Artist and architect Amanda Williams likely never expected her public art project Color(ed) Theory, for which she surreptitiously painted the exteriors of condemned houses in largely vacant Chicago neighborhoods, to garner significant attention. But in 2015, the Chicago Architectural Biennial highlighted the ongoing project, suddenly giving it a platform with international reach. In her first solo exhibition, Color(ed) Theory is featured alongside other recent multimedia works by Williams at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
Chicago Works: Amanda Williams is an intimate exhibition featuring photography, sculpture, and site-specific instillations which considers the history of Chicago’s South Side and explores the narrative and nature of urban decay. In making these works, she frequently collaborates with local Chicagoans, encouraging literal conversation about urban space.
Color(ed) Theory is a body of work informed by architectural historian Colin Rowe (who championed architecture that responds to local histories) and painter Josef Albers (whose work famously made the point ad infinitum that colors are fluid, always responding to their surroundings). Williams found abandoned houses slated for demolition and painted them in uniform bright colors, each color associated with a specific product common in South Chicago’s commercial culture (ranging from the purple of a Crown Royal bag to the ubiquitous vibrant yellow of a check-cashing and currency exchange outlet).
As the ongoing project gained notoriety, increasingly more people turned out to help paint each successive house, bringing people into the area that might not otherwise venture into Chicago’s South Side. All the houses were eventually demolished as planned, but the project lives on through photographic documentation, though a wood-lattice from the Flamin’ Red Hots house occupies part of the MCA gallery space, serving as both sculpture and relic.
Several works on view use gold as a vehicle to address topics ranging from housing/income inequality, property value, and the very nature of the trust-based gold standard. In the center of the gallery space sits the wittily titled It’s a Gold Mine; Is the Gold Mine?, a pallet of bricks from a demolished home, each covered with artificial (yet convincing) gold leaf, seeming to transform the bricks, with their urban, working-class associations, into the very substance of wealth.
Gold also features in a site-specific installation created in collaboration with South Chicago locals. It’s a room with the same dimensions as a typical working-class residential lot, its interior walls completely lined with imitation gold-leaf. In the absence of a door, a gap in the wall allows inquisitive viewers to peek inside, but is too small to pass through, and the glimmer remains tantalizingly out of reach.
A final body of work, Chicago is Iraq?, comments on the controversial moniker “Chiraq,” a term likening Chicago to a war-zone, and a word dispersed in music and film through personalities such as Niki Minaj and Spike Lee. Williams takes laser-cut maps of neighborhood streets from Chicago neighborhoods and, in shadowboxes, overlays them with maps of Iraq, the country’s sinuous highways contrasting with the starkly rectilinear streets of Chicago’s neighborhoods.
Amanda Williams creates highly conceptual sculpture using the visual language of architecture, and her works lend themselves to varied interpretations. Since home ownership has generally been integral to the proverbial American dream and a source of wealth accumulation across generations, her work inevitably makes us consider the discriminatory redlining and restrictive covenants which so decisively gave shape to Chicago’s demographics. Even so, her art possesses an understated optimism; the subtle but important question mark punctuating Chicago is Iraq? is infinitely more hopeful in this context than its declarative counterpart (also, and not incidentally, it implies dialogue with the viewer). And while her work doesn’t presume to offer answers to the problem of urban decay, it serves as a platform to, as she states, “spark conversations that lead to ideas that lead to solutions.”
Amanda Williams: Chicago Works is on view at the MCA until December 31.