The Garfield Park-based Julius Caesar began life in 2008 as a collectively run project space that showed members own work and curated guest exhibitions. The founding members, Hans Peter Sundquist, Dana DeGiulio, Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, Colby Shaft, and Ezara Spangl were all recent graduates of the MFA Painting program at SAIC. Full disclosure, I also graduated with these people. In X: a ten-year anniversary show, Caesar celebrated its tenth year running by featuring work by some, but not all, of the current and former directors including: Annie Anderson, Levi Budd, Dana DeGiulio, Josh Dihle, Diego Leclery, Tony Lewis, Roland Miller, Maddie Reyna, Kate Sierzputowski, Ezara Spangl, Hans Peter Sundquist, Sean Ward, and Molly Zuckerman-Hartung.
In thinking about the show and the longitudinal existence of Caesar, I am thinking about both the long-term impact of artist-run curatorial activity and my own time in Chicago. I was always a bit chafed to be on the outside of Caesar. Sure, I was a supporter, I went to shows, gave a bit at fundraisers, and probably have a tote-bag or t-shirt somewhere, but I wanted in and I wanted to show and I wasn’t alone in that wanting. But instead, I committed that fatal artistic sin: instead of just asking for what you want, you pine away from the periphery. I wouldn’t want to show as much with Caesar now, not because it has lost its vitality, the show demonstrates that it has not, but because I wanted the type of validation that you can only get from a certain class of formative peers. That peer-to-peer exchange is an important function of collective projects like this.
Considering that Julius Caesar is a space named after someone who gets stabbed to death by friends, the subtext of the exhibition is the relationships of the directors–to each other and to Caesar. I reached out to the current and former directors for comment over email. Some of them have clearly and purposefully moved on from their artist-run gallery experience and their voices are not included here. Most artist-run galleries don’t make it to two, let alone ten. What has made Caesar different?
Julius Caesar began as extra studio space and its connection to studio practice has never changed. At the center of the exhibition is a pile of marble dust. The powder has been mashed by sneakers and tracked around the gray concrete floors. A collaborative work by original directors Dana DeGuilio and Diego Leclery called You’re Standing In My Work (for Chris Naka), performs as an image of a pulverized Roman imperial bust, an inside joke pointed at former director Chris Naka, and as a reclamation of the site of Caesar as “their artwork”. Other works like those of Tony Lewis, Maddie Reyna, Ezara Spangl, Hans Sundquist or Josh Dihle communicate the space’s origin story in painting through their continued engagement with the plastic medium. The most recent director who began in 2015, Kate Sierzputowski, presents a curatorial subtweet of sorts with her earrings-as-art project Chandelier. The project is in the playful spirit of Robert Filliou’s art in a hat, Galerie Légitime or even former Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s symbolic use of brooches in negotiations. Here Sierzputowski presents jewelry made by the other current directors, all men.
Former director Annie Anderson’s contribution is a work of archival and historical reclamation from her original curated show of 2008. She re-presents video of the modern choreographer and dancer Sybil Shearer from the 40’s and 50’s. The documentation provided by The Morrison-Shearer Foundation shows several solo dances performed by Shearer in her private Northbrook studio and recorded in collaboration with cinematographer Helen Balfour Morrison. The remarkable precision, dedication, and passion of Shearer’s movement cuts swiftly through the decades and punctures the exhibition’s otherwise casual or caustic aesthetics. An advantage of artists participating in curatorial programming is the inclusion of their personalized canons; the basic commitment to exhibit what is not being shown elsewhere and that it is worth showing.
Running a space isn’t often easy on the creative energies of the principals. Original director Hans Sundquist stated that “so much creative energy flowed into Caesar that, especially towards the end of my time, that it felt a bit like a vampire sucking the fun out of my own practice. It took a good number of years after working at the art donut shop to want to enjoy a donut again.“ Still, different sets of directors come away with different emotional outcomes. Current director Roland Miller had the opposite impression, instead viewing the experience as an antidote to art-school-bred cynicism.
When I first left grad school I had a terrible relationship with my practice and art in general. It was very negative, critical, claustrophobic. I was stuck thinking about all the things that a person can’t do and all of the weight of decisions and their implications. […] As an artist-curator, nothing can be accomplished without working with people, supporting others in their endeavors, and finding understanding. Working for artists helped me remember why I wanted to be an artist in the first place. What began as vicariously enjoying others’ practices helped me find and develop a practice that I could enjoy and was happy to share.
The collective itself functions by hard-won consensus, or compromise. Current director Josh Dihle described the idea as, “the founding basis of the gallery that previous directors established was that it’s a nonhierarchical leadership model. Everyone has equal say, and we take turns with the programming and the workload.“ Still, disagreements were fierce, based on strongly held beliefs, and commensurate to the depth of commitment to various aesthetic values necessary to negotiate what is to be considered ‘worth seeing’. This remains an urgent task for artist-initiated culture, what to put on the ‘platform’.
Longevity alone isn’t necessarily something to be celebrated. It is really difficult to hand over a project to people who will make different decisions than you and there was reportedly tension in the transitional moments between groups within Caesar. Many ostensibly philanthropic endeavors have sunk after striking the rocks of ego. This is largely hearsay on my part, although Diego Leclery owned up to some of it. “I believe I was universally despised by the end of my tenure. I can get very—how do you say? “animated”—and I burned every bridge. We all love each other deeply now.” A humorous and pointed example of the handover problem occurred for this show when current director Josh Dihle’s meticulously hand-carved woodblock for printing the exhibition poster misspelled Dana DeGuilio’s last name. An homage gone wrong. A tribute misread.
But if longevity isn’t the point, then what is? The continued experience of contingency in contemporary economic and cultural life makes longevity, permanence, and stability into virtues created solely by their scarcity. Similarly, in a time where individuality is pushed as a civic American virtue through libertarian rhetoric, you-too-can-be-unique advertising, and filtered through social media realities, forms of collective endeavor, even in groups as small as Caesar, are rare. Julius Caesar is a deceptively simple organism, one that at the core both embraces conflict between aesthetic worldviews (with a definite soft spot for painting) but that ultimately resolves itself to move together. That Julius Caesar, in any form, survived its transitions from successive groups of stakeholders despite its commitment to contesting received forms of aesthetic and cultural value is a small testament to the power of compromise and ultimately of trust. Current director Kate Sierzputowski put the potential future thusly, “I think Caesar will always be about small-scale preservation. We like our space, we like the people that come to it, and we miss our cat that got kicked out by the new landlord.”