Mana Contemporary (Image via Mana)

CHICAGO — MDW is not an art fair focused on sales and bringing in big-name collectors. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Co-founded and co-directed by threewalls, Roots & Culture, Document, and Public Media Institute, and run entirely collaboratively, MDW offers artists, curators, writers, and anyone involved or interested in the alternative artist-run space scene an opportunity to meet, greet, and show their work outside of the usual gallery settings. The majority of booths and tables were run by Chicago artists, but there were a couple out-of-town visitors. Plug Projects from Kansas City, Missouri, and St. Louis’s The Luminary Center for the Arts both represented the lower Midwest.

Most booths at MDW didn’t share price points. Sales weren’t boasted about or even discussed, period. MDW fair organizers don’t check their profit margins after the fact, and a lot of the socially oriented projects don’t lend themselves to sales anyway. Rather than an artist-run space, think of MDW as an artist-run fair.

“MDW does mimic an art fair in its structure, but it’s much more of a community project and large-scale exhibition,” says Abigail Satinsky, Program Director of threewalls, a non-profit art space and gallery that supports artists through residencies, exhibitions, and grants.

MDW was officially launched at the 11th edition of Version Fest, a month-long, large-scale art festival that takes place in Chicago’s up-and-coming southside arts neighborhood of Bridgeport. MDW has previously enjoyed two runs: a Spring and Fall edition in 2011. For its third iteration, MDW co-founder and co-director Ed “Edmar” Marszweski and crew decided to scale it back to just one fair, keeping in mind the breadth of Chicago’s already jam-packed schedule of alternative art space programming.

Rebecca Schoeneker’s Tarot cards (Images courtesy the artist)

“A lot of the spaces in Chicago have visibility, but there are multiple art scenes here in Chicago,” says Marszweski. “In the indie gallery scene, there are spaces that come and go every couple of years. We are interested in creating a platform dedicated to the breadth of work going on there.”

Visitors to the MDW experience a mishmash of exhibitors, from curatorial projects like GURLDONTBEDUMB to a series of collaborations by artists from artist discussion/not-your-mother’s dinner party The Salon Series to a more standard art-fair booth like Heaven Gallery, where red dots did make an appearance. The first floor of the fair was dedicated to publications and publishers of artist magazines, projects, and other programs, while the second floor housed the booths of more orthodox gallery spaces.

Mana Contemporary, the company that hosted MDW (seen at top), is a giant industrial warehouse space, an environment that brings an extra feel of rawness to the entire exhibition. On the first floor, cement floors kept the air cold even though temperatures outside felt unseasonably warm. On the second floor, rough, unpolished white walls exposed wooden beams — some spaces even had giant holes carved into the top of their booths. More than 75 exhibitors, including publishers, artist projects, artist-run spaces, performers, and galleries, showed up.

As at any giant art event, for MDW one must digest a lot of visual stimulation in a short period of time, and then attempt to remember what the hell just happened, who they saw, and what it might mean. Rather than try to give a visual tour of this fair, I’ve awarded prizes for the top five superlatives that I felt most appropriate for the standout work I found.

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Jenny Buffington’s “Waterfall” (All images by author unless noted)

Most Graceful Nature-Inspired Art:

Jenny Buffington’s “Waterfall” and Rebecca Mir & Casey Droege’s Iceberg and Sorcery

Jenny Buffington‘s sculpture “Waterfall” (2012) looks like strands of silly putty hardened and dyed shades of blue and white. It flows out from a wall and coalesces onto the cement floor of Co-Prosperity Sphere’s booth, questioning man’s relationship to nature in the process. Does man create nature, or does nature create man? On the first floor, investigations into the natural world continue at the Iceberg and Sorcery publications booth, an online storefront committed to art and magic created by artists Rebecca Mir and Casey Droege. Here I found Mir’s three-part series SHE IS RESTLESS, a series of small, 2″ x 3″, artist books that fold out into different types of natural elements. Mir’s books explore romanticized relationships with our natural environment; they are poetic and quietly graceful, and exhibit a true concern and connection with nature.

Most Awkwardly Sexual, Crowd-Pleaser Art:

Sarah and Joseph Belknap’s “How I learned to stop worrying” (2012)

Artist Young Sun Han riding “How I learned to stop worrying”

At Octagon Gallery, artist couple and collaborative duo Sarah and Joseph Belknap created a rideable sculpture that touched many visitors’ crotches. Positioned in the middle of the booth space, a six-foot-tall hunk of fiberglass hardened and molded into an iceberg floats above the ground on four giant, black springs — Think a playground toy. “The fiberglass is hollow for weight and structural purposes, so we could allow a 300-pound drunk person to give it hell,” says Sarah Belknap. Their iceberg was part of Octagon’s MDW program MELTDOWN, which discusses environmental issues with aplomb and humor. Visitors got on top of this iceberg and bounced enthusiastically back and forth. “Appalling” and “intriguing” are two words that suitably describe the motion this iceberg induced.

April Childers’s “It’s Almost Friday (Hang On Kitty)”

Most Ridiculous Taxidermy Art: 

April Childers’s “It’s Almost Friday (Hang On Kitty)”

At the GURLDONTBEDUMB booth, curators and collaborative/best-friend duo Eileen Mueller and Jamie Steele put together a collection of brightly colored, playful, tongue-in-cheek art that would coax even the most austere minimalist painter out of their self-induced seriousness. The two artists are interested in poking fun at feminist clichés, in part by curating objects that are hot pink and over-the-top. “We use pink as a way to start discussion,” says Steele, matter-of-factly. The taxidermy show-pleaser here is April Childers’s “It’s Almost Friday (Hang On Kitty)” (2009), a cat wearing a pair of mini-Ugg boots, a very hip pink jacket, and a matching cap. It hangs onto a vintage chandelier (only one of the lights turns on) by one tiny, stuffed gloved paw. Kitty sticks out its tongue as if to say “Rad hangin’ here, man!”

Most Anticipated Artist Magazine:

Monsters & Dust’s Flowers (Issue 3)

Online arts and culture journal Monsters & Dust, which describes itself as dedicated to the “innovative, fantastic, fabulous, subversive, radical, and thoughtful” among other adjectives, released its first Web-only issue in November 2009. Three years later, and with the help of Gallery 400 and threewalls’s The Propeller Fund, the Monsters & Dust team launched their vision into the physical world with issue three: Flowers, a collection of writings, art, and ideas based around the idea of flowers — as kitsch objects and ornamentation, as sexually charged plants, and as moments of memorial. The issue is dedicated to queer Chicago artist Mark Aguhar, who took her own life in March 2012. “It still feels really good to have something physical, and I think it also speaks to our process — we collaborate with people working in different media, and not everything can be represented to its fullest on the web,” says co-founder Aay Preston-Myint. Just because Monsters & Dust released a print-version, however, doesn’t mean they’ll lose their web angle. “Because not everything can be represented to its fullest in print either, for this issue and over the next couple of months we are going to roll out web-only content as well,” says Preston-Myint.

Monsters and Dust

Most Mystical Art that Could Change Your Path in Life: 

Rebecca Schoenecker at Eel Space 

At MDW’s Eel Space booth, artist/musician Rebecca Schoenecker offered $10 tarot card readings using a deck that she designed based on her personal experiences, the collective unconscious, and mythologies. She read a Celtic cross spread, which is best used to answer specific questions through examining the immediate future, the distant past, hopes and fears, factors affecting situation, and final outcome. After the fair she’ll continue to do tarot readings out of her Pilsen home, anywhere in Chicago, and while on tour with her band Laughing Eye Weeping Eye. “I taught myself tarot by making my own deck,” says Schoenecker. “I’ve been practicing for about a year now.” Open your third eye, if you dare.

MDW Fair ran from November 9 through 11 in Chicago.

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED Magazine and the Chicago...