[flickr]photo:6010825826[/flickr]Artist Brian Morgan with “Major Taylor”
Three friends cruise around the Humboldt Park lagoon on Schwinns, hauling freshly caught trout and a sixer of beer. Muscular messengers on fixies sprint down the street with jaws set in fierce resolve. Members of the Windy City Scorchers, an old-time racing team, zoom around a wooden track. An elderly tamale vendor pedals a box bike with ape hanger bars under a blazing sun.
These are some of the icons of Chicago bicycling that artist Brian Morgan celebrates in his show Momentum Wild: The Art of Urban Cycling currently at Jackson Junge Gallery, 1389 N. Milwaukee. Many of the painting in the show were inspired by real people Morgan witnessed on the streets of our city. The artist says he wanted to capture a sense of desperation, but also determination, on the cyclists’ faces as they cope with the challenges of riding in the sometimes-hostile urban environment.
The painting on display, mostly acrylic and vinyl paint plus India ink applied to wooden boards with prominent grain, are notable for their sense of humor and sense of motion. The former comes from the sometimes grotesques characters portrayed, often old, wrinkled and bald or else young and hyper-masculine. The latter comes from Morgan’s depiction of speed through Jackson Pollock-like streaks and splashes of paint and Ralph Steadman-inspired speckling of ink, suggesting the dust kicked up by spinning wheels.
The legendary African-American racer Marshall “Major” Taylor, who spent the last years of his life in Chicago and is honored by his namesake Southwest Side bike trail, rockets across one of Morgan’s canvases, leaving an explosion of paint in his wake. Morgan says he first heard about Taylor from WTTW’s recent documentary about local bike history, Biking the Boulevards.
[flickr]photo:6010822554[/flickr] “Pigeon Run”
In another of Morgan’s paintings, three friends on track bikes barnstorm through a flock of pigeons, the riders spraying mud behind them. In one of the funniest pieces, titled “Rat Race,” troll-like contestants punch, kick and stab at each other as they speed down the width of a street, while a CTA train zooms by in the background on elevated tracks.
[flickr]photo:6010817546[/flickr]”The Rat Race”
Morgan, 38, has been interested in cycling since childhood, when he struggled to keep up with his father, an amateur racer, on training rides. He has several bikes that he rescued from the garbage and rehabbed with parts bought off eBay, rides a tandem with his wife and transports his three-year-old son via bike trailer. In addition to his fine art painting and freelance illustration assignments, he works the door at the Blind Robin tavern, 853 N. Western, a courier hangout where he enjoys sketching the patrons. So it’s no wonder he decided to highlight our city’s vibrant and diverse bike community with this show.
“Biking is not elitist in Chicago,” he says. “It’s very cool, yet very much a populist activity that spans the generations. Cycling is a mainstay for those who depend upon it as their chief form of transportation or livelihood.”
The most striking painting in the exhibit is “Fixie,” which features a stoic figure with one foot amputated, the stump strapped to a unicycle-like mobility device. Next to the painting stands a physical mock-up of the gadget, dubbed a “Superficial Peroneal Prosthetic Wheel,” which Morgan fashioned out old parts from Working Bikes Cooperative and a fork he stripped off an abandoned Schwinn Varsity. He says this piece reflects his own experience of severely injuring his ankle after a 30-foot fall from a tree. The “badass” character in the painting is his alter ego, refusing to become discouraged by a physical setback.
With its memorable images of gritty riders, determined and defiant in the face of challenging conditions, Momentum Wild is a fitting tribute to the Chicago bike scene. The show runs though August 28; Morgan gives an artist talk at the gallery on August 13 at 2 pm.