Art Chicago 2003, May 9-13, 2003, in Festival Hall at Navy Pier, and the Stray Show, May 9-13, 2003, at North Kingsburry Place, both in Chicago, Ill.
This year's Art Chicago art fair, presented by Thomas Blackman Associates and now in its 11th edition, lacked much of the excitement, variety and experimentation that marked its hey-day. Although Art Chicago boasted 200 galleries exhibiting work by approximately 2,000 artists, most of the art that was both memorable and new was found at the third edition of the Stray Show, an alternative art fair that was also organized by Blackman Associates and that took place at the same time.
On the other hand, considering the amount of hype about the lineup of galleries at the Stray fair (some of the best young dealers in the U.S.), it didn't turn out to be the bonanza that many had expected. This comes as no surprise, considering the inertia that rules the Chicago art scene at the moment.
Art Chicago suffers from multiple plagues -- a dearth of international exposure, an aging group of critics with neither the education nor interest to understand contemporary trends (the primary local voice, the New Art Examiner magazine, has closed), and poor leadership from its collectors, who have failed to support the formation of a new generation of artists. These factors have promoted an exile of galleries, artists and art professionals looking for greener pastures.
That said, some of the trends found at both fairs were a new interest in drawings on paper, small-scale sculpture and the revival, in all media, of figurative work, often with a touch of surrealism.
At Art Chicago, the Swiss activist-artist Thomas Hirschhorn was king with the impressive Necklace CNN, a large-scale sculpture of a golden collar that sports the CNN logo, constructed in typical Hirschhorn fashion of cardboard and metal foil. The work is in an edition of 50, and was on viea at the booth of Rhona Hoffman.
In sharp contrast to Hirschhorn's sense of oversized scale and spectacle was Shirley Tse's Cinderblock Dream of Being Styrofoam at the booth of Shoshana Wayne Gallery. Tse's wall relief is made of pink Styrofoam, and looks like a weird archeological find from outer space.
Julia Friedman Gallery presented photos and sculptures by Sergio Vega. My favorite, Amphibian Retreat, is an imaginary and elaborate architectural model the artist has adorned with the head of an alligator and the texture of serpent's skin. At $21,000, Vega's hybrid house should find its way into a museum.
The most attractive and complete booth at both fairs was by Chicago's own Bodybuilder and Sportsman Gallery, thanks in part to All of It/Everything, a mural by Ken Fandell, one of the city's most respected conceptualists. The mural measured 12 x 6 feet and consisted of 65 color photographs of flowers (some in full bloom and others dying); it was part of a larger project of over 500 images. The work questions our desire to invest emotionally in nature and in nature's imagery. Ultimately it is about wishful thinking, love and failure. A great accomplishment, considering that love can be such a clichd theme. The photos are sold for $250 each in groups of three, and the whole wall installation is a reasonable $12,000.
Also at B&S was Different Strokes, a vintage Robert Heinecken photo that alludes to pornography and sexual identity. Valued at $60,000, the work is one of a series taken from men's magazines from 1969 and 1970. The artist tore the pages from the magazines and placed them on photo paper. This procedure reflects the images from both sides of the page, creating a dense and layered collage that the artist then finished by hand-coloring certain elements.
Mexican dealer Enrique Guerrero gave center stage to Pedro Reyes, who installed Sad but Happy, a beautiful (and expensive at $10,000) functional structure in steel and plastic that allowed viewers to crawl inside. Also at Guerrero an amazing Guillermo Kuitca drawing titled Holiday Inn, priced at $3,600.
The two most talked-about artists in the fair were Julie Verhoeven at Mobile Home of London, with a series of figurative drawings that mix cartoonlike figures and fashion, and Amy Dicke, who presented a wall installation of drawings in true goth rock style at newcomer Peres Projects from L.A.
But the surprise of the show came from Candida Alvarez, at the booth of San Francisco gallery Rena Bransten, with Blink, a fascinating diptych in which the image of a dead deer, painted in black, accompanies that of a landscape as seen from a moving vehicle. At $2,000, Blink is a steal.
At the Stray Fair, the legendary rock-groupie and artist Cynthia Plaster Caster, who began making plaster casts of rock stars erect penises in 1968, stole the show with a booth dedicated to the launch of the web site, www.cynthiapcaster.org, housing the Cynthia Plaster Caster Foundation. The new nonprofit gives money to musicians and artists in financial need. It raises its funds through donations and through the sales of Cynthia's limited edition art objects.
Another great and vivid presentation was provided by K48, a zine based in New York. The current issue, Teenage Rebel, under the direction of Scott Hug, includes the Teenage Art Manifesto by Rachel Howe, a revealing interview by Sofia Coppola with band PFFR and an essay by Liz Armstrong.
M&M Proyectos made an impressive debut with a huge banner documenting El Cerro, a piece that's a mix between performance art and social work, in which recent Whitney Biennial participant Chemi Rosado Seijo painted an entire town in the mountains of Puerto Rico in different shades of green.
One project to bring in the crowds was the Soap Factory's Drive-In, a customized van with movie screen and DVD player that played a selection of videos curated by Jo Del Pesco and artist Dan Seiple. Once inside the van, viewers were allowed to choose from a variety of videos by Chadwick Rantanen, Markus Lunkenheimer, Lucas DeGuilio, Dan Seiple, Matt Wacker and Phil Docken.
My favorite was Seiple's Missis Sippi, in which the artist documents, in a sort of National Geographic style, the construction of his own fake river, which lead from a faucet at the Soap Factory exhibition space to the waters of the Mississippi.
Another piece that caught the attention of the crowd was a neon sign of a crab holding a milk container by Matthew Brannon at Dupreau Gallery. Milch und Krabbe was nicely priced at $3,300. Sadly Brannon's piece, as many of the other bargains at the fairs, didn't find a home.
The highlight of the weekend didn't come from any of the fairs but from breakfast at the headquarters of four member collective Law Office. The menu, offered free of cost to all, included pancakes with walnuts, strawberries and a Bloody Mary. A great way for art entrepreneurs to forget about the economy for a couple of hours.