased a sculpture from me, and through their annual juried competition I was given ‘Best Underclassman Award’ and awarded a solo show. Both were very exciting for me. Getting accepted to SAIC for graduate school was huge. I count that as probably my biggest break as an artist.
In regards to writing, I didn’t plan on publishing. I’d been teaching all through undergraduate and graduate school as a private tutor in writing, mostly working with adults who speak English as a second language. I’ve been supporting myself a long time with that but never thought of writing until I started writing reviews for Chicago Art Magazine my second year of graduate school.
Power lines and industrial landscapes figure prominently in your artwork.
I’ve always had structural imagery in my work. A lot of it related to southeast Michigan’s Midwest landscape and the labors and functions associated with these manmade pieces of the landscape. The power lines in particular, and the transmission towers, were a result of me moving from a very flat open rural area to Chicago, which is much denser visually.
I was born in Ypsilanti, MI, we moved around a bit and the last place I lived was a very rural area. I was living in the city when I’d go back to visit and I started to appreciate and see the big open areas in a different way, especially the way that these structures punctuate it. We have plenty of these in Chicago, they’re pretty impressive, but it looks different to see them standing in a vast open cornfield. I saw them as line drawings and silhouettes against the skyline and they’re not always beautiful. A lot of people hate transmission towers because of pollution that they cause. Often people find them very ugly. I don’t even know if I think they’re beautiful. Formally they’re doing something that interests me. I’m not trying to make them look beautiful to other people; the work definitely isn’t about beauty in any sense. You almost ignore them at a certain point; they’re just plainly functional things. I’ve started noticing the differences between them: this one is missing a part, that one’s taller, another is just weird.
Talk about your use of non-traditional art materials.
Before I came to graduate school I was using traditional materials such as oil paint and a bit of everyday material in my work. I was using newspaper and encaustic, similar to Jasper Johns and then I stopped doing that. This is harder to explain…this feeling when you’re painting on a canvas or using a piece of drawing paper and it feels completely blank and useless to you. But in another way it’s not. You start with this canvas and mentally you’re already loaded with all of this stuff, and I wanted to make all of the materials have a reason to be there. There’s also the underlying part about elevating everyday materials and lower materials. I’m doing that, and more specifically, I think a lot about rural life…anything down home and country. Rural life is not represented well. It’s often romanticized or people are dismissive of it, something you want to escape from: it’s trashy, it’s cultureless. Especially in the Midwest, I think a lot about the poor and white working class, not to celebrate it but to be more truthful. It’s tough and people don’t understand what rural life is like right now, it’s a particular cultural experience.
Amanda Elizabeth Joseph, a painter from Fort Wayne, IN who shows at Zg Gallery in Chicago, has a series of photorealistic yet dramatized paintings of what some people would say are ‘white trash’ women with cut-off jean shorts, etc. She does a lot with the bodies themselves: razor burns, huge pores, bruises, oily skin, and those things are glaring at you. Viewing them all together at her solo show last summer had a different impact than when I saw just a few of her works previously in a group exhibition, where I had looked at them in a different context. Initially, I thought, 'Oh, she's painting regular girls,' but at her solo show it became clear to me that her subjects were what some people would describe as 'white trash' girls. I realized that what I thought was a pretty commonplace and pervading type of person was actually so very culturally specific to the places she and I come from. Amanda is talking about some things that I think about too. She’s exploring stereotypes and although I’m not really talking about stereotypes, I want to point out those things exist. Isolating that experience, she opened up yet another avenue for me about how specific the cultural place I came from is.
Where do you find your materials to work with?
I look for things I can use at Home Depot; there’s a lot of browsing that way. I don’t do a lot of scavenging. I’m not that great with found materials. Every once in a while I can get something to work for me that’s found, but typically I’m searching for it. I see something used in an everyday situation and think about where I can get it and make something else out of it.
Do you have a preferred medium?
I like variety. Right now I’m into cardboard and brown paper, obviously an unusual paper palette. I don’t paint anymore. I’ve used paint and you’ll see enamel paint in works, but it’s used as a vehicle for a drawing practice. I’ve always preferred charcoal and I’ll always use it; that’s the only thing I rely on and go back to.
You wear many hats—artist, writer, critic, gallery web content manager. What are the challenges of multi-careers?
When you’re working to make money, you’re always thinking about making time for your art, the money funds the visual practice. It became very important for me to invest money in studio space. My work was becoming too small and was suffering by not having a place to make it. Hopefully investing money in the practice means the visual art will eventually start making me money back. Some people get irritated about me working in a commercial gallery and writing criticism. I don’t write art criticism about anyone in the gallery where I work, that would be a conflict of interest. There’s no such thing as complete objectivity. Wearing multiple hats allows me to have a more complex relationship to the art world, and a better understanding of how things operate and how different dealers/curators treat the artists they’re working with.
What percentage of your week is devoted to art/writing?
I have at least two to three hours every day for writing, about four hours every day for art, and several days a week I'm on site at Linda Warren Projects for six hours a day; it all varies according to what’s more urgent. If I have a show coming up I focus on my art, and if there’s a writing deadline that takes precedence.
Do you have a preference between art and writing?
Art comes first. I think of myself as an artist. I think about it all of the time; I’ve always wanted to be an artist and the writing came about as a way for me to use some of that knowledge to make money. But the writing has helped my practice in a lot of ways. I also don’t think I could write art criticism without being an artist. I don’t know how people do it when they’re not makers and yet they’re able to write about it. I know a lot of great people that do it, but I can’t imagine what that would be like.
Tell us about your relationship with the digital world.
I have a smart phone, iPad, eReader and a laptop. I’m really passionate about digital publishing. However, I also work for a print magazine and that has its own advantages and great people to interact with.
Chicago Art Magazine was an online magazine?
Right, and it was different than others because it wasn’t a one-voice blog and it wasn’t an unedited conglomeration of different voices just contributing whatever they felt like writing. When it first started it was hard to get the editorial eye on every single piece because they were interested in getting all of this content out. But after I came on board as editor I was looking at every piece, not only copy editing but conceptual editing, working with all the freelance writers, assigning and guiding people through it. At the time, what we did with SEO (search engine optimization) and figuring how to disseminate all of our content was huge, and we were a WordPress blog. We had it figured out. Social media was huge. Half of our traffic came from social media and when we were really publishing every day we had as much or more traffic/readership than any other art publication in Chicago, digital or otherwise. We really prided ourselves on that.
How did the Chicago Art Magazine job come about?
There were posters around school saying an internship would lead to a paying gig. During my second year of graduate school I realized they weren’t teaching us any career skills as part of the Master’s Degree Program, so I decided to pursue the internship. This was a year after Chicago Art Magazine was founded so I came in after it was up and running. I spent two weeks as an intern and wrote so many articles that I graduated to being a freelance writer. By the time I graduated with my MFA, the position of managing editor had opened up so I was promoted. I had so many responsibilities and was willing to take control of so much that I became Editor-in-Chief by the time it closed. Kathryn Born took her hands off the day-to-day editorial stuff and worked as publisher.
What is the significance of Chicago Art Magazine?
Kathryn Born, the founder, publisher and former Editor-in-Chief, was inspired by the way the New Art Examiner had started in the ‘70’s. She’s also the co-author of the anthology The Essential New Art Examiner. She wanted to continue a blend of criticism, artists’ voices, and also news and context for Chicago art. We like to think that it was very timely, things were not overly academic…and with the internet you don’t have to wait for your newspaper to be delivered in the morning. That was really important. By the time we closed we had published 900 articles, and had thousands and thousands of images of Chicago artists’ work. We had a Chicago audience, we covered Chicago.
Do you choose what to write about or are you given assignments?
For Chicago Art Magazine I wrote whatever I wanted. Currently I primarily write for Visual Art Source, Art Ltd Magazine, and Art F City. For Visual Art Source and Art Ltd Magazine I make lists of possibilities. I pick a handful of shows I want to write about and then my editors choose. Sometimes they come to me with ideas such as featuring collectors in an issue. I’ve turned down some articles that I was not interested in writing. For Art F City I do what I want, but then they can say yes or no. Mostly I’m pitching to them.
Do you receive compensation for writing?
I do very little writing for free anymore. If it’s something that I’ve never done before, such as a recent book review for The Outsider Magazine; I was happy to volunteer for that. Otherwise I don’t have the time to write for free. I need to be taken better care of by the publication and they’ll do that if they’re paying you. I’m usually paid a flat fee. They’ll say they need a 150-word piece or whatever from you and this is what you’ll get paid. I also do social media administrative work for Art Ltd Magazine and Visual Art Source. It’s very part time but that’s hourly pay.
I know you also wrote a review for the Polish Film Festival in Chicago.
Patrycja Wierzba, a good friend of mine in the arts, is one of the people responsible for the Polish Film Festival of America in Chicago. She also is a curator in the visual arts, I met her at a terrific show that she curated called ‘unzipped’ at the Society for Arts. I watched a lot of Polish films that year and I met several of the filmmakers; I still maintain a friendship with one of them.
Where did this series of reviews get published?
Chicago DIY Film (DIY-film.com) which is another magazine that Kathryn Born and I ran together. We had an umbrella, the bigger company was called Chicago Art Machine and under that were three magazines: Chicago Art Magazine was the biggest, Chicago DIY Film, and TINC Magazine was the smallest of the three and featured the technology/digital start up scene.
Who are your go-to people?
Kathryn Born is clearly my go-to person and mentor for what I do as a business person or if I need advice of any kind. If I’m making proposals especially relating to the digital world, I’m always talking to her and I also see how she talks to clients and navigates freelance in publishing and social media. Angela Bryant, my former studio mate, is another. She is Director of Dominican University’s O’Connor Gallery, and under her own Abryant Gallery she curates new and emerging artist exhibitions. If I need help, need to get the word out, or want to know about someone, she’ll tell me about artists, and I’ll talk to her about artists. Pedro Velez also is supportive. We’re pals, and for a while we were co-authoring articles about exhibitions in Chicago for Art F City. He’s an art critic and a visual artist; his work is at the Whitney Biennial right now. They are all good people, curious and welcoming, and very smart business people.
What is a key strength of Chicago’s art market?
Its strength is that if you make art, even if you’re starting out, you can find a place to show your artwork. There’re lots of places, and whether people think they’re legitimate or not, they are great places to start. You can find a venue and get people to come. There’s accessibility in being a visible artist and a lot of venues. Everyone is accessible, even artists and gallerists you may think would be out of your reach. It’s not that you can get them to talk or pay attention to you a lot, but you could go to the shows and introduce yourself. There’s nobody that’s out of your reach to know, whether they want to do anything with you is a different story. If you want to meet an art dealer, go to their shows and introduce yourself. Everyone is pretty good at being polite and welcoming. They’re not going to give you studio visits or whatever, but as a visitor they’re very welcoming to you.
Do you find challenges in the Chicago art market?
Chicago’s art scene is a microcosm of what Chicago is on a larger scale; it’s very segregated into groups, and different communities within each of those groups. It’s pretty incestuous with shows of the same people repeatedly within certain groups and people curating the same people into shows. In that regard it seems impossible to get into the ‘in crowd,’ and people don’t all get along. In talking to people from slightly smaller cities such as Milwaukee, people get along for the good of their city. People get behind each other and work together. Here you can’t get all the dealers in a certain neighborhood to open up on the same day and do anything together, not to mention collectively throughout the different neighborhoods. That’s a problem. People keep asking if there is one day when everything’s open. No, galleries won’t even cooperate enough to do that.
What is the ‘good, bad and the ugly’ of being an artist today?
The good thing is the interdisciplinary world that we’re living in. You’re not just stuck being a painter and no one’s expecting you to have a singular style. It still can be useful to have a style, but painters can make photos, they can perform, write, whatever…it can be completely interdisciplinary, which is a good thing. The bad thing is that it starts to be hard to differentiate yourself. The last SAIC MFA show I saw was just piles of stuff everywhere and I thought it’s interesting because I can’t tell who’s from what department, but it’s only vaguely interesting. It was hard to tell them apart. It was described as bricolage style art by Lane Relyea who wrote the book Your Everyday Art World. He describes bricolage as a bunch of found junk piled together. It is hard to differentiate yourself that way. Part of the bad thing is to want to take part in this trend especially when it’s so easy, and you feel current. It’s not a skilled, particularly hand-crafted way to participate in a trend.
Do you see any venue/sales trends in today’s art world?
The gallery serves a different function and is somewhat separated from the sales part; sales take place in a separate environment like an art fair. It’s separating saleable objects from exhibitions and other things an artist can do, i.e. for social good. An example is Theaster Gates whose art consists of places, big things, happenings, but he’s also selling the objects he’s incorporated into the larger scale work. They don’t do much on their own; they’re like artifacts. They’re physical things that can be sold. In that regard they’re separating the monetary aspect of his physical objects from the socially conscious work he does on a larger scale which benefits community and society.
What is your most rewarding experience?
Recently I was a juror, along with Matt Woodward, for the Annual Student Show at Chicago Academy for the Arts, the fine arts high school in Chicago. A small group of students are doing visual arts and it enabled us to see everyone’s portfolio in person. Matt & I selected a handful of awards and were told later that these were kids who aren’t usually picked; they weren’t the ‘big fish.’ It was great to see the kids excited. They get to formulate a voice as a teenager. I was not in that position at that age.
Any words of encouragement for emerging artists?
It’s what I mentioned earlier, especially in Chicago, that there is a place for you to put your art. You can’t send things blindly to galleries or stay in your studio and expect someone to stumble upon you. Get out there in person and meet people, and if you’re out there meeting people you are a part of it. If you do this there will be a place for you to show your art, someone will see it and something else will come of it.
What’s next for Robin Dluzen?
Lately I’ve been exhibiting at small colleges, universities and art centers. That’s a nice step and I like being there. I’m looking forward to a show at South Suburban College, a really beautiful space. They take care of you and you get to interact with students. I love that. The next 4-5 years I’d like to be done with the exhausting scrappy pop-up stuff; I’d like to start working with a gallery. I also see myself showing elsewhere which is really important. I’m not opposed to moving but I see Chicago as a good home base.
Who are your artistic influences?
Diego Rivera, Jasper Johns, and Anselm Kiefer have been favorites since I was a kid. Presently Amanda Elizabeth Joseph was a big eye opener for me. Influence on a personal level in helping me understand things came from working with Kay Rosen, Peter Power, and Christine Tarkowski.
Who are your favorite women in Chicago arts?
We already talked about Kathryn, Angela, and Kay Rosen. Great people to be around were the staff at The Mission; Rebecca Eaton and Natalia Ferreya, who no longer is there. The Mission is a commercial art gallery owned by Sebastian Campos that shows art from the Americas and a lot of the exhibitions are of Latin American artists. I’ve written a catalog essay for the gallery and the Argentinian artist Erica Bohm, and it is among the first critical pieces written about her work in English; clearly the gallery is filling a hole here, bringing in new artists and expanding the dialogue. Their basement space is called Sub-Mission; I was on their 2014 Selection Committee to select artists who will show this year, all Chicago artists.
If you could have lunch with any artist, past or present, who would it be?
Diego Rivera. He’d just love lunch!
What three words describe you?
One is serious, another is a nicer word for stubborn like steadfast, and I like to think that I’m reliable.
What did you want to be at age 13?
What is your favorite way to chill?
I like to read.
What are you currently reading?
I just finished the biography of Alice Neel. That was excellent. I’m currently reading Your Everyday Art World by Lane Relyea who teaches critical theory at Northwestern. It’s a critique of DIY culture; I’m only a chapter in and it’s very academic but very good.
Do you have anything else you’d like to say?
This will be a very exciting time to be in Chicago with the attention on the Whitney Biennial this year.
(Kathleen Waterloo had an 18-year career in interior architecture in Chicago. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago in 1996 and is currently an artist in Chicago.)