CHICAGO — At the beginning of 2012, Art Chicago was canceled by the owners of the Merchandise Mart, the huge exhibition area on the river where the fair was held for a few years. For the first time in over thirty years, it looked like there would be no art fair in the city. Then, thanks to the determination and belief of Tony Karman, who has been involved in many of those prior fairs, Expo Chicago arrived on the scene, with a few changes to the format designed to ensure that the fair continues next year: the fair is back in the festival hall on Navy Pier, which is a higher-profile venue; the number of exhibiting galleries and spaces was curated and limited to 120 to ensure quality over quantity; and it is being held in September so as not to compete with the coastal art fairs held at other times of the year.
On the day that I went, it was not very crowded, but gallerists I spoke to were generally upbeat after a busy opening night. “Steady, good sales,” said one New York gallerist. Another from LA said: “The guy at the hot dog concession said things were very slow, but for what we sell [meaning the art], it’s been great.” My overall impression as I did a first walk-through was that the fair seemed well-designed, streamlined, and with a nice balance between established galleries selling old and modern masters and smaller galleries with more experimental work on display. There was a lot of painting and a lot of sculpture, but there were also performances, interactive pieces, and a whole upper gallery devoted to video. And it was indeed an international fair, with galleries from all over the US, Britain, Germany, France, Spain, and Scandinavia.
So if you were in the market for some Picassos or a few square yards of Antoni Tàpies, you didn’t have to walk far from the main entrance to satisfy your hunger. Of all the painting on display, much of it busy and dense and bright, some canvases by Koen van den Broek at New York’s Friedman Benda caught my eye, mainly because there was so much space in them.
In the category of stuff that stands on the floor rather than hanging on a wall, three artists stood out for me: Jeffry Mitchell’s gnarled, glazed earthenware sculptures at LA’s Ambach & Rice; a weird, indescribable piece by Theo Mercier at Paris’s Gabrielle Maubrie titled “La Bete a Deux Dos” (The Beast with Two Backs); and Charles Harlan’s “Pallets” at New York’s JTT, which uses everyday building materials layered in a way that represents the progression of architectural materials throughout mankind’s history.
Of the video pieces, what impressed me wasn’t anything from the video gallery, particularly, but some funny and fascinating pieces by Brian Bress at LA’s Cherry and Martin. Bress creates masks and full-body costumes out of collaged paper and clay, which he wears and then films himself in, making repetitive, slightly nonsensical movements. “Whitewalker” shows a figure covered from head to toe in paper spills, walking towards the camera in a shimmering, shuddering wave that has the magic of a Native American ritual dance.
There were several performance and participatory events happening each day. I took part in one by Lauren Adams at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis space, in which Adams had taken slogans from the Occupy and Tea Party movements and printed them over Revolutionary Era wallpaper, which covered the walls. Visitors were invited to paint their own slogans on china plates, which Adams later fired and added to a shelf above the wallpaper.
Another interactive piece produced what I thought was the most striking, new, wall-based art that I saw at the entire fair — and it was in a Chicago gallery space, too. At Catherine Edelman, photographer Kelly Anderson-Staley made tintypes from photos of anyone who would sit for her (you could get yours done at a booth at the fair). Each photo looks exactly like old images of people from the American Civil War era. Seeing modern faces and clothes reproduced in this way creates an unsettling, even shocking visual effect, particularly in the way it concentrates the sitter’s gaze so closely.
Local art heroes Bad at Sports had the most bustling booth when I visited, though maybe that was a coincidence. I kept asking people to gauge how busy they thought it was, how it compared to other fairs, and finally, whether they would come back next year. I got the feeling from my conversations on the floor and from the generally positive feedback that Expo Chicago is receiving in the press that most people think the event was a success, though people are being cautious about the future. As one LA gallerist said to me: “It’s been great so far. Will I come back next year? Ask me on Sunday night.”
Expo Chicago (Navy Pier, 600 East Grand Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) took place from September 20–23.