By John Preus

Visual art, like fiction, is a form of theological and political speculation about what might be possible given certain structural changes. Fiction asks, “What if? What would you do if this happened? How might things be different if we believed this?” In visual art these same questions are abstracted into material or color relationships. I like to say that art is theology in drag.

A magical and destructive aspect of the human species is the entanglement of fiction and reality. Religion, money, love, war, nation, family … these are all stories that we tell ourselves that have no “reality,” but which are true enough to determine our behavior. Some physicists believe that consciousness is the foundational basis of reality rather than building up from simple material, evolving into conscious beings. A troop of chimps won’t be convinced to go to war and risk their lives based on the promise of an afterlife or social glory, as humans do. My work as an artist and contractor focuses on the power of these stories and how they determine our social and political conditions. I make objects, images, spaces, architectural structures that reconfigure our social expectations and habits, and insert aspects of local history into mundane social arrangements.

In 2013, I collected 6 semi-loads of furniture from closed Chicago public schools bound for the landfill, that was determined useless, in need of repair, out of fashion, scratched, banged-up, etched into, and so on. Since then my work as an artist and contractor has relied almost exclusively on this material resource. It is not without ambivalence that I cut up and reconfigure this material, but the response from both CPS students and faculty has been overwhelmingly positive, as if seeing it transformed subjectively is a sort of balm for the trauma of the closings.

It bears a certain pathos. There’s an accidental, indexical, cumulative beauty to the marks left behind by the hands of hundreds of kids over an 80-year time span. It is powerful because we understand the marks to be transgressive in some small and anonymous way, because of the contentious way in which the public schools were closed, because we know that many of the kids who scrawled their initials and romantic longings into these table tops are endangered, destined for a life of poverty, structural neglect, violence, and statistically early death, because we feel helpless to make their lives better and are bound into a seemingly intractable social/racial stratafi cation, because we can empathize with the carvers having all felt like hostages at some point in our lives … The public schools are full of decent, honest, hard-working people. I know many of them. But I also think the school system is a kind of prison, designed for the work habits of adults, and not for the education and cultivation of young minds. I imagine a day will come when we look at this moment as a sort of dark age in education, and this model of social organization as barbaric.

When confronting the future, we drag our past along with us. We are forever suspended in the present, under pressure from both the past and the future. The past demands interpretation and accountability. The future demands imagination and creativity. I work with materials infused with history to try to tell stories compelling enough to shape the future.

John Preus (rhymes with choice – b. 1971) spent his early years running barefoot under a cathedral of trees in Makumira, Tanzania, then grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and northern Wisconsin. Preus, currently works as an artist, builder, fabricator, amateur writer, musician, and collaborator. Find out more at or visit

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