CHICAGO — Expo Chicago, an art fair occupying the cavernous Festival Hall on Navy Pier, returned for its second year in its new incarnation, and all the signals coming out from artists and dealers suggested that it was a success.
One thing I noticed this time is that artists and dealers have very different notions about what success means. All the artists I spoke to were enthusiastic about the work that the dealers had brought along, from paintings and etchings by Picasso, Matisse, et al, collages by Robert Motherwell, solid selections of work by mid-career artists like Kehinde Wiley or Shinique Smith, to recent works on video by Jesper Just. Chicago artist Doug Frohman said:
“The fair was consistently strong in terms of quality. It had broad appeal and reached out to the public in terms of diversity and availability at a variety of price points. The emphasis was on cutting-edge contemporary and stood its ground with the most recent Frieze show in NYC.”
Frohman’s response was representative of the artists I spoke to, who all saw a visit to the art fair as a way of seeing what’s going in the wider art world, to support the work of friends and colleagues who might be included in a gallery’s display, and just maybe to picture their own work hanging on the walls of a booth belonging to a well-connected gallery from New York, Los Angeles, or Berlin.
The gallerists like to hear this, but the bottom line for them is, well, the bottom line: how much work can they sell. From my talks with various gallery owners and representatives, the answer to my blunt questioning was: selling well, thanks. George Vamvakidis, of The Breeder gallery (Athens/Monaco) came to Chicago:
“ … to meet people, to develop a collector base. There have been solid sales, which made the journey worthwhile.”
Tim Hill, of the Hill Gallery (Birmingham, Michigan), contrasted the experience of attending Expo Chicago and other art fairs:
“At the New York Armory Show, there are so many people that you feel like you’re standing at a turnstile in a ballpark. The audience at Expo Chicago is less fractured than in New York City, it’s more harmonious and broader based. I remember the old Chicago art fair, and I’m returning to the revived version because I feel the old sensibility has been rekindled. It’s rare that a dealer gets to participate in the rebirth of something.”
It’s true that the fair is extremely well-run and well-designed, with a floor plan designed by Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang Architects that is modeled on the layout of Chicago and allows for more space between the corridors than last year. If galleries were selling more, maybe that’s because the work on display was overwhelmingly painting (with some sculpture, and a few prints), and painting is what sells. Once you realize that that is what an art fair is about — selling stuff for thousands of dollars that collectors can hang on their walls — then you can just zone out, and accept what you see, and just go with the flow. It’s a point that William Powhida, no stranger to Hyperallergic, makes very well in his art, and also in person as a guest on one of the panels that ran during each day of the Expo. One of Powhida’s acerbic text-based artworld take-downs was on display somewhere, though I didn’t manage to track it down. Unlike him, I submitted without much complaint to the endless stream of mainly painterly visual pleasure that was on display in the 140+ gallery installations.
While there was, as expected, so much to see, these were some of the many works that grabbed my attention:
Michigan’s Hill Gallery featured great large-scale abstract paintings by Alfred Leslie. These grabbed my attention for the way in which they combined the gestural mark-making of first generation Abstract Expressionist painters (Leslie was born in 1927) with the rough collage elements of the painters who came after Pollock, De Kooning, et al:
Tameka Norris’ installation of paintings and altered door at Lombard Fried, New York, had an almost Raoul Dufy-like evanescence of painted surface, which gave way to a well-disguised shock when you realized that the work was full of echoes of the broken surfaces of post-Katrina New Orleans, where the artist is from:
Andreas Lolis’ amazing trompe l’oeuil sculptures at The Breeder, Athens/Monaco, completely fooled the eye into believing they were cardboard boxes and packing Styrofoam, when in fact they were hand-carved marble covered with delicate layers of pigment. Normally this kind of realism is gimmicky, but these had a ravishing surface which the gallery people actively encouraged you to stroke:
Derrick Adams’ majestic collages at Rhona Hoffman, Chicago, which I liked because in contrast to the frenetic fullness of much of the painting on display at the fair, these had some restfulness in them, some space for the eye to linger and then move around:
Judy Pfaff’s wall sculpture (Carl Solway Gallery, Ohio), which is filled with so many conflicting and fragile materials (cardboard, foam, sunflowers, tree fungus, paper lanterns) that I can’t believe the sculpture will be around forever, but which is full of Pfaff’s customary energy and unashamed reveling in a “more is definitely more” sensibility:
Pigment on canvas and solid matter fashioned into beautiful, sellable objects, etc., is of course very nice. About the only area that represented a break from this was the installation Home, a project curated by Tricia van Eck for 6018 North. A bunch of artists were let loose to create or adorn their own room in a house (kitchen, living room, bedroom, etc). There wasn’t anything groundbreaking or terrifically original about what the artists had done with their room — well-crafted furniture in one, beanbags to lie on and listen to ambient sounds while psychedelic images swirled around the walls in another — but taken as a whole the effect was calming, and (this being the Midwest) eminently rational and sensible.
I will leave the last word to Amel Bourouina, of Bourouina Gallery Berlin:
I love Chicago, it’s like the Berlin of the United States. Expo Chicago is a young fair, but the team is working so hard to make it a success. I will definitely come back next year.
Expo Chicago took place September 19–22 at the Navy Pier (600 East Grand Avenue, Chicago, Illinois)
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.