EXPO CHICAGO: A New Chapter Unfolds

by Tiffany Funk, October 2012

As detailed by Britt Julious in her essay “Revitalizing Chicago,” published here last month, EXPO CHICAGO’s presence at Navy Pier is only the latest chapter in the embattled history of art fairs in the city. Art Chicago and its move from centrally located Grant Park to the upper floors of the sprawling Merchandise Mart, slowly crumbled under a deluge of criticism for being out-of-touch and disorganized. Also confusing was the subsequent ideological, but not spatial split between NEXT Art Fair and Art Chicago proper. NEXT afforded young artists in the Chicago area, alongside community art centers and organizations, a more experimental but often messy presence within the Merchandise Mart. However, as reflected by local reviews, often NEXT provided a thrilling though scattered viewing experience in contrast to the often dull and staid presence of Art Chicago with its blue chip galleries.

MMPI’s final email to vendors placed the blame squarely on the purchasing public, who supposedly preferred the coasts. Chicagoans, artists and vendors alike, doubted this blatantly simplified version of Chicago’s increasingly troubled relationship with the art market. For all the shortcomings of the art fair panorama, the blame is not to be placed on the arts in Chicago, which appear to be thriving. In her essay, Julius calls into question the role played by Chicago’s main news sources, The Chicago Tribune and The Sun-Times, whose “importance and stability” is on the decline. Though there exists a wealth of independent alternative outlets the extent of their distribution has done little to lure outsiders to the “third coast.”

But a new chapter begins with EXPO CHICAGO, led by Art Chicago’s former vice president and director Tony Karman (2006-2010), and a much-needed change of venue; the Festival Hall at Navy Pier with its open spaces, a welcome contrast to the claustrophobic quarters of the Merchandise Mart’s upper floors. More importantly, the relocation also offers both a healthy entre’acte and a clear distinction between the more experimental and relatively successful independent, local MDW Fair, held in the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago in early November.

Though the EXPO serves its purpose as a trade show, where networking and sales take precedence over the thoughtful presentation of the work, it offered a sense of art historical context sorely lacking at most fairs. Dennis Rosenthal’s gallery placed work by Dick Higgins (a few “symphonies” and accompanying video works) alongside the colorful, childlike paintings of Ellsworth Snyder. Cincinnati’s Cal Solway Gallery was a packed who’s who of Fluxus and early video art, complete with Nam June Paik’s Enlightenment Compressed, in which the Buddha gazes at himself through a TV screen.

These works by established artists sharpened the appeal of the new crop of up-and-comers that shared the same space. Exciting examples of new digital artworks were peppered throughout the EXPO, some with deep historical references in mind: Los Angeles’ Cherry and Martin featured digital artist Brian Bress’ work prominently, offering a clear trajectory from two-dimensional pieces to his present work in digital media. Madrid gallery Max Estrella smartly displayed a small but strikingly precious Daniel Canogar sculpture–Pneumas –constructed from recycled materials overlayed by a dynamic projection that traced its delicate contours. Finally, the centerpiece for the EXPO, massive mylar installation by Jeanne Gang, founder of Studio Gang, a perfect reflection of the detailed precision and high energy that characterized the fair.

In speaking with Chicago-based artist Jason Lazarus, who showed his photographs at Andrew Rafacz’s booth, I realized that his concerns about the EXPO’s staying power are spot-on: how many of those in attendance–gallerists and attendees–will return after this honeymoon is over? Even if reviews are favorable, how much of this information will find its way to the coasts, where the art collecting public congregates? Can an art fair based in Chicago sustain itself with minimal international presence, or will it remain suspended, isolated from the art world at large? I stood in front of one of Lazarus’ stunning prints–Untitled, a massive 40″ X 50″ print of a small yellow bird magically hovering in mid-air, against the robin’s egg blue interior–and felt hopeful for the new chapter to unfold.

Expo Chicago
20–23 September, 2012
Navy Pier