Chicago's big weekend of three art fairs has come and gone, and left us with some big questions to ponder. These concern the politics of exhibition, and whether any meaningful distinction remains between the cutting edge and the commercially tried-and-true. These issues can be distilled down to a single, overarching question: Do we really need another art fair?
Once upon a time our fair city had but one art fair, and everyone just called it "the art fair." It was the Chicago art world's annual moment to shine, and it always seemed to bring everyone together in common cause, at least for one frenzied weekend. But art world personalities and post-9/11 finances being what they are, fragmentation was inevitable. And lo, there were three: Thomas Blackman Associates' long-running Art Chicago, held this year in a huge tent in Grant Park; plus two newcomers, the highly commercial Chicago Contemporary & Classic, taking Art Chicago's traditional place at Navy Pier and in the West Loop gallery district, the NOVA Young Art Fair. All took place during Apr. 28-May 2, 2005.
The entrepreneurial force behind the NOVA fair is Bridge magazine, a nonprofit publishing and curating venture launched by Michael Workman in 2000 (see www.bridgemagazine.org). In 2003 and 2004, Bridge had produced ArtBoat, a jokey afternoon cruise off the Pier meant to supplement Art Chicago with young local art exhibited aboard a chartered party yacht. This year, Bridge decided to ditch the ship and expand the idea into a fair all its own. Thus was born the NOVA Young Art Fair.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should state that I used to serve on Bridge's editorial staff, back before I ran out of energy to devote to other people's labors of love. I never imagined that the shoestring post-grad project that Bridge was when I joined up would mushroom into the sprawling nonprofit art empire that it's fast becoming. Like an overachieving nerd winning a game of Risk, Bridge is slowly, steadily extending its territorial reach throughout the West Loop. It now plans to make the empty industrial space where NOVA was held on Washington Boulevard, around the corner from the magazine's office, into a block of artists' studios for rent.
The advance hype for NOVA promised something different. Not only would it explode the parameters of exhibition with performances, sound installations and artist-designed spaces dubbed "environmental projects," but it would also bring nonprofits, collectives, alternative venues and commercial galleries together in a single event. Unlike those other, commodity-driven fairs, NOVA would (according to its propaganda) "act as a force for positive change" in the art world by counteracting the "context of isolation dominated by cost-benefit' standards and self-interest that has allowed art to succumb to the entertainment industry."
Given such rhetoric, it's interesting that NOVA obtained the sponsorship of its "marketing partner," International Art and Framing Group, the decidedly for-profit corporation that produced Chicago Contemporary & Classic (only the latest in IAFG's roster of art and dcor tradeshows, which includes Art Miami and the Artexpo shows in New York and Atlanta). I was even more surprised to learn that booth space at NOVA cost twice as much as a slot in the "Stray Show" section at Art Chicago. (Granted, the latter consisted of only ten reduced-rate spaces offered to the sort of emergent, fringy galleries and groups for which Stray -- once a separate fair unto itself -- was created.)
The corporate sponsorship may well have been a decision made on the basis of sheer survival. Organizing the event wasn't all smooth sailing -- as the opening date drew dangerously near, NOVA still didn't have a venue nailed down, billing itself as "staged in multiple locations" throughout the West Loop. The site ended up being an abandoned office suite above an auto mechanic's shop, and a tent erected in the parking lot next door. Handwritten signs directed viewers down a flight of stairs and through a cavernous warehouse from one section to the next. The digs satisfied any lingering nostalgia for the raw industrial spaces that used to house the Stray Show, but the low ceilings and cramped quarters didn't do much for the art. Work was crammed into corners, closets and bathrooms in ways that tended to feel more desperate than inventive.
One such afterthought of a corner boasted some of the most satisfying work on view: New Yorker Eric Doeringer's display of wares. Doeringer is Sherry Levine gone hyperbolic, if that's possible. His table is piled with multiple copies in miniature -- the artist calls them "bootlegs" -- of all of the greatest hits of contemporary art. Here are a few Chris Ofili virgins, there a stack of Elizabeth Peyton rock stars. Of course, his basic idea isn't new, and you have to be in on the joke to get the joke -- but it's a good one, and it gets better the longer you browse.
Ordinarily, Doeringer sets up shop on a Chelsea sidewalk. His vending table reminded me immediately of the booths that sell framed reproductions outside the Metropolitan Museum, but Doeringer says he was inspired by another institution of Manhattan street life: the ubiquitous corner stands that sell knockoffs of designer handbags. He's received a cease-and-desist order or two, but according to Doeringer, most of the artists are smart enough to be flattered by his imitation.
Another standout was the fresh, crisply executed photographs of Chicagoan Sabrina Raaf. Her current series-in-progress, "The Test People," is a funny, inventive bit of science fiction in which humans have developed the ability to levitate, and subsequently find their gravity-based architectural environments difficult to get around in. Figures float uneasily in decaying late-20th-century interiors, mysteriously dripping blood or attempting, in their untethered state, to hold one another at gunpoint. The digital color images are shot in panorama, some with a fisheye lens, and printed vertically, adding an element of formal disquietude. In Raaf's anti-gravitational near future, something unspecified has gone terribly wrong.
However, while the pleasure of her work itself was not diluted, Raaf's presence at the fair left a mild bad taste when combined with the knowledge that she served on the NOVA selection committee. Of course we all know that the art world practically runs on this sort of nepotism; that many of Bridge's endeavors seem to turn this little secret into an openly accepted norm may or may not be a boon.
Upon walking into NOVA, I immediately began to copy down website addresses from wall texts (it didn't help that the first work on view consisted of the byproducts of a web-based project, www.you-are-beautiful.com). This led me to a thought: The conventional stand-and-look exhibition is such an uncomfortable, inefficient way to see art, and putting a whole lot of it in one place doesn't begin to solve the problem. Why aren't these big art fairs obsolete yet?
In the end, edgier content and raw space notwithstanding, NOVA was just another variation on the theme of the large art trade show. As such, it predictably offered an undifferentiated pool of forgettable work punctuated by a few standouts. Whether or not we bought Bridge's altruistic posturing, we were still left with another vast display of art for consumption.
One hopes that many of NOVA's shortcomings can be chalked up to first-year jitters, and that the event will survive in years to come -- if only because its presence stands to make the drama of Chicago's multiple art fairs more interesting as it continues to evolve. But maybe just injecting more non-object-based work and the words "not-for-profit" into the mix is not enough. Maybe we need to invent a model -- a whole context, even -- that bears no relation at all to the construct "art fair."