“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.
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.
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.