Smile Politely

Unrequited: Quinn Koeneman’s solo gallery show at indi go

Decades of rigorous classical music training has hard-wired me into a cynical and judgemental jerk when it comes to experiencing art. I nit pick, my brain works in overdrive trying to conceptualize and contextualize what I’m experiencing. Every once in awhile, an experience like seeing Quinn Koeneman’s solo gallery show, Unrequited, showing at the Indi Go Artist Co-op, jolts me out of my cynicism and reminds how powerful and moving art can be.

The show opened at 7 p.m. on Friday, August 2nd. I immediately found the themes Quinn explores through his art to be utterly fascinating. The more I spoke with Quinn and his parents, Scott and Nancy, I started to realize just how personal Quinn’s work is.

Throughout most of his schooling, his parents became frustrated with his teachers’ attempts at trying to put “a square peg in a round hole”. In fifth grade, his doctor diagnosed him with Asperger’s and told him that he was “wired differently.” For Quinn, art grew from being a passionate interest to something richer and more profound by the time he reached high school. By the end of his final year in high school, he became increasingly interested in conceptual art. Once Quinn got to the School at the Art Institute of Chicago, he immediately found a nurturing yet challenging environment perfect for the artistic exploration he desperately wanted to pursue.

Quinn’s approach to conceptual art has a very strong current of self discovery to it. A recurring theme throughout his work is his exploration of communication. According to Nancy, one of the greatest challenges Quinn had to deal with was his struggles with perceiving communication, both from his own standpoint and receiving communication from others. His performance pieces take this challenge head on.

The first piece you encounter is Awkward Message Board. It’s a bunch of chalkboard put together on a wooden frame so it can be worn around the neck. The performance aspect involves Quinn wearing this piece, going out in public, and having strangers write and draw all over the work. This piece presents several challenges to all participants involved. It makes Quinn interact with strangers. He must convince them to participate. Once someone agrees to do so, due to the nature of the piece, the participant must enter the artist’s personal space in order to write on a board.

According to the wonderfully informative description he provided next to this work, Awkward Message Board got Quinn interested in proxemics – the study involving people’s spatial relationship with others and their surroundings. While proxemics has its origins in a different field, I have been noticing non academic examinations of it pop up in recent years. The Free Hugs Campaign is probably the most well known of these, catching the attention of Oprah. Recently, the New York Times featured photographer, Richard Renaldi, who is about to publish a portrait series called, Touching Strangers. Quinn’s exploration of proxemics has a deeper resonance to it due to his previous struggles with personal space and communication. On top of all this, Awkward Message Board is visually striking and bold. There are a number of other performance pieces that delve into other aspects of interacting with others.

Such a Secret Place, the Land of Tears

In the middle of the ground floor, you find probably the most talked about work in the show, Such a Secret Place, the Land of Tears. Like Awkward Message Board, it’s stunning to look at. Upon closer inspection, you realize that the work is a beautiful meditation on transcending language and other communication barriers. He translated something from Le Petit Prince into English and then had a friend translate the English into German, a language that Quinn doesn’t understand. He then based the drawing on that new quote.

As you walk down the steps of the gallery, you are confronted by the following piece. 

The Only Chair in the Room

The Only Chair in the Room made me chuckle. It’s a chair with a good chunk of the seat cut out of it along with one of its legs missing. It’s unsettling. Even more so for the people who try to sit in it. Your mind might even try to complete the picture and by failing to do so wonder why the chair is incomplete. I didn’t see it that way. After seeing the performance pieces upstairs, this chair made perfect sense to me. Quinn really pushed himself out of his comfort zone with those pieces. Here, he seems to flip the script by pushing the observer out of their comfort zone. Having been that “square peg in a round hole” before, I found The Only Chair in the Room deeply satisfying.

At Most Fears

At Most Fears plays on the ethereal and impermanence quality of memories. Quinn wanted to capture various moments of his life he was afraid of losing – those he cherished or didn’t want to forget. He took polaroids of those moments, sealed each one into a canning jar, and then labeled each one: “Atmosphere of Solitude”, “Atmosphere of Id”, “Atmosphere of Solitude”, etc. “Atmosphere of Endings” captured a beautiful moment with someone in Quinn’s life just before that relationship had abruptly ended. I love the discipline and courage it took to capture that moment for what it was at that precise moment. The title also adds a poetic element to it. It’s worth a trip to the gallery alone just to see the last jar entitled, “Atmosphere of Intimacy.” I won’t ruin the surprise. In fact, I’ve even cut it out of the photo.


My favorite piece was Almost/L’Amour. It’s a marionette/sculpture and out of all the works in the show, this piece has a life of its own more than the others. In the description of the work, Quinn writes that part of the allure of a marionette is that the master has total control of it. When the sculpture broke, it shattered that idea. After discussing with his teacher, Quinn decided to give new life and purpose to the piece. He repaired the piece and made no effort in hiding any sign of repair. He also acknowledged that repair will be a permanent part of the life of the piece. Instead of just being a piece that shows the words “L’amour” or “Almost” depending on how you hold it, it is now an entity in which the creator, the object, and Nature have equal roles in its being and evolution.

After taking in the show as a whole, I expressed to Scott and Nancy how impressed I was with how mature and focused his artistic vision is at such a young age. They were grateful for the reception the work was getting and how Quinn was taking it all in. They mentioned the tremendous sacrifices they’ve made in order to nurture and support Quinn artistic and career ambitions. All I heard was pride and joy coming out of their mouths, not an ounce of regret.

“It was all worth it. It was all worth it.” said Nancy. I agree wholeheartedly.

No one can predict whether Quinn Koeneman will grow up to become the next Marcel Duchamp. Not his peers, not his teachers, not his parents, not even himself. What I can safely say is that through his art, Quinn will make the people and the world around him a better place. Unrequited remains open until August 13th from 7-9 p.m. I urge you all to check out this incredible show.

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