Chicago’s Hyde Park Art Center Puts Alice Shaddle Back in Her Rightful Spotlight

The artist was a key figure in the Chicago scene but, in recent decades, had slipped into obscurity.

Alice Shaddle, ‘Moon Shadows,’ 1984. Photo: Charles Baum

For me, the highlight of the posthumous “Alice Shaddle: Fuller Circles” exhibit at the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago was not any of the (stunning) larger works. It was the postcards. The curators included a sample of Shaddle’s witty, bizarre collaged cards. In one of the cards, a woman in a red polka-dot bikini with Shaddle’s face primps as she sits on a pedestal inside a light bulb; the pedestal has a banner labeled “Tunisia.” In another, a robed monk with Shaddle’s face stands in a snowy mountainous landscape. In the corner, so well-integrated you’ll miss it at first look, a cat peers out from behind what could be a hill or a flower.

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I ran into Charlie Baum, Shaddle’s son, at the exhibition opening, and he told me that his mother made 4,000 of these cards between 1992 and 2008—sometimes creating as many as six a day. They weren’t meant to be exhibited, really, but to amuse friends and family. She would send as many as three each week to her grandchildren alone. They were small, private gifts of art in which—like a wink, a signature, or a secret—she embedded herself.

Alice Shaddle, ‘Charles,’ 1972. Collection of Charles and Camille Baum. Photo: Lisa Stone

The postcards exist somewhere between art and craft or between art for everyone and a project for loved ones. As such, they neatly express Shaddle’s career-long fascination with the public and private dimensions of art and how those categories have both limited and inspired women’s creativity and art-making.

Shaddle, it’s important to note, didn’t just make postcards for friends. On the contrary, she was a key figure in the Chicago art scene for decades. She exhibited frequently in the 60s and 70s; she also taught at the Hyde Park Art Center for more than 50 years. Shaddle was a founding member of Artemisia, the pioneering feminist Chicago gallery that operated from 1973 to 2002. From 1954 to 1970 she was married to Don Baum, an artist and curator at the forefront of the Hairy Who and Imagist movements in Chicago.

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Jeremy Lybarger at Art in America argues that Shaddle’s work was eclipsed by Baum’s prominence. The couple’s son, though, was skeptical of that narrative; he told me his mother was in fact a more celebrated figure than her husband in the 70s. Either way, Shaddle’s work is very different from the Hairy Who’s colorful comic-book poster art, with its emphasis on psychedelic surfaces and exuberant amateurishness. Shaddle’s creation, in a range of forms, tends to be layered and textured, with secrets and wonders lurking in niches and corners.

Alice Shaddle, ‘Pool,’ 1984. Collection of Charles and Camille Baum

One striking example is Birthday Cake, a 1964 hybrid painting/sculpture situated in the exhibit’s entryway. Shaddle built up layers of paper stiffened with latex to create a swirling design from which a luscious frosted cake erupts, with a piece cut out. On the piece is a nativity scene, but the layers of the cake show what Shaddle in an artist’s statement said were “carnal scenes, as though from hades, a warning against gluttony.” A face floats above the cake, and other shapes and figures seem hidden in the details. It’s a visual feast, and the warning against greed seems like it’s intended as an ironic spur to shameless eye candy.

There’s a similar sense of being overwhelmed with the richness of information in many of Shaddle’s other works. The exhibit includes several paper sculptures, which overflow from or burst out of small open boxes.

In one untitled work, a skull rises from a background of leaves, like a little gift package of death. “I have been making studies of the face as it changes with age, with emotion, and with the forming of words,” Shaddle wrote of the series in 1971. “Sound travels through leaves, and the leaves of time of year become a whispering surrounding theme.”

Shaddle also created large-scale collage paintings, such as the 2000 Maiden and Her Horse, a 30×40-inch scene of woods and forest. There are images and faces hidden in the leaves if you look closely. When I was in the gallery, a couple of children were giggling delightedly while pointing out an ominous snake head concealed like a Where’s Waldo in one corner of the frame.

Alice Shaddle, ’30’s Pop’, 1980. Photo: Charles Baum

Shaddle’s work embraces and references non-gallery art—puzzles, handmade gifts, postcards, wallpaper. She evokes or references rugs in her installation from 1984, Moon Shadows, which featured thirty-six cut paper leaf-like shapes spread across the floor of the Artemisia gallery. (A couple of the elements of the show are included in the current exhibit)

This blurring of the boundaries between decorative and fine art is in line with an early fund-raising letter for Artemisia likely written by Shaddle. It explains that the gallery is committed to “expand the concept of art created by woman and include such subjects as: Chinese embroidery, nineteenth century French dressmaking, primitive body decoration…” Women’s art has often been hidden or forgotten, like Artemisia Gentileschi, the 17th century artist for which Artemisia gallery was named, whose work was “often attributed to other artists” and who therefore was “neglected and her name forgotten.”

In that context, it’s also significant that the postcards are displayed on Shaddle’s circular wooden table from the Frank Lloyd Wright George Blossom House, where she lived for half a century. A good deal of her art was inspired by the building’s features and furnishings, and she created artwork specifically for that space. (“You see the form of the architecture…I try to tie everything into the existing structure,” she said.) An exhibit of Shaddle’s work is always, then, in some sense an exhibit of her home. Her art turns private spaces into public ones, or vice versa.

Alice Shaddle, ‘Unknown (version of Paper Moon),’ 1980. Photo: Alice Shaddle

Over the last decades, Shaddle’s reputation has unfortunately been more private than public. As Lyberger notes, though she was well known and exhibited frequently for years, over the last few decades she’s been relegated to obscurity. She wasn’t included in the 1996 MCA show “Art in Chicago: 1945-1995” and was mentioned in a single footnote in the book Art in Chicago: A History from the Fire to Now.

The curatorial team of Cain Baum, Charles Baum, Dana Coutin, Nicholas C. Lowe and Lisa Stone deserve much of the credit for bringing Shaddle back into the spotlight. But her—hopefully temporary—obscurity also feels congruent with her art and her feminist commitments. Art, for Shaddle, doesn’t just occur in designated museums or galleries that have traditionally been the province of male artists. Art making was something that happened in and might even be displayed in domestic and non-public settings—in home design, at the table making cards or in visual puzzles that are a joy for all ages. Part of the delight of “Alice Shaddle: Fuller Circles” is the way it feels like a private missive. You open it up and there’s her face, repeated in light bulbs and mountain retreats and everywhere you go, turning the world into art, made by Alice just for you.

Alice Shaddle: Fuller Circles” is on view at the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago through June 16.

Chicago’s Hyde Park Art Center Puts Alice Shaddle Back in Her Rightful Spotlight