Smallness and Sameness at Chicago’s MDW Fair

by Robin Dluzen on November 14, 2012 · 22 comments Art Fair

“It’s not a fair; it’s an un-fair,” a colleague explained as I arrived at the MDW (pronounced “Midway”) Fair’s opening party last Friday. This statement certainly rang true. Frowning as I brushed drywall dust off my sleeves and pulled my foot out of a hole in the floor, MDW continually reminded me that it was an alternative art fair: with no actual restrooms yet and un-primed drywall in the narrow halls, the unfinished space is perfectly fine for artist studios, but, for a crowd of fair-goers, it proves challenging and awkward. It’s not about glitz or sales or even ideal viewing space; in fact, calling this three-day event a fair at all might be misleading, as the actual manifestation is somewhere between a pop-up show, an open studio night, and a thesis exhibition.

Co-founded in 2011 by the non-profits threewalls, Roots & Culture, and the Public Media Institute’s Ed Marzewski and Aron Gent, the event aims to connect the Midwest’s grassroots and emerging galleries, collectives, and artists to one another. At $400 for 300 square feet, booths are accessibly priced.

Though the fair has always been small by industry standards, it’s even smaller this year, shrinking from 45 art exhibitors to 36, 33 of which are Chicago-based. Notably absent this iteration are a number of commercial galleries; Linda Warren Projects, Western Exhibitions, Devening Projects + Editions, 65Grand, and Packer Schopf, didn’t even apply to participate this time around, according to MDW organizers. “No one from MDW reached out for my business,” dealer Linda Warren explained. “And the little we heard about the fair this year was just word of mouth a few days before.”

Without the traditional dealers, the last shred of market influence is gone, bringing the fair closer to its anti-market mission. That has its pluses and minuses. On the plus side, targeting young artists, current and recent grads from Chicago’s abundant art programs produces a fair full of the exuberant experimentation found in student work. On the minus, too often, the artist’s practice hasn’t matured yet, so the quality just isn’t there.

Top among those who did the fair right are the graduate students of The University of Illinois at Chicago, whose crammed booth contained standouts like Alex Rauch’s repulsively compelling, resin-covered stack of burger patties, 20 Stack (Extra Value). This glistening column of actual hamburgers perched upon a cardboard box is unabashedly excessive, commanding attention in the crowded exhibition. Ben Murray’s Yard is another success in the UIC booth; with a flat, green plane broken up by the familiar form of a picnic table, the painter combines formalist restraint with a bit of nostalgia.

UIC's booth

These new-comers brought a lot of life to the fair, which otherwise suffered from a kind of sameness that permeated the space. As painter Nazafarin Lotfi pointed out to me, “A lot of this looks familiar to me, both stylistically and the specific pieces themselves.” A nod to the distinct aura of institutionalized studio practice that lingered throughout.

Recent Chicago favorites, like the clever, well-crafted sculptures by Matt Nichols (now in Los Angeles) and large drippy paintings by Morgan Sims, found their ways into more than one booth: a repetition that, though not unwelcome, was surprising given the small number of participants. Performances were peppered throughout the weekend including a theatrical piece by Caitlin Baucom and Colleen Marie at Defibrillator that drew attention opening night.

Caitlin Baucom and Colleen Marie at Defibrillator

Heaven Gallery impressed with a fluorescent light installation by Sims, and wall-bound, abstract sculptures by Josue Pellot and Robert Burnier. Hinge Gallery made one of the best uses of their shared room with a succinct exhibition of works on paper by Charles Mahaffee and Rusty Shackleford. A well-focused booth with its handful of large, unframed pieces, the pairing of Mahaffee’s harsh, gestural charcoal drawings and Shackleford’s organic, pastel forms was balanced and thoughtful.

Since no one was expecting any sales, people generally pointed towards networking as the main goal of the event. Organizer Aron Gent of the Public Media Institute and Document saw MDW’s intent somewhat differently, telling me it was about “supplying info and knowledge to the public who’ve never heard of these artist-run spaces, or may not even be aware of the notion of an apartment gallery.”

The intentions are admirable, but went largely unmet as the crowd here was mostly young, Chicago-based artists showing their work to other young, Chicago-based artists.

There were certainly gems to be found amongst the exhibitions, though without much reason for established or mid-career artists to participate, there’s really just one kind of art, and for one kind of audience. With young artists pouring out of the city’s art schools, eager to make a name for themselves, there will always be a demand for this entry-level platform. But if the organizers can achieve their future goal of creating a more national showcase—which, based on this year’s showing, appears quite far off—the fair could begin to make a more measurable impact on artists’ careers and communities.



sdl November 14, 2012 at 5:13 pm

Robin, like Michael Workman on MDW (in this clumsy and lengthy “photo essay”, chooses to focus on the city’s artistic production with a paternalizing and outsider attitude: complaining about its focus on its own community. The city continues to develop content from within itself, creating a model of accessibility and sustainability that isn’t about a market, but is about a community-sourced networking and feedback mechanism for younger artists. I hardly see this as a criticism. In fact, it is reviews like this, loaded with inferiority complex-derived defensiveness that only perpetuates the so called “problem.”


“This fair is so alt. I can’t believe there’s no real bathrooms. And drywall? Please. This is so low class.” Really? Is this helpful?

“The intentions are admirable, but went largely unmet as the crowd here was mostly young, Chicago-based artists showing their work to other young, Chicago-based artists.”

Great! Isn’t that what it’s about?

“There were certainly gems to be found amongst the exhibitions, though without much reason for established or mid-career artists to participate, there’s really just one kind of art”

So….All up-and-coming (note: not “emerging” artists) make the same kind of art?

WhitneyKimball November 14, 2012 at 7:15 pm

I couldn’t attend, but $400 is a good chunk of money for an emerging collective to spend just to meet other artists, which you can do for free, without hanging a show. I have a hard time believing that the goal is just to exhibit work, either, since an art fair is the worst possible place to show anything. And it’s not condescending to acknowledge that, to at least Robin and one other fairgoer, the work looked the same. That’s a real problem for artists hoping to distinguish themselves.

sdl November 14, 2012 at 7:44 pm

If you couldn’t attend, it’s not worth commenting on. Agreed, $400 is a lot for a space like Devening or Alderman to spend on a fair where they know they won’t sell work. It IS a fair amount to spend for a space like Luminary Arts (St Louis), Girl Don’t Be Dumb (a nomadic art collective) or Make Space (a blog) who aren’t afforded much exposure in the Chicago art scene and don’t have a dedicated space. For recent grads and more ephemeral projects, that kind of exposure to the community, and space, is crucial. Whether the work is the same or not, that’s ultimately subjective.

Paddy Johnson November 14, 2012 at 8:24 pm

Identifying sameness is not at all subjective. If I notice two identical circles in a drawing is my experience subjective, or have I simply identified a shared characteristic? We can engage in a similar kind of practice here and similarly there will be nothing subjective about it.

sdl November 15, 2012 at 12:42 am

Paddy, you got me on the quoting, you’re right — but I find the drywall and restroom issues not relevant to the mission of the fair; it isn’t trying to be Basel.

“… without much reason for established or mid-career artists to participate, there’s really just one kind of art, and for one kind of audience.”

The diction in this observation implies that young art is same art. If this fair is for this “one kind” of audience — young Chicago artists — who’s the audience that Robin would prefer? If its success is measured by Gent (only one organizer’s) statement, and it is its interaction with “the public”, how could anyone gauge that success or lack of?

Paddy Johnson November 14, 2012 at 8:19 pm

This review doesn’t complain about the event’s focus on community, but rather that it chose to define its community so narrowly. Organizer Aron Gent says he wants the fair to reach a general public, so by his own stated objectives, this event fails. Young artists showing their work to other young artists isn’t what Gent says this is about.

As for the rest, I think your interpretation of this review sees implied conclusions Robin never makes. Robin never said up-and-coming artists make the same kind of art. She says the work *at this fair* hasn’t matured yet, which is a commonality that creates sameness. Robin also never wrote “And drywall? Please. This is so low class.” It’s inappropriate to put those words in quotes because they weren’t written.

Lumpen Times November 15, 2012 at 3:23 pm

Paddy Saying ” Organizer Aron Gent says he wants the fair to reach a general public, so by his own stated objectives, this event fails.” is bullshit. What else did Aron say, I wonder? What else did everyone else say? No one will know on this hatchet job.

And Paddy you are losing your credibility and edge. Did you even read Robin’s CV before she asked to write for you? Is this another example of nepotism in action or do you have no friends in Chicago? Reading makes me laugh out loud.

Asking failing artists who think they are critics to write for you is not gonna help Art Fag City . I only like what you have to write. So clone yourself.

DMAC November 16, 2012 at 2:35 pm Wow, as an artist who also writes, I feel it is my duty to fact check this statement. While it is true that the cv section of Robin’s website does not reveal a traditional cv, but rather a series of shots and brief texts revealing her involvement in various non traditional exhibition spaces, her bio states that Robin is ” Formerly the Editor-in-Chief and Senior Art Critic at Chicago Art Magazine, Dluzen is now a Chicago contributor for Art Ltd. Magazine, Visual Art Source and New American Paintings blog.” You should not be so quick to dismiss the perspective of an artist/writer who is so clearly invested in your community, simply because she offered a few statements of criticism that did not meet your approval. It is time for you to toughen up@facebook-641755942:disqus

Lumpen Times November 16, 2012 at 3:16 pm

My point above was to point out there is obviously some personal connection between the writer and AFC that has nothing to do with qualifications. For one, using an employer for a quote in a review is pretty lazy work. And when the friends of the author and the owner of this site personally insult me on their twitter feeds after commenting on her article it smells even more like some bullshit.

I am just sick of lazy journalism. I am sick of crap on blogs passing as journalism. I am sick of the art trolls who bully people. Even Paddy’s snarky response above is unbelievable. Who are these people? It’s incredible.

Ben Murray November 15, 2012 at 1:01 am

Thanks for such a nice mention!

Alex Rauch November 15, 2012 at 7:27 pm

Me too!

Lumpen Times November 15, 2012 at 1:43 am

Wow. Paddy is it a slow week? How did this happen? Thanks for the post even though I think Robin is full of some shit.
 For some reason I have this sinking feeling that if the MDW Fair happened in NYC it would be heralded as the most advanced grassroots art happening of the year. You might have even been there. But instead it is in Chicago. So it must suck.

Robin. I wish i had a chance to meet or speak with you. From my chair I believe that you are either misinformed, distorting some of your interviewee’s quotes, and/or cherry picking quotes to suit an agenda. I know how that goes.

However, I do want to thank you for submitting your views on those artists that seem worthy of a few sentences and having their names spelled correctly. It will be well noted on their CV’s for certain. And I want to thank you for even bothering at all to write about the fair. As you know there are few outlets for any criticism in this town and most of the dreck we do get to read is intolerably pithy. You must have done a good job because here I am responding!

So let me chime in for the record guys: First off, the crowd was diverse in age and income levels. Art students and collectors were in attendance. Old art hags were getting all dusty next to that 20 yr old drop out. On Saturday and Sunday I viewed gallerists, art fags, institutional curators and their progeny on a scouting trip for new blood. They seemed impressed by this dirty unfair like fair. Or maybe they were lying to me to be polite.

And despite our Commie anti-market agenda, I want to assure you that I love it when work sells. And I know that some spaces sold work and some did not. To the victor go the spoils, my friend capitalism says..

But Robin I do agree that we have a lot more work ahead of us to evolve the platform into an even more measurable experience for the participants and the “public.” And we will work on it. But keep in mind that we don’t have any hedge fund managers, independently wealthy individuals or any corporate financial support to fund our Do-It-Together effort. The MDW Fair is not a business model, or commercial trade show to earn investors a few points on their money. We are not trying to be a commercial fair. We might not ever try to be a commercial fair. And that’s OK. And it’s not OK.

The MDW Fair will evolve into a Fair our community wants it to be and how the Fair shakes out is up to them. We put out a public call to every art space / curator / non profit art institution that we know. We know many. And it’s up to them to inquire, participate and/or submit a proposal. Don’t blame us if a handful of commercial spaces you like didn’t want to play this year or they didn’t even hear about it. It is not our fault they did not join us. Or maybe it is. Maybe they think it sucks.. But from yer angle it sounds like they are losing their edge to the kids from Pilsen and France.

So Robin my advice to you would be to place your bets on those other alternative art fairs in Chicago. I am sure they will do more for the “young artists, current and recent grads from Chicago’s abundant art program” and hopefully a few mid career artists that still live here.. But Oh, that’s right, you can’t do that. There are no other fairs in Chicago.

Thanks again for the review. You should get involved next year.

– Ed Marszewski ( of Public Media Institute)

Anonymous November 15, 2012 at 11:40 am

As a professional art writer (and former NYer), I think it’s really a shame anyone disses on burgeoning projects in cities like Chicago. This city’s vision for an art world that isn’t in bed with the Chelsea art market after the demise of Art Chicago is admirable. Focus on the fact that MDW is a bold attempt at something different would be far more constructive–the art world gives such lip service to concepts of “alternative” (as long as it’s soaked in capital and trust funders, good to go). I guess it’s also a matter of taste, the UIC booth, in my summation, was bar none the worst.

Andrew Rosinski November 15, 2012 at 12:52 pm

“Frowning as I brushed drywall dust off my sleeves … ”

Y U no like drywall particles?

Ptown November 15, 2012 at 7:18 pm

I was really into how much it felt like Portland, Oregon. The concentration of hipsters was higher than any place in Chicago I have been/seen yet! Definitely felt like home. That said in the few events similar to this I have seen in Portland there weren’t as many repeat artists. Seems odd for show with 33 booths in a city coming up on 10,000,000 people that there were at least three artists that showed in more than one booth. Maybe they missed a few people on the invite.

And maybe, just like in Grad School good work needs some tough love to develop.

anon November 17, 2012 at 12:55 am

“For one, can we not begin with an acknowledgement that MDW is truly of
the moment and exists as an incisive exercise into what nurtures the
bedroom communities that make up an undercurrent that sustains more of
the art world that anyone admits?” Temporary Art Review weighs in:

Miss Jones November 21, 2012 at 12:52 pm

This review is funny and tragic at the same time. First, let’s
substitute the name MDW Fair for the Gramercy Hotel/The Armory Fair or even early
SOHO and Chelsea. Bingo! All of them started the same way. Exactly the same way.
Mostly young artists, cheap, dusty, old,
not very safe, you get the picture. I know I was there. Many good things came
out of that “pop-up show, an open studio night, and a thesis exhibition” in NYC.
Second, 33 local galleries, collectives or whatever, is an impressive number.
That alone should have alerted you to the great potential and positive energy. Third,
you don’t need any of Chicago’s known galleries to make this fair good or worth
it. 57th St. and the U.E.S. was nowhere to be seen in the early days
of SOHO, Chelsea or The Armory Show. As a matter of fact many believe that
uptown ruined everything. I don’t know much about the small art scene in
Chicago but I have a feeling that it is tragically divided and not healthy.
Find the culprits and ostracize them. And
stick to art. I mean the objects.

Paddy Johnson November 21, 2012 at 1:26 pm

You know, I’m tired of reading about how the writer didn’t do due diligence because she didn’t name off all the points some commenters think this fair has in its favor.

First, that this fair is the same size as other, bigger fairs, once were, only tells us that those fair grew. It says nothing about the potential of this fair, and I don’t think we’re doing anyone any favors to pretend otherwise.

Second, that the fair hosted 33 local galleries, is by no means evidence of its potential. It doesn’t tell us anything about these gallery’s experience at the fair, whether the art they were showcasing was any good or whether it had promise. All it indicates is that 33 local galleries participated, and I don’t think we’re doing anyone any favors to pretend otherwise here either.

Third, the author, at no point said that Chicago’s “known” galleries were needed to make the fair “good or worth it”. She noted that the commercial galleries were no longer participating. She also noted that there wasn’t much variation in art making. That’s a problem a greater variation of galleries could solve.

Corinna Kirsch November 15, 2012 at 11:24 am

Reporters should describe the setting, the look, the tone of what they’re experiencing. There’s no reason not to give a rundown of what the fair looks like and what the art looks like. As for the facts about the cost of a booth, which is pretty standard talk for a report, that’s a fact which, of course Whitney or anyone else can comment upon.

Robin’s essay has some great, enthusiastic words to say about individual artists at the fair and it ends on such a tone as well. She’s just giving feedback, like any good reporter should do, and if she didn’t, well, this essay would just be a press release.

sdl November 15, 2012 at 12:40 pm

Dluzen is negatively judging the fair based on its rawness (“frowning” at the drywall), but I think her complaint is unfounded — the fair didn’t need finished walls.
I’m surprised no participants other than the organizers were
interviewed here, as they might provide valuable feedback on the
question of whether the $400 was worth it.

anonymous November 15, 2012 at 2:00 pm

it was so cold in there, i couldn’t take off my pants in the port-o-potty, nor did i want to… i whole heartedly agree with this review of the fair.

sdl November 15, 2012 at 3:41 pm

Has anyone told you Chicago gets cold in the winter?

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