Artist Steve McQueen transforms the Art Institute of Chicago

October 19, 2012

Mere steps inside the Steve McQueen exhibition you'll realize this is a completely different sort of show for the Art Institute of Chicago.

For one, the exhibition space is mainly dark - and vast. The first work is Static, McQueen's 2009 film which consists of a swirling shot of the Statute of Liberty. You can imitate the circling movements of the film by moving around the large two-sided rectangular screen.

Further in you'll pass a close-up of an eye bathed in red light, called Charlotte, after the British actress Charlotte Rampling. In another room three of McQueen's better known installations come together in a wide triangular structure: Bear (1993)Five Easy Pieces (1995) and Just Above My Head (1996). 

In fact the entire space has been sculpted to present McQueen's work, including the construction of a series of small dark screening rooms that are accessed long passages with padded walls. At times it feels a little like traveling through one of those cinematic spaceships, only instead of the usual blindingly white interior, all the lights have been turned out.

McQueen isn't well-known in the United States, at least not outside art circles. Mention his name and most people will think you're talking about the late star of films like Bullit or The Great Escape.

Adding to the confusion, McQueen is probably best known here for directing some recent feature films, including Hunger and Shame.

This review, covering 20 years of his work, will introduce the artist to a wider circle of fans. But even those familiar with McQueen's work will have the opportunity to encounter new work. His 2003 installation Queen and Country is being shown in the U.S. for the very first time.

You'll find it in a small, well-lit room near the back of the exhibition. McQueen worked with photos of British soldiers who died in Iraq. He printed them up as large sheets of postage stamps. They're framed in glass and hung in a large wooden cabinet.

He made it in 2003, as the British Imperial Museum's Official War Artist to Iraq, and aimed for a different view of the war.

McQueen says his ambition was "to look at this conflict outside of newspapers, outside of television or whatever we get information from as far as how we get our information on conflicts."

The Steve McQueen retrospective is at the Art Institute through next January.