As an outsider to Chicago with an emerging art beat, it’s hard to get too excited about EXPO Chicago. Despite its eccentric location—nestled inside the Navy Pier, a lakeside playground that includes chain restaurants, yachts, and even a ferris wheel—the event itself has all the generic qualities of an art fair. This includes endless vistas of grey carpeting, a long grid of booths resembling something out of a borg ship, and booths filled with the kind of ubiquitous blue chip 20th century art that often defines these events. Jim Dine hearts, Robert Motherwell collages, at least one Yves Klein pigment table were spotted at this fair; we expect to see them at The Armory, Art Basel Miami, and The Art Show this year too.
This description, though, makes the 125 gallery-fair seem worth skipping, and that’s not the case. The booth sizes are large, the aisles wide, and even if the work’s a little conservative, its quality is generally high. Dealer John Berggreun repeatedly remarked on high quality of exhibitors when we spoke to him. “Just look at the quality!” he told us enthusiastically as he went on to recount all the ways he loved the fair. The San Francisco based gallery had been coming to Chicago off and on for the fairs for the last 30 years.
Stand out works included On Stellar Rays’ immersive installation by Zipora Fried, made of wallpaper and framed prints, all found and digitally collaged. Although they did not look it, many works had over 100 images collaged onto into the work. Also impressive was Tom Friedman’s canvas with cracked paint that doubled as a cracked mud landscape at David Zwirner and a boxed Theaster Gates hose at Kavi Gupta. It had already sold.
Importantly, the fair seems an enormous step up from anything Merchandise Mart offered, a mega-fair corporation that’s been largely unsuccessful at handling art. Much as the company did for Volta in New York, Merchandise Mart used their own real estate to house Next Art Chicago, even though its low ceilings were unsuited to showcasing art. Last year, when they closed, the organization claimed that collectors were only purchasing art on the coast lines.
Thankfully, that line seemed ridiculous at best yesterday, as the vernissage was literally packed with collectors. And with the red dots slowly appearing on the walls, work appeared to be selling too. Sales, of course, don’t necessarily correlate to quality work, but if nothing else, they are a sign of good, perhaps even exciting fair.