Chicago’s Driehaus Museum enlivens its historic mansion with contemporary art

Emilee Geist

From now through January 17, 2021, Chicagoans and Gilded Age aficionados can explore the newest exhibition at the Richard H. Driehaus Museum, which sits new, site-specific work amid the 1883 mansion’s ostentatious wallpapering and intricate furniture. In A Tale of Today: Nate Young and Mika Horibuchi, the second such show […]

From now through January 17, 2021, Chicagoans and Gilded Age aficionados can explore the newest exhibition at the Richard H. Driehaus Museum, which sits new, site-specific work amid the 1883 mansion’s ostentatious wallpapering and intricate furniture.

In A Tale of Today: Nate Young and Mika Horibuchi, the second such show in the Driehaus Museum’s A Tale of Today contemporary art initiative, the Chicago-based sculptor Nate Young and visual artist Mika Horibuchi were tapped to respond to create art that engaged with the National Register of Historic Places-listed Nickerson Mansion. The mansion itself was designed by Chicago’s Burling and Whitehouse and was renovated in 2003 after being purchased by Richard H. Driehaus

“Presenting contemporary art in a Gilded Age setting allows the museum to engage with new audiences in new ways, as many will be experiencing this type of architecture and its history for the first time,” said Driehaus, the founder and current president of the museum’s board of trustees, in a press release. “This exhibition provides a unique opportunity to demonstrate the importance of architecture and sense of place from the incomparable vantage point of the Nickerson Mansion while also showcasing new artists in this historic setting.”

Young has contributed both sculptural objects as well as enormous paintings that recreate scraps of his great-grandfather’s letters, highlighting the Great Migration (the mass movement of African Americans from the South throughout the northern and Midwestern states at the turn of the 20th century). According to the museum, the paintings are intended to illuminate “a specific lost history shared in part or full by many Chicagoans.” Young’s more physical pieces, on the other hand, are more subtle; carefully crafted replicas of extant cabinets and drawers, and a wooden grandfather clock that runs backwards, blend in seamlessly with their surroundings.

Image of a tall wooden cabinet beneath a key arch
Nate Young’s woodworking pieces contain holograms of bones inside, revealing the often-invisible narratives of the labor involved with building such opulent mansions. (Michael Tropea)

Horibuchi’s work is much more subtle and metatextual; in the mansion’s Roland Room, Horibuchi created a series of fake didactics for Samuel and Matilda Nickerson’s collection of Japanese and Chinese art, sans the identifying histories. Viewers are then free to create new origins for the objects and recontextualize them, much in the same way the pieces themselves were taken from their native countries and now live permanently in Chicago.

In Samuel Nickerson’s former bedroom, Horibuchi has placed painted objects, oil on linen including a fake carpet and a portrait of Nickerson himself, beside historical pieces from the museum’s collections, blurring the line between real and fake and inviting viewers to examine each closely.

Ultimately, the Driehaus Museum hopes the A Tale of Today series will serve as a template for other historical house museums to adapt to changing times.

“To make conversations about the Gilded Age relevant to today’s society, it is important to have contemporary emerging voices from the city join the conversation,” said curator Kekeli Sumah in a press release. “Both Nate Young and Mika Horibuchi’s installations invite audiences to reconsider and expand their perspectives on history while creating the opportunity to discover new narratives.”

Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, reserving a ticket to A Tale of Today: Nate Young and Mika Horibuchi in advance is encouraged.

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