Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon

Gargoyles and Eccentricity

Posted in Art,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the January 15th, 2010

When I first arrived here in Chicago a couple of years back, I managed to offend one of my new colleague’s sensibilities. We were walking across campus together when this respected scholar asked me if I didn’t simply love the architecture of the university’s buildings. Without thinking, I replied that I thought it was a little silly. Here in Hyde Park, a neighborhood studded with masterpieces of Prairie School and other early-twentieth-century styles of American design, why had the Rockefellers and the university administration decided to build in the Gothic style, as if Hyde Park were thirteenth-century Cambridge or Oxford? It reminded me a little of the Magic Kingdom in Disneyland.

I could tell by my colleague’s facial response that I’d said the wrong thing — I have practice in recognizing that look, given the number of times I put my foot in my mouth in the average day.

Since then, I’ve come to appreciate the campus’s beauty a bit more, especially in summer when everything is in bloom. Most of all, I like the gargoyles that keep watch over us from the turrets and arches of the buildings on the main quad.

Yesterday, my daughter and I trekked over to Rockefeller Chapel — the most Gothic of all the campus buildings — for the opening reception for “That Gargoyle on My Shoulder.” The exhibit brings together gargoyle-related works by local and national artists, including paintings, photography, and sculpture, all of which look remarkably at home in the looming chancels of the chapel. One inventive piece pairs two small paintings in round frames, one of a conventional gargoyle mounted on a cathedral tower, the other depicting a modern video surveillance camera in the same position. We’re still being watched from on high, the piece reminds us.

The exhibit also includes some thirty papier-mâché gargoyles produced over the past five or six years by sixth graders at the University of Chicago Lab Schools–including one done a couple of years back by my daughter Sonia, pictured above. Here’s the planning sketch she did for it, which now hangs in a prominent position on our walls at home.

A review of the exhibit in the Chicago Maroon newspaper praises the student works as “impressive” and concludes

Sixty beady eyes observing your every move certainly has the potential to be unnerving, but That Gargoyle on My Shoulder manages to unite the grotesque with the whimsical for an overall experience that is quite positive. The elephant-eared, tentacled, long-snouted beasts that adorn the inner walls of the chapel make the space a little eccentric, quite inventive, and very exemplary of the U of C.

That’s the word I should have used two years ago: not “silly,” but “eccentric.” It would have reduced the awkwardness of the moment, and it also would have been more precise.

The show runs through March 19, and they promise to serve hot chocolate to visitors. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by and check out the eccentric vibe.

2 Responses to 'Gargoyles and Eccentricity'

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  1. Linda said,

    on January 16th, 2010 at 1:14 am

    Sonia is a gifted artist.

  2. bourdaghs said,

    on January 16th, 2010 at 11:53 am

    Thanks! I think it must be one of those talent-skips-a-generation things.