Live wires 

At any high-profile contemporary art fair in the country, you can bet there’s an alternative art fair just around the corner — and a bit more back alley.

Organizers solicit vendors who are artists rather than dealers by offering lower booth fees for showing and selling art. Usually the work is equally impressive, and the energy more so. For a couple of years, Art Chicago’s sexy younger sister was the Stray Show.

In 2003, artists Christian Tedeschi, Haley Bates and Tom Lauerman dug all the painting and drawing they saw at the Stray Show, but they also knew they had something different to offer: craft. They decided to form a collective so they could take part the following year by sharing costs.

The seven artists that now comprise Telegraph (it’s an allusion to the far West Side thoroughfare) are Lauerman, Shannon Goff, Tedeschi, Fabio Fernandez, Hartmut Austen, Bates and Brent Sommerhauser. As Cranbrook alums, they’re skillful workers with such diverse materials as metal, wood, glass and porcelain. But the content exists way outside the craft tradition.

“I want to do something that makes you look at it as an art experience first, and the material second,” Lauerman says. But he adds: “At the same time, in contemporary art, there is a lack of craftsmanship and regard for technique.”

Last year, Telegraph came to the Stray Show with everything from marble sculpture to sterling silver pieces. No matter what medium, their art expresses an attention to detail that invites close examination.

Certainly, the friends sought each other out because of mutual respect for their work. But occasionally their commonalities are strong enough to surprise even them. For example, quite unintentionally, an icon in an Austen painting looks like a Lauerman sculpture, or shares a color palette with one of Tedeschi’s glue sculptures. Sometimes their art looks so strong together that viewers ask if it’s all created by a single artist.

“At one show, Tom had made small porcelain castings with architectural details, many based on language of light industrial buildings,” Fernandez says. “I had brought my series of small architectural icons made from clementine crates referencing agricultural, residential and industrial buildings. Ironically, we had both made a saw-tooth building.”

The seven, who met each other while studying at Cranbrook Art Academy, are now scattered across the country. It doesn’t look like any of them are going to settle down for a while, because most have teaching gigs that aren’t tenure-track. Lauerman lives in Chicago; Bates lives in Ft. Collins, Colo.; Sommerhauser lives in Kansas City, Kan.; Goff is in Appleton, Wis. (and is relocating for a residency in Portland, Ore., this spring); Fernandez is moving to Boston in a couple of weeks; Tedeschi is off to Boulder, Colo., in January. Austen is the only Telegraph member still living in Detroit.

Since the group members communicate with each other by e-mail most of the time, their physical distance isn’t a logistical concern. They cover more ground that way, which results in collaborative opportunities across the country. The upcoming show in Sommerhauser’s home of Kansas City, Kan., is proof. He moved there a year ago and connected with the folks at Urban Culture Project, a program directed by artists, architects and musicians that revitalizes the local art scene by converting vacant buildings into temporary art venues. Telegraph has a show called In, Around and Through: Observations and Interventions in the Built Environment, Nov. 18 through Dec. 17, at The Bank, one of the four spaces run by UCP.

Goff, who has connections there through one of her ardent collectors, says, “there is a certain demeanor to the people in Kansas City that is really kind and open. They are very generous with their time and energy, and the collectors are very well-educated.”

While the Telegraph members are conscientious artists who really know how to nurture ideas, they also know how to make fun art (if only more contemporary art was as fun as theirs). In Kansas City, the space will be a Clockwork Orange vision of domesticity: Sommerhauser is reassembling a full-sized staircase (salvaged from a demolished building) and installing drawers into the steps. Tedeschi is bringing a ceiling fan with whipped resin spew on it, as well as two video recordings — one of melting butter, and the other featuring 144 hardboiled eggs crashing around on a Masonite bed in his truck. Goff is bringing a “brass” section — French horn, trombone and trumpet — made out of corrugated cardboard. Lauerman is showcasing cloud formations made from the industrial porcelain used for toilets and sinks. And Bates is showcasing her silver pieces based on spoon forms (in the past, her spoons have bent backwards like they’re up to tantric tricks).

The Telegraph crew has a deviant sense of humor, which also explains why their friendships are so strong despite the distance. “Tom does hilarious impersonations,” Goff says. “There’s an ongoing joke that Tom and Christian call each other leaving messages like Fabio, because Fabio speaks so eloquently. Tom will call Christian up and say: ‘Hello Christian. This is Fabio Fernandez, calling from the Chicago Telegraph base. May I offer you a cigarette?’”

Because they admire each other’s work ethic, there have never been any big blow-out arguments — incredible, when you consider that participating in a collective basically means you’re one of seven curators. Fernandez says each member has something to barter that someone else can use. Sommerhauser does all the physical work, installing most of the art at the weekend fairs. Bates maintains the mailing list and writes exhibition announcements. Goff connects well with collectors, and Tedeschi is a very prolific artist who shows all the time, establishing connections with dealers and other artists.

Lauerman maintains the group’s Web site and is also the resident wordsmith. Whether it’s an e-mail or exhibit proposal, Lauerman has a way as a writer. Here’s an excerpt from a detailed entry he e-mailed to the group when he went to the Toronto Alternative Art Fair International with Austen and Tedeschi:

“The Canadian hipster contingent gets drunk and slightly annoying. Christian and I are quietly sitting on a balcony and get accosted by a small group who starts spouting off about how fucked up America is. They are not very knowledgeable about politics but they are fired up by booze, coke and Halliburton. I find myself in the bizarre position of defending our foreign policy. There is a good band followed by a DJ spinning classic Motown. All the nattily dressed are shaking their asses to sweet Detroit sounds. Christian and I discuss the difference between Stevie Wonder and Celine freakin’ Dion.”

Telegraph is like a roaming “art frat,” Goff says. The members don’t share a house or a studio. They’ll probably never even live in the same city again. But they share a disposition they can call home.

 

For more info on Telegraph, see telegraphart.com.

Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to rmazzei@metrotimes.com

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