Fine Art and Print: The Ultimate Party

How a hush-hush event is blurring the line between fine art and wide-format printing.

It’s 7 o’clock. The first of October. The sun’s just set, leaving behind a purple-hued sky, barely visible between the high-rises that dot Chicago’s Near West Side. You’re seated in a luxury coach destined for a mysterious location. You don’t know the people around you or what to expect when you arrive at your destination, but you know you’re in for a good time. After all, you were lucky enough to score an invite to this super-secret, lavish birthday party thrown every few years.

Suddenly the bus lurches, turns, and you’re going up a slight incline. You look up and the sky overhead disappears, giving way to the interior of an enormous brick building with high, vaulted ceilings. You see other buses, hundreds of other guests wearing the same T-shirt as you – your ticket in. You step down, out onto the hard gray floor, and realize you’re in the right place. This is the party. Only, somehow, you’ve stepped into the 1930s.

Photo courtesy of Warren Brown.
Ahead, you’re greeted by an enormous, fully-stocked bar with a seamless 10 x 80-foot fabric backdrop featuring a visual cavalcade of hand-drawn characters printed in stunning blacks, whites, and grays. You turn and face wall after wall lined with dozens of large-format, art deco-inspired black-and-white photographs, some more than 8 feet wide and 10 feet high. Together, the printed pieces serve as a romantic reminder of the days of yore, when Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton walked the earth.

Suddenly, the band strikes up and Elton John begins to sing on the nearby stage. Yes, the Elton John.

Welcome to the pageantry, the spectacle, and the delight of Bill Bartolotta and his hand-picked artists.

Photo courtesy of ER2 Image Group.

Putting Art on Paper
For decades, Bartolotta has been meticulously planning every element of these types of events. The creative director is best known for creating fantastical, memorable, one-of-a-kind productions for a variety of local and national museums, private gatherings, TED Talks, and more.

“I want to focus on doing beautiful things,” he says. “Reaching people and connecting with them on a personal level, finding the beauty in the world around us – that’s what motivates me.”

It’s Bartolotta’s search for beauty that’s inspired two decades of intricate event themes. This year, it was about “the beauty of being apart from, yet being a part of.”

Working closely with ER2 Image Group, a full-service large-format printing company in Bloomingdale, Illinois, Bartolotta begins the process early. “Installation alone for these events takes just over a month,” adds Gary Schellerer Jr., ER2’s COO and VP of operations. “This is our second time producing materials and collateral for Bill. On both occasions, a few months prior, we attend a production meeting with all of the people involved and go through concepts as a group.”

This pre-event collaboration is crucial, Schellerer explains, because his team is able to give some upfront recommendations on ER2’s capabilities and ensure his shop is able to deliver the right product and materials. “They’re one of the easiest groups to work with,” says Schellerer, “and giving them suggestions is something that they’re always open to.”

The Theme Is the Thing
To accompany this year’s theme, Bartolotta lays out his vision for the gathered ensemble, which includes a trio of local artists. “‘Sing, Sing, Sing.’ Have you heard it?” he asks. “It’s this big band song from the ’30s. I’m sure you’d recognize it if you heard it.”

Using this song as their muse, as well as the 1934 black-and-white film “The Thin Man” for inspiration, Bartolotta’s group is invited to explore the art deco motifs of the ’30s and ’40s in what he calls a “creative sandbox.” It’s here, he tells them, that they can use the “apart from/a part of” theme to tell a story by finding a fascinating part of themselves and sharing it with the world “without fear and without expectation, forsaking ego.”

One of the artists, Barbara Morley, a fine art photographer from Lake Bluff, has been working on these events almost as long as Bartolotta. It’s her striking photographs, featuring a mix of male and female models rendered in gorgeous sepia tones amidst beautiful surroundings and luxurious estates, which adorn the walls of the event space from floor to ceiling.

Barbara Morley’s photography came to life with standoff installations reaching 8 x 10 feet in size. Photo courtesy of Warren Brown.

“There are vast differences between the work I typically do and what ER2 was able to do for the event,” says Morley, who’s used to seeing her photos hanging in studios, galleries, and private homes. “It’s all a matter of scale,” she notes. “At this size, you can literally walk around in the art. Live in it. When it’s produced this big, it takes on a life all its own. It comes alive.”

ER2 produced the oversized photos on a newer generation of printer, an EFI Vutek GS3250LX Pro, using 6-mil Sintra with standoffs. “We had a mounting structure that was attached to the back of the PVC,” continues Schellerer. “Then we stood these off the walls, and Bill and his team projected spotlights onto them to complement the colors and the design.”

According to Schellerer, the color approval and adjustment process took three or four tries to get what Morley was looking for. “I had to make sure the feeling, the emotion of the pieces, carried through to the guests and wasn’t just technically printed correctly,” she explains.

Schellerer’s shop also used dye-sublimated Berger Samba material printed through a Vutek QS3320 to produce two massive backlit pieces – photographs by Morley that feature mirror images of a woman draped in semi-transparent white fabric – on either side of the headliner stage.

Going Big
David Csicsko, another artist for the event, was delighted when the opportunity to produce large-format artwork was presented. “I’ve worked on these celebrations for 20 years,” he says, “and Bill typically has me doing smaller work, like creating custom T-shirt artwork for the hundreds of staff members we have working the night of. This is only the second time I’ve been able to create something big.”

And go big he did. Remember that seamless 10-foot-high, 80-foot-wide fabric backdrop with the hand-drawn characters when your luxury coach first pulled in? That was Csicsko.

David Csicsko’s 10 x 80-foot backdrop, featuring art deco characters inspired by the 1930s hit “Sing, Sing, Sing,” lines the fully-stocked bar. Photo courtesy of Warren Brown.

“Bill’s ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ song really inspired me,” he declares. “I spent three weeks listening to it, sketching and developing these fun, visually interesting, art deco characters.” After Bartolotta approved dozens of sketches, Csicsko set about designing the composite backdrop in Illustrator. Afterwards, ER2 produced the artwork at full size on their 16-foot HP Scitex XL Jet, using UltraPoplin PES S240 fabric.

Living Color
Adding more than a splash of color to the festivities were Petra Bachmaier and Sean Gallero, the artists behind Luftwerk. The collaborative duo, known internationally for temporary light installations and artistry events, created “Kalos | Eidos | Skopeo,” a breathtaking installation that spilled across the walls and floor. Translated from the original Greek, the work’s name means “kaleidoscope” – an apt choice for the color- and shape-shifting design.

The installation was produced on the same fabric and printer as Csicsko’s backdrop. “The main wall was 60 feet wide by 16 feet tall,” notes Schellerer. “And we did the same graphic on the floor and on the flanking sides, too.

The Luftwerk installation spills across the floors and flanking walls. Photo courtesy of Peter Tsai.

“When you see it,” he continues, “it’s like the fabric literally changes before your eyes as these LEDs are projected onto it.” The effect was an ever-changing display of color, mixed with shifting patterns and shapes on every surface.

Luftwerk achieved this captivating display by designing the fabrics with layers of shades and patterns that were then mimicked in the LED projections. By projecting specific colors and shapes onto the design at any one time, one element or another would be “erased,” altering the appearance of the design itself.

“We had to, from a digital printing standpoint, match our colors to their LED lights so that this effect would work. It wasn’t easy,” admits Schellerer, “but it was well worth it. It was one of the coolest parts of the show.”

While most of us find we’re more “apart from” than “a part of” these mysterious events, the work behind them leaves an impact well beyond the walls of a lavish brick building. The party itself may be a secret; the effects each contributor has on the boundaries of art, color, and even wide-format printing, “without fear and without expectation, forsaking ego,” are not.

Read more from Joe Holt or the Big Picture 2017 Ideas edition.

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