08 October 2007


SATURDAY NIGHT DUSK and the Milwaukee Avenue storefront below North, between a botanica and Rodan, glows white from within, an exhibition that will last only the night. The artist's 5 ½ x 4 ¼ promo card is slapped inside the front window with a thumbprint of masking tape. Furnishings shop Fenway Gallery vacated the space only the day before, and the artist and her friends were up until 5am assembling "Melina's Big Drawing." (In a couple of days, Una Mae's boutique will begin to build-out the space.) The commissioned piece, its sprawl of scrawl seemingly invisible until you're up close, although its nine panels are three sheets high from floor to ceiling on two walls, is graphomanic succession of floral patterns, insect tracks, migrations of marks, reminiscent of Kerouac's legendary scroll manuscript of "On the Road," but instead of keystrokes and language, it's tracks and burgeoning glyphs. Artist Melina Ausikaitis, 30, describes her style as "repetitive patternmaking, mark-making." Neighborhood stalwarts and friends drift through the space. A couple of hardback chairs are in the middle of the room if you want to stop and stare. A folding chair sits in front of a monitor with DVDs playing unbroken shots of Ausikaitis drawing… drawing… drawing.

Ausikaitis worked for a year, with a commission as unusual as the exhibit's mayfly ephemerality. On the breeze from the open back doors, the Blue Line thunders. Ausikaitis' style began while in art school about a dozen years ago on a cross-country train voyage with a friend from Boston to Los Angeles. "My friend can sleep anywhere. I was alone a lot of the time. Staring at the scenery, it had a pattern to it. I wanted to see how many pages I could fill up with it." But more recently, she says, "I'd look at my art resume and say, 'Lots of group shows!' I never had a solo show, and I had to make my own first solo show." The lawyer father of a friend, Urs Trepp, a bear of a man with a cockatiel quiff of white cotton-candy hair, was in Chicago and made a studio visit.

"He came over one afternoon and I showed him my drawings. I had a few really big—big for me at the time!—pattern drawings, pen on paper, no color, no images. He liked those the best. We were just talking as we were walking from my house and he was like, 'I wanna tell you, I want to give you this commission. I want a thousand square foot drawing.' He tells me this while we're walking across Palmer Square. 'But I have some conditions,' he said. We talked for a long time about my state of mind, with being an artist and having enough confidence to get stuff done.

"I had applied to UIC for grad school and didn't get in and I started to question whether I should even continue making art. Which is a serious fucked-up thing when you've been doing it a long time and call yourself an artist! His condition was I had to quit both my jobs, at Rodan and Skylark. He asked how much I made in a year. I thought about it, I just said, 'Thirty grand." He said, 'Okay, give me your bank account info and I'll wire it to you when I get back.'

"We went to Rodan and had some drinks and I told my boss I was quitting." She used the money on supplies and living expenses, but not much else. "I thought about getting a computer but I didn't."

"If it happened now," she continues, "I'd ask more questions about why he wanted to do it in the first place, since I’m more confident than I was then. My whole perception of Urs as a person is different now. I've never met a guy with that much money before. He is American but he lives in Europe. That impressed me. I just felt really out of my territory, with somebody who would do something like that. I didn’t ask any questions! The magnificence of the whole idea of this commission, like, who does that, who says, 'A thousand square feet'?"

Ausikaitis thinks for a second. "He's a really brash guy. He was always setting people back on their heels. I think he enjoys pointing out things about people that other people are too polite to mention." And what is this piece? "It's just pencil and paper… it's just one person drawing the same thing over and over again for a year. I wish it had been smaller since it was so difficult to hang. It's a face-value piece except for how long it took. It's almost like you're at a lookout point, 'Those clouds up on that mountain ridge are kind of cool.'"

While building owner Gary Marks let her know around Labor Day he'd lend her the space for the night, Ausikaitis says, "Our only goal was to get it up and see what it looked like, we just needed to see what it actually looked like. I hadn't even seen one section in its entirety. The last time I talked to Urs, he was like, 'Just get it up anywhere.' I got paid for it, he gets his art, all the goals have been met. In that way, it was totally successful. And I got through 'Tale of Two Cities' on audiobooks. I could never get through the book. I listened to 'Huckleberry Finn,' too."

Introduced to her patron, I ask Trepp's inspiration, what does he admire about Ausikaitis' art? "I like her legs." I know that smile is the only answer I’m going to get.

Published in a different, shorter version in Newcity, 4 October 2007.