Art Chicago Opens With Eclectic Art and a Desire to Stand Out From the Pack

Art Chicago Opens With Eclectic Art and a Desire to Stand Out From the Pack

By Karen Archey for Artinfo

(April 29, 2011) CHICAGO— While the art world glitterati jet over to Brussels this weekend, a die-hard community of art enthusiasts swarmed Chicago's Merchandise Mart to peruse the perennially precarious Art Chicago and NEXT contemporary art fairs.

The city's longtime main art fair, Art Chicago has gained a reputation in recent years for its lack of pull to international collectors and consequent low sales rates. Once the booming sole competitor to Art Basel in Switzerland in the 1980s, Art Chicago now competes against a gaggle of fairs worldwide — most in more glamorous, coastal locales.

But Art Chicago vice president and Armory Show co-founder Paul Morris isn't scared of the competition. In fact, he sees it as an opportunity to underscore Art Chicago's unique identity.

"Now that we no longer have two fairs worldwide but, say, at least 25, every one of those has to be different to survive," Morris explains. "I can't do an art fair in Chicago and have anyone say I don't need to go to Chicago because I went to FIAC. I want people to say, 'You gotta go to FIAC for x, but you have to go to Chicago for y.'"

If you're wondering what that "y" looks like, you can bet on bitch-n-stitch-esque crafty installations, multi-thousand-dollar Pier 1-looking design objects, a surfeit of sci-fi inspired transhumanist sculpture, and hyperrealist painting on the rather large and sometimes embarrassing end. Morris notes that although there's much capital in the Midwest, it articulates itself in a way unlike that of the coasts or even Brussels — inevitably giving rise to various levels of taste and intellectual rigor in the art involved.

"For those 1/100th of people coming to the fair who are Art Institute of Chicago or MCA trustees traveling constantly and looking for edgier work, their interest can still be sustained," Morris contends, "by some of the material shown by Russell Bowman, Carl Hammer, or Carrie Secrist." And Morris is right: both Art Chicago and NEXT are undoubtedly not without their perks.

More exciting are offerings by Chicago-based gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey featuring local great Robert Lostutter and collaborative works between German abstract painter Albert Oehlen and the eccentric German writer Rainald Goetz. Carl Hammer's booth shows the late Chicago legend Don Baum's labyrinthine dollhouse of paint-by-number on breadboard, appearing curiously similar to the much younger contemporary art-market darling Hernan Bas. Near-breathtaking is 2010 Whitney Biennialist Theaster Gates's series "In the Event of Race Riot" shown at Kavi Gupta. Taking a cue from Gordon Matta-Clark, Gates repurposes molding and other building materials found from demolished buildings from the (predominately black) South Side of Chicago to encase deaccessioned 1960s-era fire hoses.

Returning to Art Chicago for the first time since 2006, the Britain-based Adam Gallery impressed with the all-but-unknown abstractions of Scottish artist Barbara Rae, who aesthetically achieved what we now attribute to Rebecca Morris decades beforehand. Charming secondary market works scatter throughout the fair. Picasso's 1950 paper necktie scribbled with a satyr — perhaps an allusion to a modern day version of the lustful, drunk woodland creature in Greek mythology — also stood out as a favorite, though the diminutive scrap of paper was priced at a cool $98,500.

Speaking of numbers, preliminary sales reports from both Art Chicago and NEXT, the more "edgy" fair committed to emerging art, were highly positive. On opening night works sold ranging from $10,000 to $80,000 — the higher figure belonging to the sale of Victor Manuel Garcia's "Nocturnal Scene of Havana" 1950, by Cuban gallery Cerunda Arte.

Major sales have been reported by Chicago galleries Carl Hammer, McCormick Gallery, Zola/Lieberman, and Kavi Gupta, as well as Woolff Gallery of London. Ken Tyburski, curatorial director of NEXT, reports that most booths in the emerging fair have sold at least one work on opening night, or at least have works on hold.

Adding a little glitz, notable Chicago-based collectors such as Helyn Goldenberg, Michael Alper, Martin Zimmerman, and Penny Pritzker all made appearances. Rumors of an appearance by President Obama's entourage, lingering from his fundraising trip to the city, surfaced but were never confirmed. Meanwhile, street art provocateur Shepard Fairey presented a solo exhibition of designed record cover prints at Robert Berman Gallery of Santa Monica while DJ'ing during the fair's opening night.

Although throughout the decades of its existence, the marketability and quality level of Art Chicago has waxed and waned, one thing has remained the same: its impassioned, proactive art community. Should Chicago's fair desire to break out of its Second City blues, capitalizing on this community and its political sensitivity would seem to be a prescient route.

But to some, Chicago isn't a second or third anything, but a happening, exciting alternative to requisite art world snobbery. "There's something that sounds so unfittingly 'mid' about the Midwest," quips Morris. "Why can't it be called the 'High West'?"

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