The exhibition “But Tell Me, Is It a Civilized Country?” is the result of Max Guy’s deep dive into the Land of Oz, a territory the self-deprecating Witch of the North described as uncivilized because it harbors wizards and witches like her. The exhibition title—actually, the witch’s question to Dorothy about Kansas from the first Oz book, published in Chicago in 1900—brings to mind the racist and criminal inhospitalities of recent times, from Texas and Arizona governors’ callous shuttling of migrants north to Donald Trump’s question about why the United States would want immigrants from “shithole countries.”
For Guy, Oz is a mirror. In an artist talk when the show opened at the Renaissance Society in Chicago, he compared the interrelated Oz literature and films to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as one self-perpetuating franchise. Two keystones of this franchise, The Wizard of Oz (1939) and The Wiz (1978), play side by side in Guy’s silent video The City and the City, sixth cut (2022). The first effort features an Emerald City that feels at times like Chicago while the later rendition involves many New York filming locations. (Guy’s connection here: he grew up in New York and is now based in Chicago.) In its time, The Wiz suffered at the hands of white critics who questioned the need for revisiting Oz with Black actors, a new script, and new songs. Guy’s video suggests his own study of the changes. He has slowed down both films and plays them to end at precisely the same time, as if to put on equal footing Motown and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, an all-white cast and an all-Black one, and Dorothy as played by Judy Garland and by Diana Ross.
Guy’s cultural critique through juxtaposition continues in Emerald City Leperello (Featuring Pointless Rendering by Lorenzo Bueno), 2022, which stands open on a table at the center of the gallery. The pages of the giant book comprise eight vintage copies of a poster showing the Chicago skyline; the poster promoted a 1989 exhibition in which the Renaissance Society paired 24 of On Kawara’s deadpan “Date Paintings” with contemporaneous works by 24 artists, from heavyweights with minimalist and conceptual leanings, such as Jenny Holzer and Joseph Kosuth, to those associated with the Windy City, including the Hairy Who. At the time, this exhibition may have appeared far-reaching and representative for putting Kawara in dialogue with peers and local traditions, but in retrospect, the curatorial conceit appears exclusive. The artists were almost all white, and are now mainstream. Guy added a harlequin-pattern border and yellow, green, and black architectonic forms to the exhibition posters, making the cityscape look more like the Emerald City and implying that Kawara and the other artists could stand in the place of Dorothy and her famous traveling buddies—Toto, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. Whom would an artist choose to accompany them on the Yellow Brick Road as they create imagined worlds? Who is cast to walk beside them? If Guy had traveling companions, they might include the artist Lorenzo Bueno (mentioned in the book’s title), whose Pointless Rendering (2018) is part of a whimsical proposal to build an upside-down replica of New York’s Citigroup Center building right on top of the actual structure on Lexington Avenue. We can imagine that Guy likes how this ambitious-but-impossible proposition plays with monumentality and implies an alternate universe.
Another sort of inversion happens when viewers look up to see a gigantic, multicolored flag draped across the immense ceiling of the Renaissance Society. It’s called Dargerino (2022) and intends to summon and perhaps commune with Henry Darger, the legendary Chicago outsider artist who worked alone in a tiny apartment, sometimes under the influence of Oz, and was undiscovered until the last year of his life. The flag’s colors represent the regions of Oz, though the flag adds an extra point to the usual Emerald City star, making it more like the six-point stars of the Chicago flag. What if Chicago were Oz? Or, what if we made Chicago into a kind of Oz? Guy proposes that we would then have to distinguish meaningful gestures from small arrogant ones. In his artist talk, when discussing Dargerino, Guy referred to the colossal torn American flag sculpture Trinket (2008/15) by William Pope.L, who told Artforum that his sculpture refers to “our mouse nature” and “how we blot out the sky with our paw and think we’ve vanquished the sun.”
Chicagoans dye their river bright green every year on St. Patrick’s Day. Guy captured this bizarre tradition on video for Chicago (2022). In the context of this exhibition, the festivities appear so entirely out of this world that they could almost have taken place in Emerald City. In so many ways, we mortals create and re-create highly developed worlds, determine their strange rituals and exclusive memberships, and exalt them. In The Wiz, the denizens of Emerald City extol green as the height of fashion until The Great and Powerful Oz declares green dead, and endorses red. “I wouldn’t be seen green,” the chorus sings. By bringing Oz into the present, Guy’s smart show prompts the question: With the forcefulness of the collective imagination that we regularly display and sometimes shift at the drop of a hat, how can we reimagine, stand on end, and remake the careless, rough, stained, and unwelcoming parts of our world?