CHICAGO — There was an art walk last Thursday evening in the River North district, an area with many upscale, decades-old galleries that some may consider conservative. Paintings and sculptures with big price tags on them shared the space with musicians, visiting speakers, and a musico-theatrical performance, while outside on the streets there were temporary installations on the sidewalks, paintings in a truck parked underneath the L tracks, and a work in progress by a street artist who had propped a wood panel against a big steel pillar. Rather than being billed as just another art walk, this monthly evening of openings is now called “Brave New Art World” (BNAW), and the whole shebang is coordinated by a group headed by Claire Molek, who, in addition to running the “BNAWtribe,” is also a “cultural architect.”
The press materials were full of marketing speak, including such odd claims as: the River North gallery district has the highest density of galleries in America outside Manhattan (really?); Brave New Art World is an art movement for the people (true, if by “people” you mean “people who go to art openings, such as students and recent graduates looking for a good time, and older people with money who can actually, you know, buy the art.”) In practice, visitors were greeted by a few handwritten signs with phrases like “life is beautiful” taped up next to the windows of the swanky galleries.
There were lines of what looked like plexiglass discs on the sidewalks, which may have been art or may have been intended as guidelines, but which had already been trampled and damaged here and there. There were certainly more people in the area during the first hour of the festivities, with a noticeably younger and hipper appearance than is normally the case in the area. Molek told me that she wanted to bring a different crowd into this district, which has watched the center of gravity in the Chicago art scene move to the newer galleries in the West Loop. My impression was that things are still in the early stages, like the start of a party where people are standing around looking at each other a little shyly, wondering who is going to make the first advance. But Molek and her collaborators are at least trying something different, and if at the end of a year the galleries have seen an increase in foot traffic and sales, no doubt they will consider it a worthwhile experiment.
What about the art itself? There are a couple of excellent galleries that mainly show photography, such as the Stephen Daiter Gallery, but most of the other spaces show 2-D and 3-D work that is highly accomplished and not particularly memorable. One exception was the work by Jay Strommen at Perimeter Gallery, consisting of wood-fired ceramics and recycled glass formed into lustrously texured tablets. On the street, an object by Viktoria Palacios titled “Connectivity” caught the eye — delicate, fragile cages of intertwined yarn wrapped around chicken wire, their blood-red color glowing against the background of dusty sidewalk and rusted L tracks. Palacios’s piece had a refreshing naiveté and simplicity that stood out amid the glad-handing, marketing speak, and beer chugging.
The Brave New Art World art crawl is held every first Thursday of the month from 5 until 8 pm in the River North district of Chicago, centered around Franklin St. and Superior St.