On a sultry Thursday evening on the 22nd of September, the first floor of Chicago’s Navy Pier Festival hall awoke for the vernissage of EXPO Chicago that is now in its 5th edition. The EXPO (I refrain from calling it a fair, which I will return to later) is considered to be one of the cardinal events on the city’s art calendar. With over 145 galleries from 22 countries represented this year, EXPO aims to showcase a range of practices that temper local and international contemporary art scenes.
EXPO Video Viewing Station 1
Within three years’ of attending the EXPO, I’ve gained a fair understanding of the structure within which it operates. While ‘In/Situ’ provides participating galleries with spaces for site-specific installations and performances, the ‘/Dialogues’ series, in collaboration with SAIC, provides visitors with a more intimate view of artistic and curatorial practices through conversations with art professionals and fairly lively panel discussions. This year, in what was perhaps the strongest program at the EXPO for me, was the ‘EXPO Video’ section curated by Daria de Beauvais of Palais de Tokyo.
EXPO, still considered to be one of America’s first and foremost art fairs, predates the drama that now engenders Armory, Frieze New York or Art Basel Miami. As I moved through booths that formed the nerve center of the body that composed the Festival Hall, I found myself moving towards the periphery looking closer at Project Spaces that were neatly tucked away on the side-lines. For a fair hosted by the cultural center of the Mid-West one could only hope the dynamism of contemporary art coming from the region wouldn’t be sidelined in the exhibition design of the fair.
In the last 5 years, Tony Karman, the director of EXPO, has worked tirelessly to bring patrons and art dealers to the city to experience what may be considered the best of modern and contemporary art in the region. Despite Karman’s eye for detail, the design and layout of EXPO may be the only lacking holding it back from serving better as an ‘international level art fair’.
As one encountered booth after booth displaying works focused on people of colour, questions of justice were answered obliquely in a selection of work from galleries both in and outside Chicago. The solidarity of the art world, which may be a large reason we seek to function within it, was imminent. Contemporary is political today. But somewhere in between a myriad display of art which attempted to address the deeper complexity of ‘blackness’ set against the recent uprisings in cities like Charlotte and the immeasurable impact of graphic footage on loop via social media, I found dealing with these works in the context of an ‘art market’ environment to be disquieting and dangerously teetering on tokenism. Is the art fair format the right place for sustained conversations on social justice or have we all become accomplice to la regle du jour? One of the most widely discussed works in the projects space was‘48 Portraits (Underexposed)’ by Samuel Levi Jones, courtesy PATRON Chicago. At EXPO, Jones reconfigured a 1972 Gerhard Richter exhibited the same year at the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Here he exhibited 48 close-ups of African American figures that did not feature in the 1972 print of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, printing extreme close ups in ben-day dots on dark leathery surfaces he achieved through a process of pulping the almanac.
As the assistant director of a Bombay based gallery, I had worked with artists, both Indian and International, to represent their work at art fairs. With each fair we traveled to, our ‘display’ and thematic structure of the exhibition changed to address the local demographics of the fair . This being said, I find the selection works in a gallery booth to be a direct reflection of their read of the culture and the demographics of a city. If this holds true, this year’s selection at EXPO seemed to exoticize the incarcerated body while trying to deal with the mythification of mid-western neo-conservatism.
Some of the most exciting work to me was in EXPO’s ‘Exposure’ section, with young galleries like Arcade, London, DITTRICH & SCHLECHTRIEM, Berlin and yours, mine & ours, New York bringing an eclectic display of cutting edge work for a new generation of misfit collectors.
Diaz Lewis, “34000 Pillows”
EXPO Projects hosted a wide variety of performative programming and site-specific installations. From Diaz-Lewis’s ‘34,000 Pillows’ courtesy Human Rights Watch, to Sabina Ott’s installation ‘because the mountains were so high’, experiential art beguiled visitors as they moved through the cold corridors of the hall. One of the few outdoor installations was an airstream trailer by Randy Palumbo titled ‘Love Stream #2’ which greeted a steady flow of visitors coming and going from the fair, lining up for yet another ideal selfie.
An exemplar of cutting edge ‘fair-friendly’ exhibitions was Leonard Suryajaya’s ‘Bunda’, which draped Chicago Artists Coalition’s booth with Suryajayas signature patchwork of digital imagery, textures and a Pop-Indonesian colour pallet that whets the viewer’s senses with patterns that coalesce around themes of sexuality, gender and intimacy. His mother, whose hand features figuratively and metaphorically in his work, was present and beaming with pride. Moving from a conversation with him about the absence of Asian art at EXPO, I found myself seeking out any signs of it, as though I was trying to situate myself within a broader context. All fingers pointed me in the direction of Kavi Gupta, a pioneering gallerist from Chicago and long-time supporter of EXPO who chose to exhibit some work by Manish Nai, which was as well received as it was the year before.
A fairly new addition to the roster of galleries was Pearl Lam Gallery, with Ms. Lam herself interacting with collectors at the booth. Speaking to one of the booth girls about how their work has been received she said ‘we are not rushing into anything here. We’d just like the visitors to understand the context from which the works come from.’
Amanda Williams, “Brick by Brick”
‘For Freedoms’, a project space by Jack Shainman Gallery made a strong impact as did ‘Brick by Brick’ by Amanda Williams, as participatory, community engaged art work were swaddled together on the halls second floor. It was by this point that I started to think of the hall as anything but the appropriate venue for the event. This was why EXPO still read as an exposition to me, not an art fair. The grid like layout, aged carpeted flooring, ambiguous positioning of VIP lounges and bars, mute positioning of art publications…even the area allocated to /Dialogues. Each experience functioned in isolation in a warehouse format. What would a complete overhaul of the EXPO floor plan look like?
According to gallerist, Anne Mosseri who is attending EXPO from Basel for the third year in a row, the presence of large institutional collectors and patrons was stimulating yet challenging to break into. As a global slowdown in buying contemporary continues to affect the sales, the quality of the work at this year’s EXPO was distinctly stronger than last years. This being said, if EXPO is to continue on its path to success it will have to continue to rely on the largesse of the citys collectors and Midwestern patrons, who possess the cultural power to make this an unparalleled international art fair. By fostering new international relationships, diversifying its programming and inspiring its citizenry, maybe next year we will see an art fair after all!
– Pia Singh
Following the Right Hand of Freud, Pierre Bismuth
Courtesy of Team Gallery inc.
Pia Singh is a final year student in the Masters of Arts Administration and Policy Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Born in Bombay, she has worked for over six years with Indian contemporary art and has moved to Chicago from Dubai. Her interests lie at the node of moving images and durational art, community engaged artistic practices and cultural policy.