THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
The five-day, sixth edition of Expo Chicago under Tony Karman’s direction reported record attendance—40,000 visitors—and strong sales by 135 dealers from 25 countries.
I caught a strong whiff of success and excess immediately upon entering Navy Pier’s Festival Hall. It was the opening night’s Vernissage and the hall was abuzz. I spotted more gowns and formal wear than in past years and the VIP lounge featured a stunning, top-of-the-line Rolls-Royce priced higher ($400,000) than most of the art on display.
As I scanned the exhibitor list to guide my art walk, I saw some of New York’s top dealers such as Gagosian, David Zwirner, Dede Young (Galerie Lelong), Edwynne Houk and Matthew Marks Galleries. Chicago was well-represented with 15 local galleries including Kavi Gupta, Richard Gray, Rhona Hoffman and Corbett vs. Dempsey
Installation shot of galerie gmurzynska.
My eye caught familiar European names such as Galerie Daniel Templon (Paris), galerie frank elbaz (Paris) but a number of once familiar names from the Continent were missing such as Karsten Greve, Anthony d’Offay, Thaddaeus Ropac and Hauser & Wirth.
This was a fair with a lot of new names unfamiliar to me. A number of explanations can account for this. First, there is always a large amount of “churn” in the market among new and established galleries. Second, Expo’s international jury may not have invited them, seeking names that were “hot” and creating all-important buzz.
A final, key factor is that the number of art fairs and the costs involved in participating have grown exponentially since 2012, Karman’s first year producing Expo Chicago. Dealers I’ve spoken with say the cost (shipping, air, hotel and meals) can be almost $50,000 per fair.
Dealers must now be strategic about which domestic and international art fairs they will participate in. In speaking with dealers, the average number they enter is about five, down from almost double that number over the last decade.
Installation shot of galerie gmurzynska.
The first gallery I encountered made the best impression. It was a newcomer from Switzerland that came loaded for bear. On view were a stunning array of 20th Century masters including Joan Miro, Fernand Leger, Robert Indiana, Yves Klein and Wilfredo Lam.
Among the other dozen or so galleries I visited at the Vernissage, I found the quality of art on hand to be very high. Dealers were now bringing their best pieces with prices in the half-million to million-plus category. But I also saw a good deal of quality art in the mid-range market.
Great credit must be given to Karman and his board of art advisers who literally brought this fair back from mismanaged collapse following the fair’s move from Navy Pier to the Merchandise Mart.
Many dealers took a chance on coming back during the 2012-14 years. But they returned because many said that Chicago had great collectors and was an important market to tap. Word-of-mouth amongst the trade has grown more positive every year since and prompted many to return while others put Expo on their exhibition schedule.
Once this year’s fair ended, dealers delivered a raft of glowing testimonials. Eric Gleason of New York’s Paul Kasmin Gallery said, “Sales … were so strong this year, that by the end of the first day, we knew we would return to Expo Chicago in 2018.”
And David Nolan, whose gallery bears his name, gave Chicago a five-star endorsement. He said, “Chicago-based clients are taking the fair a lot more seriously than in past years. The number of collectors from the Midwest has increased and business was particularly strong this year. Expo Chicago is quickly becoming a major player in the global fair circuit.”
The 2017 Expo Chicago was noticeably different than the 2016 Expo Chicago on a number of levels. We noticed this when we first walked in and my companion remarked “it seems a little smaller.” I did some checking afterwards and found that the number of major galleries was down from 121 last year to only 106 this year. The number of smaller booths designated to their “Exposure” section increased from 26 to 31. (Originally only 17). With the new edition of 5 “Expo Profile” solo artist booths this year it maintained its traditional 140 +/- total exhibits.
Expo Chicago has been in its current form since 2012. Prior to that, it was Art Chicago. Art Chicago was started in 1980 and was Chicago’s longest-running major contemporary art exposition. It was held in various locations including the old Navy Pier, Grant Park and the Merchandise Mart. Expo Chicago has always been held at Navy Pier.
Expo Chicago has traditionally been divided up into 3 main categories: 1) Exhibitors—Major art galleries that receive 400–1000 square feet at a cost of $24,000–$52,000 and can have multiple artists; 2) Exposure—Galleries open less than 8 years that receive 200 square feet for $8000; and 3) Editions and Books—Publishers that receive 200 square feet at a cost of $2000–$4000 and are always relegated to a strip on the back end.
Roger Hiorns A Retrospective Pathway.
This year, the expo also launched “Expo Profile,” a presentation of 5 solo artists or collectives provided by established international galleries. These were highly curated, limited availability and tightly focused thematic exhibitions. They were definitely a nice addition to the overall artwork of the show and each created a very immersive and singular experience.
The Expo also always includes 15-20 “Expo Projects” and “IN/SITU” in the event space itself, in and around Navy Pier, and spread across the greater Grant Park and Lakefront area. These site-specific installations highlight large scale and performative works by emerging and established artists. They are always a fantastic and overlooked part of the show and are visually impacting. One of our absolute favorites was Roger Hiorns A Retrospective Pathway.
Hiorns interactive art piece was set at the front entrance to the Pier next to the fountain area. It was comprised of large stainless steel tanks that pumped out massive amounts of foam. The idea was to present “continuous change in a joyous and ebullient manner” as the foam is shaped by the wind and spread across the landscape. It allowed the artist to engage with his surroundings and for the pubic to interact with the foam and become the “connective tissue between the individual and the artwork” and to “blur the lines between where the city begins and the art ends.” With the majestic skyline in the background and throngs of giggling children and masses of Navy Pier visitors, it most certainly did.
It has always been my estimation that Expo Chicago and SOFA are the two best and premier art exhibitions that the city has to offer. This year’s expo seemed cleaner, leaner and better managed than last year. The space was less crowded and easier to navigate and enjoy. It also featured a better curated, higher quality assortment of artists then last year. The increase in smaller Exposure booths, which keep growing over time, and the addition of the Expo Profile solo booths also offered a greater variety of newer art to enjoy.
The Chicago Expo is now heading into its seventh year (2018) and seems to be getting better each time. Director Tony Karman deserves a tip of the hat for salvaging, maintaining and continuously expanding this wonderful event.
This year’s Expo Chicago, for me, was another year of lackluster performance by the major galleries. Fortunately, the “secondary” galleries and institution spaces provided enough interesting material to make the fair worth seeing.
That isn’t to say that the major commercial galleries did not provide some noteworthy pieces. For example, Richard Gray Gallery showed a very nice Jean-Michel Basquiat portrait from 1982—a body of work by this artist that is not often seen. The same gallery also showed a delightful Jim Lutes, Lip Lobes, from 1994.
On the other hand, Wendy White’s We Go High from 2016, shown by Nabuani Mercier gallery, was an unsuccessful attempt to “diefy” Michelle Obama. The piece just did not have the necessary gravitas, and it is far too soon to be attempting such an undertaking. It merely came off as a piece of partisan propaganda.
Another failure was Sara Dwyer’s Long Sole Sound from 2017 shown at Jane Lombard Gallery. It was a tired, post expressionist piece whose style has devolved into high-priced decorator art. It is a pretty piece, but nothing more.
Far more interesting was High Maintenance (art after November 6, 2016) by Yvette Mayorga presented by the Chicago Artists’ Coalition. Her installation was a provocative take on today’s politics of feminism. The pink wallpaper background and “baroque” application of plaster “frosting” like cake decorations recall the kitsch feminine stereotype of the 50s, but in a way that makes one think about today’s role of women in our society.
In contrast, Davis Cone’s Heart Nocturne/Harvest Moon, 2007-8, a super realist rendering of an Art Decco movie palace, is purely nostalgic and sentimental. It looks backward and is critical of the coldness of the present as depicted by the modern automobiles in the foreground.
But Sapar Contemporary showed work by Faig Ahmed that demonstrated how a traditional form and techique can be adapted to contemporary concerns. Ahmed has taken the millennia old craft of oriental rug weaving into a contemporary context. He breaks with traditional forms and gives us a new perspective on oriental rugs: we see one devoted to the interpretive depiction of DNA, one that suggests portals into the present, and one that “plays” with the technique in a retro 70s manner.
On a serious note, Honor Fraser gallery showed several large pieces by Meleko Mokgosi that hauntingly depict the death rituals of the African American community. For me, they were some of the best works of this year’s Expo. One piece in particular, Untitled from 2016 measuring 72 x 144 inches was especially striking, not just for its size, but for its somber symetry and superb but subdued use of color.
Meleko Mokgosi, Untitled, 2016, Acrylic, pastel, and charcoal on paper, 72 x 144 in.
There were a number of works in a roughly geometric abstraction style. One of the best was 70 (million miles per hour that the Earth orbits around the sun) by Hayal Pozanti. Presented by Jessica Silverman Gallery, this large acrylic (60 x 132 inches) has very little to do with astronomy; its shapes are more weapons oriented and actually become threatening upon contemplation in spite of its sophisticated, soothing color pallet. There are shapes that resemble a flint lock pistol in the center, a hand grenade on the left, and a bomb on the lower right (a mini history of weapons of mass destruction?).
Two installations that were next to each other were especially engaging. Part of the Exposure group of galleries (galleries that are relatively new), Fold gallery from London showed a version of In Absence by Finbar Ward. This booth sized installation is a small version of the much more substantial piece shown at the gallery in 2016. The evenly spaced rows of white tooth-like trapeziods projecting from the walls create an orderly, yet somewhat menacing space, feeling a little like being in the mouth of a shark.
Nearby, Mars/Patron from Sao Paulo showed an interactive installation by Lucas Simões called Perpetual Instability. This piece allows patrons to walk on an unstable cement floor that moves and starts to crack into irregular segments as people walk on it. It’s a novel experience to, in effect, be part of creating the work as its form evolves from walking on it.
Finally, in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s booth had a thoughtful piece by Óscar González. (One Minute on, One Minute Off) was a “throw rug” made of varicolored toy soldiers, all lying face down. Are we being invited to tread on the sacrifices made by thousands of men in humanity’s seemingly endless wars?
The established galleries did what established galleries do: try to sell from their stock of modern masters (much of which we have seen for years). It was the galleries in the Exposure portion of Expo that made the fair interesting and stimulating to visit. That is where the future lies.
Hayal Pozanti 70 (Million miles per hour that the Earth orbits around the sun),
2017—Jessica Silverman Gallery.
Joan Brown, After the Alcatraz Swim #2, 1975—Anglim Gilbert Gallery.
(Above) Lucas Simões, Perpetual Instability, 2o17—Marso/Patron.
(Left) Óscar González, (One Minute on, One Minute Off)
2017—School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
(Left) Faig Ahmed, Virgin, 2017—Sapar Contemporary.
(Right) Jim Lutes,
Lip Lobes, 1994—Richard Gray Gallery.