Kate (kate_nepveu) wrote,
Kate
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Vacation in Review, a.k.a. The Enormous Chicago Trip Report

We left for Chicago last Wednesday morning, and returned this Tuesday afternoon. We needed a vacation and were really looking forward to the trip, but I was not in the best shape for a trip, being badly sleep deprived. Sunday night, I was basically up since 3 a.m. because the dog was sick from the stress of meeting, and vehemently disliking, Chad's parents' dog, as well as all the new and varied treats she was given by Chad's parents. I didn't catch up on that sleep Monday or Tuesday nights, between work, laundry, packing, and playing with the dog so she'd go to the boarder's on a good note. (We dropped her at the boarder's Wednesday morning, and they took her right back with no fuss (she likes people)—it was traumatic for us, but doubtless it was for the best because if we had said goodbye, we probably would have just frightened her. I still felt incredibly guilty and sniffled most of the way to the airport. She's such a good dog.)

Public service announcement: I am probably the last person to discover this, but checking in over the Internet and printing out boarding passes: The Best Thing Ever. Especially if you do not trust your airline, as I do not trust United (it was the only direct flight we could get).

I dozed through an easy flight, and we took a van into town that was stuffed with chatty people. I spent about half the trip trying to work out their relationships to each other; turns out they were in town for a yearly convention of former Secret Service agents and their families, and so sort-of knew each other from prior conventions. Billboard that caught my eye: "Resurrection Health Care".

We stayed at the Lenox Suites Hotel on North Rush, between Ontario and Ohio, a block from the Mile, which was very nearly perfect for us. We find suites convenient (and cheaper) on long stays, because of the ability to stow drinks, snacks, and breakfast food. Our kitchen had a microwave and stove in addition to the sink and fridge, so we even ate our restaurant leftovers. The room was obviously not new, but nevertheless clean, in good condition, and scaled for normal people. The staff was very helpful, and the rates were extremely reasonable. My only complaint is the absurdly finicky keycards; they were so bad that getting the door open in only four tries was cause for celebration. Unless we hit the lottery, we'll be staying there next time we come to Chicago.

After we ooh'ed and aah'ed over the room, we had a tasty Cajun lunch at Heaven on Seven (the Rush location of a local mini-chain), a place across the street that I'd spotted on the way in. This was notable for the veritable forest of hot sauces on each table; about twenty-five, by my estimation. Then we strolled up the Mile, looked at the old Water Tower, and got various supplies at a drugstore. When we got back to the hotel, Chad crashed while I spent approximately six years on hold with Verizon, trying to get our dialup Internet access to work. I had been in a good mood, but that pretty well killed it.

We headed out to the Navy Pier afterwards for reasons that frankly escape me now, as it is obviously a tourist trap (probably because it was in walking distance and we were curious). My rotten mood took a small dent when we discovered the cool fountains in the Crystal Gardens: four arching sprays of water arranged in a square, so that one came down near where the next started. If you put your hand through the end of one, interrupting its flow, the next spray would have a visible gap in it. I have no idea how they did that, but it looked pretty cool.

And then we went into the Smith Museum of Stained Glass, which was astoundingly wonderful. I had two guidebooks; neither of them mentioned it. The various promotional literature in the hotel room didn't mention it. Its name was just mentioned on the various Navy Pier signs, without description. I am appalled that it isn't being promoted better, or indeed it all. It's huge, running the length of the rearmost Pier building. It's free. It has a wide variety of works: religious, mosaics, historical, contemporary, Frank Lloyd Wright. And—and and and—it has something like thirty Tiffany windows on display in three galleries—more than I've ever seen in one place, in other words, including at the Met on my last visit.

Why didn't anyone tell me about this?!

Ahem. You may have gathered that Louis Comfort Tiffany is my favorite visual artist. The amazing thing about Tiffany windows is how far they surpass everything else. We walked into the first gallery and our immediate reaction was, "Now this is the real thing." The vivid and varied colors, and the accompanying rich and realistic depictions of light, give them so much more depth and life than other stained glass. It's commonly reported that Tiffany aspired to painting with glass, rather than on it, and I think he succeeded admirably.

Unfortunately, I didn't think to take notes, and there isn't an exhibition book or postcards or a map or anything available for the museum—part of that complete lack of promotion thing. There is a list of windows at the Navy Pier's website (direct pdf link to enormous file), but it's text-only and appears to be out of date, as it doesn't list many of the windows that I recall. Various pictures can be found at innersource.com.

Of the Tiffany windows, there were excellent landscapes, of course, including memorial windows (I think this picture is of one); but there were also figurative works, which I hadn't seen before. The figurative works were not my favorites, because the hands and faces of the people were painted. In some of these, I almost couldn't take the contrast between the flat faces and the glowing depth of the rest, especially the flowing folds of clothing. In other windows, the contrast was not as painful, because of the scale of the work (for instance, a large portrayal of Jesus and his disciples) or the more abstract rendition of the face (in this guardian angel portrait (I love the colors of the wings), or this gorgeously-composed triptych center). There was a really neat one of the Annunciation, where Gabriel was behind a layer of milky glass, but Mary was on top, making her more present and the angel hazier and more remote. The milky layer was opaque to light from the front, which the museum demonstrated by cycling the backlighting on and off automatically—which startled us considerably, because the cycling off came just as we gestured a bit close towards the windows, and we thought we'd broken something.

I wish we'd had time to go back, as I can specifically remember only a few other windows. There were several good landscapes; two small rounds depictions of seasons (I think Spring and Fall); two memorial windows, one with lilies; a figurative window with a wonderful depiction of a carried lantern's light against robes; and a strikingly different window at the very end of Chicago's skyline circa 1910 (?), much simpler in its lines but with typically rich colors.

The museum had lots of other windows besides Tiffany, of course. Being Chicago, there were Frank Lloyd Wright windows, which I find uninteresting. There was some depicting historical events; I remember now a window commissioned by early women's rights advocates in Massachusetts (which the pdf tells me is "Massachusetts Mothering the Coming Woman of Liberty, Progress, and Light", 1893), and a mosaic of Martin Luther King Jr.'s face. There were a few very striking mosaics by Khaim Pinkhasik that took their inspiration from Russian folklore; some windows that looked like they could have been illustrations for A Night in the Lonesome October; and several large pieces that used to be doors or landing windows (how cool would it be to have a house with those?).

After I'd finished exclaiming over the stained glass, we wandered the rest of Navy Pier (which, as I said, is basically just a tourist trap), admired the skyline, and then sat with drinks until the sun went behind a skyscraper and the wind picked up. Wandering around for someplace to eat, we landed in Rosebud, another place with several locations in the city, and had a bottle of wine and excellent Italian food: Chad had one of the house specials, chicken vesuvio, and I had a very simple but flavorful penne with vodka sauce (I think it was the mascarpone in the sauce that did it). Took my leftovers back to the hotel and called it a night.

It became brutally hot in our east-facing hotel room in the morning, as it slowly became clear that the fan on the air conditioner wasn't working. As this realization dawned, I was back on hold with Verizon; after another six ages, they told me that they knew what the problem was, they didn't need me to fix it, and they'd call me back. So we decamped and they called as we were on our way to the Field Museum, saying it was fixed. Oh goodie.

The Field was very enjoyable. The exhibits did an excellent job of explaining the significance of their contents, and the people behind the exhibits clearly had a sense of humor. It didn't have nearly as many dinosaurs as the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, but the ones they had were nicely done, particularly their centerpiece, Sue, the world's most complete T. Rex. The rest of the dinosaurs were presented in the context of a lengthy exhibit called "Life Over Time." Unfortunately, I keep reading that title in the same manner as "Mind Over Matter," but what it's describing is a tour from the first life on Earth up to the present. For instance, there were TVs along the way where the EBC (Evolutionary Broadcasting Company) did evening news updates talking about the shocking new development of things coming out the sea and growing legs, complete with weather forecasts talking about the possibility of ice ages. That was one of the silliest aspects, but it was generally an interactive, lively look at the topic.

We went through the gems exhibit—oooh, shiny!—which was small but enjoyable, and then into the Egypt section. This was also impressively informative, particularly the marketplace that depicted scenes from a painting—"oh, so that's what they're doing!" And, because it was a summer Thursday, the whole place was practically empty, which was a pleasure in itself.

As an aside, it's interesting to contemplate the boundaries between natural history and art. The other two excellent Egyptian collections I've seen, after all, are in art museums in New York and Boston. On one hand, I can see that anthropology somewhat fits into natural history; on the other, there was a display of fairly recent (19th c.?) Japanese enameled objects that felt a lot more like art to me, and its placement in a natural history museum felt uncomfortably Western-centric. Food for thought, anyway.

It was late afternoon when we left and still brutally hot. We walked up Grant Park and found where they were setting up the Jazz Fest, which started the next day. It looked like it could be a very crowded space, so we mentally bumped it down the priority list a bit and eventually headed back to the hotel. Where the AC was not, as I was told on the phone, fixed. (Someone did come right up and fix it when I called again.) And, continuing a trend, the Verizon dialup was not, as I was told on the phone, fixed either. I gave up and called the next morning to cancel the service. We ate leftovers and then headed out to see The Second City.

We saw the Mainstage production of "No, Seriously, We're All Gonna Die." With a title like that, you know it's going to be topical, though there was a mix of non-topical humor too. Little of the scripted portion rose to the level of hysterically funny, but that's hard to do. There was an improv set after (free, so a few people came in) which had more moments that were incredibly funny in a very oh-that's-so-wrong way. It was generally quite good, and the tickets were only $17, so I'd definitely recommend it.

The next morning we stopped in at an Internet "cafe" (it had a cooler of drinks for sale, hence the scare quotes) to check e-mail. Since the weather was still very soupy, we headed back down to Museum Campus to the Shedd Aquarium. Again, quite good. The reef downstairs gets hyped for its sharks, which I don't understand, because there weren't that many sharks and they weren't the focus. The reef exhibit itself is excellent, though, as is the Amazon Rising exhibit. The dolphin show is far too preachy for adults; we should have skipped it and spent more time watching the sea otters play—they're much bigger than I expected and really absurdly cute. (ajhalluk, I'm definitely jealous that you have an otter now. We actually stooped to buying a small plush otter because they were just so flippin' cute.)

We took our time with the Aquarium because of the weather, and of course when we left it had broken and was nice and cool. We heard one song at the Jazz Fest (someone and the Well-Oiled Jazz Machine) and then headed to Pizzeria Due's to meet prince_corwin and publius1. The second location of the original Uno's, the pizza was quite good, obviously hand-made and not stamped out in a factory. We stopped in at Borders, where I forced books upon people per my usual procedure, and then adjourned to publius1's apartment, which is literally a storefront, for talk and petting of the roommate's neurotic Lab/Border Collie. We had an early morning coming up and were very tired, so we didn't stay too long. On the way back I saw my first Segways in use; two, actually, on the Mile.

In the morning we were off to a friends' lake house in Michigan, which turns out to be enormous: you could fit at least three of our house in it, without exaggeration. The guys went to play golf and I had a deliberately, gloriously antisocial afternoon: I took a long nap, read a trashy novel, and reveled in being alone for the first time in days. We had a quiet dinner in, then lunch, ice cream, and arty purchases the next day in the town of Saugatuck. Headed back in late afternoon through much rain. I have to say, I'm sure that Gary, Indiana is a wonderful place, but from the highway, it looks and smells like industrial Mordor. When we got back, we had dinner at a Big Bowl location (another local chain), which was extremely slow but had competent Asian food.

Monday, it was pouring rain so we spent all day at the Art Institute. We started with a quick look into the Aerospace Design exhibit, which had lots of models of planes and spacecraft and was kind of neat.

From there we headed into European Art. You know, of course, about the Monets and the Pointillist painting and all the famous stuff, and there's not much I can say about those. Several other things did catch my eye, though. There were a handful of paintings by Giovanni di Paolo, which reminded me of Dali and Escher, but done in the 15th c. (Here's the Institute's page about one.) Among the religious art, I was pleased to note numerous appearances of Saints Catherine and Barbara, who I recognize as unkillable saints thanks to Making Light. On a less happy note, I also saw numerous scary children claiming to be the infants Jesus and John the Baptist; they looked demonic to me, frankly. El Greco apparently painted elongated elves rather than people; Goya painted six small, clever panels of a friar capturing a bandit (here's the fifth); and everyone painted dogs.

The Institute also had Velázquez's Aesop on loan from the Prado, displayed with two Manets that were closely inspired by that painting (explained further on the Institute's page). Unfortunately for Manet, the comparison is not flattering; I thought the Velázquez is a much better face and has much more personality.

After Europe, we went through the Indian and South East Asian exhibit, which was excellent. I was highly taken by two Indian temple figures of Ganesh and Sarasvati. Granted, it's easy to like Ganesh, as there's just something friendly about an elephant-headed god, but I also liked the pair of them, as they are invoked together at the beginning of literary endeavor, an idea I found charming (and useful).

We went past a neat Renaissance jewelry exhibit, and then went up, down, and back a long hall: up for the arms and armor on one side; down for the arms and decorative arts in the middle; and back for the decorative arts on the other side. I almost always like exhibits that involve the more practical applications of art; the ingenuity and attention to detail fascinate me.

Thence to the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean galleries. There was a great set of cabinets with jades (the Field's section of jades was closed), and a few Ordos bronzes. The pottery was the most amazing, though; they had several rooms of dishes and tomb figures, with an amazing range of colors and styles, some of which were really beautiful. I think I liked this section the best of the museum. And, continuing the dog theme, there was a large tomb figure of a mastiff and an urn with a dog-shaped knob on the cover. (It's not just that we have dogs on the brain. I was looking for cats too, and they were much less common.)

We stopped in at the Thorne Miniature Rooms (an example), which are fascinating in a "that's so insane" way. They're incredibly detailed and painstakingly done (most of them have exterior views or entire other rooms visible through doorways), but one can only crouch and look at little rooms for so long before burning out. They were, however, much more interesting than Contemporary Art, which mostly I found laughable. Chad was particularly offended by a piece that consisted solely of a length of yarn that ran along the ceiling, down through the middle of the room to the floor, along the floor, and then up to the ceiling to form a square. Oh, and there was another floor-ceiling length running parallel to the side of the square. That was it. The Modern Art section was only a little better, with some good Georgia O'Keefes, but not much else. The museum was getting ready to close by this point, so we braved the gift shop looking for good postcards (surprisingly few) and then headed back out into the rain.

On the way back to the hotel, my bad computer karma continued, as we had an absolutely dreadful fucking experience at the Internet cafe. You'd think that a place like that would have printing already set up on all the machines, wouldn't you? Well, I did, and was I ever wrong. It took over half an hour to get our boarding passes to print, and I was convinced all the time that it wouldn't work and we'd have to try to check in again at the airport. I was not impressed. Fortunately, it did eventually work, and we stumbled upon Le Colonial, a very nice Vietnamese restaurant that a friend had recommended. We were entirely underdressed, but they didn't turn us away because of my jeans, and we had a lovely and relaxing meal.

Tuesday morning we got up too early, packed, checked out, and had breakfast at a Corner Bakery; alas, my bagel had the dinner-roll nature, but Chad liked his baked French toast. We killed a little time at Borders (we were up way too early) and then went to the Terra Museum of American Art when it opened at 10, because it was free and small and we'd walked past it a dozen times. This was a good way to kill 45 minutes. The folk art and Modernism exhibits weren't my kind of thing, though I did like a series of photographs by Stieglitz called "Equivalent" (one example on this page) and a lively sketch of the Woolworth building by John Marin. More interesting was the exhibit on Edward S. Curtis's print portraits of Native America; there was also a Whistler exhibit with really neat etchings of Venice. Apparently the Terra is closing in late 2004, though it will be rotating works through the Art Institute.

The flight home was uneventful, and we got in early, though not quite early enough to pick up the dog. It was good to be home—there's really nothing like sleeping in your own bed.

Overall, a really good trip. I wish we'd been able to see more of the city outside museums, do the Jazz Fest, that kind of thing, but the weather just didn't cooperate. I'm sure we'll go back at some point.

Tags: [time] in review, museums, trips
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