Mads Lynnerup, “If You See Anything Interesting Please Let Someone Know Immediately” (2007) (click to enlarge)

Wherever money is exchanged in massive volumes there is an excitement and buzz in the air. It’s a kind of highly oxygenated sense that something extraordinary is going to happen. Casinos, trading floors and art fairs are awash in this kind of electricity. This year Art Chicago wasn’t one of those places. To the contrary the preview had all the energy of a funeral home decorated in an array of polite artworks in gilded frames.

One of the first things to catch my eye was a gigantic Julian Schnabel self portrait. I didn’t get close enough to read the label, but I assume it could only be titled the “The Apotheosis of the Artist by Himself.” We’d barely arrived and already my colleague was wondering aloud as to the whereabouts of a rope and a convenient place to hang herself.

It wasn’t entirely bleak. A highlight was Partisan, a project curated by Rachel Funari and Karsten Lund, independent curators based in Chicago. Immediately outside the project space a screenprint by Mads Lynerrup read “IF YOU SEE ANYTHING INTERESTING PLEASE LET SOMEONE KNOW IMMEDIATELY!” Obviously it’s a play on the homeland security warning signs, but within the context of the fair I assumed that meant they’d take steps to remove the interesting object. I suppose if I were in a more generous mood I might have also read it as a humorous sales pitch.

Partisan also included Josh Azzarella’s digitally manipulated images in which familiar scenes from the war on terror are rendered commonplace when the artist meticulously removes the central elements from highly charged political images and replaces them with vacant landscapes. In this case vacant skies seemed eerily threatening simply because of the suggestion that they might be filled with airplanes intent on delivering death and destruction. Young blonde women flirt with soldiers at the Republican National Convention while the rest of the country looks weary and worn down in Alec Soth’s photographs documenting The Last Days of W. In Brian Alfred’s animation It’s Already the End of the World familiar images of subways, airports and razor combine in a threatening montage. Brian Crites contributed a collection of interesting portraits of the criminal element with his series of Mugshot paintings. It’s a show we’ve seen many variations on in the past decade, but it still managed to feel fresh and within the context of the fair even a little challenging.

NewCity, a Chicago Alternative Newsweekly, did a feature and a small exhibition called Breakout Artists 2010: Chicago’s Next Generation of Image Makers.  It was a little crowded and uneven, but they did have some interesting drawing of bizarre homoerotic occult rituals by Elijah Burgher, an artist whose work is based on the rituals of secretive men’s societies and fraternal organizations. Burgher was introduced to me in a studio visit the previous day with Terence Hannum another Chicago artist not in the show, but worth paying attention to. The two had collaborated on the beautifully produced zine Cataract of Fire and Blood.

Club Nutz’s space at Art Chicago (photo by the author) (click to enlarge)

I had my fill when I overheard one dealer dismissing a pair of collectors because they supported “emerging art,” although she did concede that “somebody had to.” Being one of those people I took that as my cue to head downstairs to NEXT, Art Chicago’s ersatz “alternative fair” for “emerging” galleries and artists.

In comparison to Art Chicago proper, NEXT was a raucous breath of fresh air. It was anything but staid and polite.  It didn’t take long until a pair of young women approached us and asked us to sing a song in honor of the fair. I might have heartily joined in, except that it was set to the tune of “Old MacDonald” and I wasn’t prepared to infantilize myself just yet. Next year I’d suggest they set their lyrics to a rousing sea chanty or drinking song.

One of the first things to capture my attention was Charlie James Gallery, a relatively new space in LA’s Chinatown. It helped that he had Steve Lambert’s humorous and brightly lit signs pointing to the booth as well as a number of absorbing pieces by William Powhida, explaining and exposing the art world, all displayed in a prime spot as you stepped off the elevators.

Dorsch Gallery from Miami had an interesting series by Kyle Trowbridge where he had printed out the code from a series of JPEGs downloaded from porn sites and made notes in the margins as if he were annotating works of literature. At Morgan Lehman Gallery, I discovered works by photographer David S. Allee, who makes haunting images of urban and suburban landscapes at night.

A sign at Club Nutz, which describes itself on Facebook as “It’s a website/TV show and a comedy/music label that’s an actual club.” (photo by the author) (click to enlarge)

If you are an artist or musician I’d recommend taking a look at Harold Arts. I don’t have a lot of details, but it looks like an interesting project. It’s based in Chicago, but every summer it culminates in a sort of residency/convergence on a thousand acre farm in Southeastern Ohio.

One of the strongest sections of NEXT was something I came to think of as the Relational Aesthetics Ghetto. I heard contradictory reports, but either through the generosity of the fair’s organizers, or a need to fill space, a number of young galleries, alternative spaces, ’zine publishers, and other assorted art world riff-raff were given booths along the fair’s far back wall.

Notable among these were Milwaukee’s Club Nutz the world’s smallest comedy club, run by Scott and Tyson Reeder. When I visited they were hosting Bernie Circuits the Robot Comedian. His delivery was a little flat, but the jokes were funny. Oakland offered up the Poemstore a project where Zach Houston writes poetry on demand, and a The Present Group, a quarterly “art subscription service” a cross between a ’zine and an edition publisher. Chicago’s 12 Galleries,  a roving exhibition project was there and Oak Park’s The Suburban invited Olof Olsson a performance artist from Copenhagen to offer advice for a fee at their booth. Together this group made the far back corner of the fair a noisy and engaging spot that was often choked with people.

It may not have been the energy generated by vast amounts of money changing hands, but NEXT certainly had a buzz about it. Maybe it’s the kind of energy generated by interesting new work.

Jay Jordan is an independent curator and writer. He was guest curator for Seeing is Becoming, currently on view at the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art. Until recently he lived and worked in Louisville,...

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