CHICAGO — The common consensus about Expo Chicago 2014 is that it was a success. One hundred and forty galleries from across the globe (more than in the previous two years of the art fair’s reincarnated existence) set up their stalls in the Navy Pier exhibition hall. Wealthy collectors from the Midwest and New York were seen at the vernissage, phones clamped to their ears while they nonchalantly dropped $30,000 here, $250,000 there. If you’re into that sort of thing, you could get a thrill from spotting the likes of David Schwimmer strolling the aisles (he was in Friends, remember?), or Shaquille O’Neal, who had his own booth of (ahem) “curated” works from his collection (or maybe it was just stuff he likes.) A few gallerists I spoke to were returning to Chicago because of good sales last year, and a few from overseas were attending for the first time, presumably lured by the rumors of good sales.
I, on the other hand, left Expo Chicago feeling mostly uninspired.
Maybe because there seemed to be two main differences from 2013: even more painting, and an increase in bombastically empty temporary installations by established artists. It’s a law of nature that you’re going to see more painting than any other kind of art at the fairs, but this year there seemed to be even less sculpture, video, photography, or performance, and much more big, bright, eye-catching, looks-good-on-a-penthouse-wall pigment on canvas. A representative example is Frank Owen’s “Stand of Beech” at Nancy Hoffman Gallery: good-looking picture, accomplished layering of abstract and representational forms, highly varnished to make those yellows and reds attract the eye to the max, positively shouting “I am bright and tasteful! Please buy me!”
There was a lot of parody, as in David Klamen’s multipaneled small canvases at Richard Gray Gallery, each one appearing to be a version of a classic 20th-century painting (Rothko, Miró, Picasso, Kline, etc) seen slightly from the side. Despite the interesting social critique behind Ramiro Gomez’s David Hockney–inspired paintings, on display at Charlie James Gallery, they came across to this spectator as an equally shallow and pointless version of “painting about painting.” There was also a series of prints by David Bowie at Carl Hammer Gallery, so terrible that you wondered if they were in fact a very clever parody of that emerging genre: Terrible Works of Art by Pop Stars Who Think They Can Draw.
Two paintings that stopped me in my tracks: Darrell Roberts’s small oil painting at McCormick Gallery, a luscious collection of thick strokes of oil paint that was like a burst of light in 12 square inches, and Trenton Doyle Hancock’s “Campbell’s Streetlight” at Hales Gallery, which, in contrast to most of the painting on show, looked like there was an energetic mind behind it, determined to make something happen on the surface, not content just to paint a pretty picture. Some works on paper also showed sensitivity to the different ways in which the material could be shaped: Mark Fox’s installation of collaged and constructed work at Robert Miller Gallery and Matthew Woodward’s “Polk Street” at Linda Warren Projects, which incorporated window blinds, among other things.
As in previous years, the east and west walls of the exhibition hall were where you could find smaller galleries, non-profit spaces, and the temporary installations. By far the worst of these was Jessica Stockholder’s “Once Upon a Time,” consisting of a cascade of multicolored plastic chairs rearing up over a bunch of mirror-covered stools. There’s nothing to say about this, other than there was a space to be filled, and the artist filled it. On the other hand, Michael Rakowitz’s 16-foot-high version of the Iraqi Ishtar Gate, constructed mainly out of found Arabic packaging and newspapers, was a physically impressive object that shoved a sly elbow in the ribs of the fairgoers. It’s a reproduction of a 6th century BCE gate that was taken to Berlin in 1930; another reproduction of it stands near the ruins of Babylon in modern-day Iraq and was frequently used by US soldiers as a backdrop for war selfies. Rakowitz’s title, “May the Arrogant Not Prevail,” seems to be a warning to colonial expropriators, and given the fact that it was placed near one of the main entrances to Expo Chicago, it’s hard not to see it as a forlorn cry from a politically engaged artist to the class of people that houses and feeds him.
At the beginning of my visit, I was sitting in the café, looking through the floor plan I’d been given and marking up things I wanted to see, when an intern thrust a card in front of my face and gave me a quick spiel about an app called Curate, which enables art fair attendee to upload pictures they’ve taken of stuff they liked, upload pictures of their own home, and pair them to see how the work would look on their walls. Yellow painting but blue furniture? Upload your photo and see whether they match! I was tempted to roll my eyes at first, but a few hours later I could see how perfectly it fit the spirit of the contemporary art fair, proving year after year the truth of that phrase attributed to Picasso: Art begins as revolution, and ends as decoration.
Expo Chicago 2014 took place September 18–21 at the Navy Pier (600 East Grand Avenue, Chicago).