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The Charlie Sheen Complex

by Pedro Vélez
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On the heels of what probably was the saddest edition ever of Art Chicago (and those other fairs that went along with it), the art fair's former vice president, Tony Karman, announced plans for another art bazaar, this one titled exposition CHICAGO and due to launch in 2012. Karman’s chutzpah is to be admired, considering his losing record in bringing sexy back to the tired Art Chicago brand during his tenure there.

The alternative art fair scene did no better, as the MDW Fair, birthed during the weekend before Art Chicago, failed to spark any excitement among the city’s cultural elite, much less on the grander scale of the international art market.

Chicago’s desperate attempts to regain its former status as the preeminent art fair platform for the almighty central U.S. states are increasingly -- or perhaps that should be regularly -- a source of ridicule, both inside the city and beyond. Last year, if memory serves, I suggested that the Chicago art-fair scene resembled Hollywood actor Nick Nolte: confused and resting on its laurels.

So why bother? The answer might be found in another question: What does it mean that homegrown talent like Heather Hubbs (director of the New Art Dealers Association), Dan Hug (director of Art Cologne) and Tim Fleming (director of Art Los Angeles Contemporary) can successfully run fairs anywhere around the globe, but just not here?

The brutal truth is that Chicago’s art fair trouble results from what can only be described as an amateur’s bullheadedness. This is obvious -- or at least it was obvious to the students in the "Sculpture, Morality and Media" course I teach at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. During our visit to Art Chicago at the beginning of May 2011, they got to right to the heart of what has been ailing our city’s art fairs for half a decade.

"Why do galleries like to pretend that they are not a store, and to act as if they’re happy when it’s painfully obvious that nothing is selling?" asked Sara Caron, who, though she is a student, already operates her own, respected alternative gallery in Milwaukee, Small Space. Her favorite work in Art Chicago was Designing Obama, a book that chronicles the art and esthetics of the Obama presidential campaign, assembled by Scott Thomas, Obama’s real campaign design director. It was being sold at the booth of The Post Family, a Chicago art and design collective -- puzzling, when you consider that this book can be easily bought online for $79.99 without using an art fair as intermediary.

Another student, Claire Smith, who is a sculptor, noted how strange it was to come across Robert Polidori's Kuwait Exchange #1, Kuwait City (2007), a large photograph in which men wearing traditional thawb garments seem to be on a break at a stock exchange. According to Claire, it stood out among the otherwise trivial offerings at the fair through its focus on "tradition, sexism and other stereotypes in America and in Arab nations.”

Danielle Rosen, an aspiring curator who will be pursuing graduate studies at the University of Chicago next year, commented on the fair's floor plan: "The way it’s put together, you don’t know what’s valuable and what’s not." She also expressed confusion as to whether the fair’s dealers "really want to sell art, or are the organizers only interested in filling space at the Merchandise Mart?"

Collin Schipper, a student whose specialty is sound art, was astonished at how underwhelming the fair was. "I love big auto shows, with their huge and magnificent displays of the newest, shiniest or biggest engines," he said. At Art Chicago, even the booth devoted to an automobile -- the Acura car company was a sponsor -- was pretty modest.

Chicago needs to realize that that having one successful fair today is not going to solve its unbearable “Second City” complex, especially since Chicago has not been a player in the national art market for over a decade. And Chicagoans should definitely stop blaming former Art Chicago director Thomas Blackman for its art fair troubles. Blackman did a great job until Chicago was sidelined by the success of the gargantuan Art Basel Miami Beach and other global art fests.

Chicago is not the same city it was ten years ago, and local arts boosters might as well stop pinning their hopes on new Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a self-professed art lover. Until Emanuel can assure fair producers that he has an army of lobbyists ready to spend vast amounts of cash on local during his tenure, I don’t see how any sanity might enter our art fair madhouse.

But Chicago is also a city that never listens, so none of that matters. As of today, Chicago is slated to host five art fairs in 2012. Does that sound delusional? It is. You might as well chalk it up to Chicago's Charlie Sheen problem -- best captured by Sheen’s deluded motto, “I’m winning!”

PEDRO VELEZ is an art critic and writer hibernating in Chicago.