Impressions of Expo Chicago 2012

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As a Chicago cultural connoisseur, I really had high hopes for the International Exposition of Contemporary/Modern Art & Design, known around town with its less convoluted nickname of Expo Chicago.  I was a big fan of the early editions of Artropolis, the umbrella brand for that conglomeration of art fairs hosted by the Merchandise Mart (Art Chicago, Next, the international antiques fair, etc.) in the late ‘naughts, which unfortunately petered out to a sad, unmemorable, uncared for shadow of its old self (in recent years the fairs individually and collectively came off as slightly upscale versions of the Old Town Art Fair and that is not a compliment) until the Mart mercifully cancelled it early this year.  Expo Chicago was going to recapture Chicago’s art fair glory days before pesky upstarts like Art Basel Miami and New York’s The Armory Show came on the scene, something Artropolis/Art Chicago/Next ultimately failed to do.  From the buzz, Expo Chicago was going to be our attempt to put on a world-class art fair that will attract galleries, artists, collectors, and just plain old art lovers from all over the world. Having attended the 2011 Hong Kong Art Fair, one of the significant stops in the global art world circuit (and soon to be rebranded as Art Basel Hong Kong in 2013), I’ve had a taste of the experience of a true world-class art fair for a plain old art lover like me.  I was blown away by what I saw last year in Hong Kong – it was an education and, at times, over-stimulated immersion in the latest, greatest, most exciting artists, techniques, and approaches (seriously, a hologram installation inspired by Samuel Beckett?).  I was not blown away by what I saw at Expo Chicago, which ran from September 20-23. And maybe this was where I had a proble,m:  in Chicago, the art fair primarily catered to the (safe? mainstream?) tastes and interests of collectors and the elite art galleries that run after them, and not to the art lover/patron. Which is fine, since art fairs need to make money in order to be viable (and gosh, there was a plethora of Chicago media articles tracking art sales at the fair as if they were the ups and downs of NASDAQ), but did anyone say to Expo Chicago’s organizers that today’s art lover/patron may be tomorrow’s Ai Weiwei collector, or better yet, next decade’s Ai Weiwei?

First the good news.  I loved Macarthur genius grantee and beloved Chicago architect Jeanne Gang’s design for Navy Pier’s Festival Hall, inspired by the city’s grid layout, dotted with rest areas, and anchored by three gargantuan floating Mylar cone sculptures which served as practical marker and breathtaking eye-candy.  The booths were well-organized and easy to access. I was thrilled by some of the work: Berlin’s Galerie Christian Ehrentraut showed up-and-coming Italian artist Nicola Samari’s angry, devastating paintings on copper in which part of the Biblical-themed works had been scraped off with a palette knife; Galerie Karsten Grieve AG, which had galleries in Cologne, Paris, and St. Moritz, unveiled Georgia Russell’s unique, undulating, astoundingly-colored canvasses which used cut print on kozu paper. Madrid’s Max Estrella had Marlon de Azambria’s intriguing paintings which look like x-rays of street scenes (I guess he began with a photo and then manipulated them with black paint, or something to that effect). The “Dialogue” event I attended, a conversation between highly-acclaimed, Chicago-based artist Dzine whose artistic practice included large-scale installations, customization of appropriated objects and craftwork, and MCA Chicago curator Naomi Beckwith, was intriguing, insightful, and full of juicy gossip (such as Tilda Swinton getting her nails done at Dzine’s much-talked about Art Basel Miami installation – a recreation of his mother’s 1970s-era home-based nail and hair salon).

But as I roamed through the booths of the hundred galleries, I couldn’t help but think that most of this art was art I had seen before (and I’m not even that ardent of a visual arts fan and follower). The works felt tired in some parts, safe and conservative and non-provocative in others. There were the same monochromatic acrylic canvasses; the same photographs with strange-looking regular people in slightly menacing, slightly eccentric poses; the same two-dimensional mixed media works that had been the staple of art galleries in major cities since the late 1990s. There was also a lack of engagement with current global concerns (unlike say the first Next and Art Chicago fairs in 2007 and 2008 which had interesting work that tackled the Iraq war, immigration, etc.). I saw one work that had soldiers as a subject, and close to a dozen that had waterfalls and rock formations as the focus. There were a lot of European and New York galleries, which would have been fine, but they showed a lot of, err, European and American artists.  I couldn’t fathom the lack of representation from galleries and artists from some of the current contemporary art capitals – Istanbul, Seoul, and Shanghai (which by the way the Hong Kong Art Fair had boatloads of). The work in Expo Chicago, in my opinion, was for the most part appealing to the six-figure earning, trusts-establishing, trend-adopting, taste-following, Kenilworth-living attendee.  This was probably the target market of this art fair. Fine. But it also begs the question – why should Chicago have Expo Chicago when we have the River North art district?  If we are going to have a world-class art fair, then shouldn’t the art be more reflective of the world?  And shouldn’t a truly global, egalitarian fair engage the art patron who only had his or her enthusiasm, interest, and passion for now, as much as the art patron with the blank check? If Hong Kong (and Miami, and Basel, and New York) could do it, why not Chicago?

Photo:  one of Jeanne Gang’s impressive Mylar structures.

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