Once upon a time, Art Chicago was a high-rolling event, the jewel of the international fair calendar. Well, the invisible hand of the market giveth, and it taketh away. Art Chicago is no longer, strictly speaking, an art world event. In some last-minute scrambling, after what seems to have been a serious monetary shortfall that threatened to scuttle the entire event, Art Chicago organizer Thomas Blackman sold the fair to Chicago’s Merchandise Mart. It’s the end of an era.
During the fair’s brief run at the end of April, the Merchandise Mart paired Art Chicago -- some 100 dealers were on hand -- with its annual Chicago Antiques Fair, taking a page, I suppose, from the business plans of fast-food outlets like Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, or Baskin-Robins and Dunkin’ Donuts.
One ticket bought entry to it all, and traffic was brisk when I passed through, with gallerists and antiques dealers busy chatting up their guests, who seemed to be largely local.
Chicago’s own Thomas McCormick Gallery was exhibiting vintage Ab Ex, including a notable José de Rivera painting from 1945. Hard-edged and elegant in a simple black frame, it’s one for the ages, priced at $30,000. Prints were also a good bet. Tandem Press of Madison, Wisc., also had plenty of name-brand appeal, including a lush suite of works by rambling man Robert Cottingham. Titled An American Alphabet, these prints depict individual letters culled from gaudy signage across this great nation. They run in an edition of 40 and would set you back $2,075 a character.
As for the younger set, a number of European galleries displayed that European taste for muddy, naïf painting that looks so good in the hands of really talented artists -- none of whom were represented. And so the good young art was left mostly to the Chicagoans, who made a pretty good showing.
A place called Track House piqued a lot of interest. Proprietor Kim Mitseff runs a kind of shoestring residency program out on a couple of acres in Colorado, an operation she plans to keep going until Dec. 21, 2012, which, if you didn’t already know, is the day the Mayan calendar runs out. Mitseff had a nice picture on the wall that an artist named Rosy Keyser made out there in Colorado, an old-fashioned looking photograph of some oversaturated mountains, with diamonds improbably printed into the sky. Keyser’s untitled work is yours for $350, in an unlimited edition.
The Chicago gallery Western Exhibitions also turned out some treasures, literally with the works by Brooklyn artist Mark Wagner, who has made a minor practice of cutting up the almighty dollar and reassembling it into new images. The most successful of these, like Demon Dollar, $1,000, throw a fresh light on the graphical ritualism of the state, but without being smug about it.The Nova Art Fair
Running concurrently with Art Chicago was the second installment of the Nova Art Fair, Apr. 27-30, 2006, installed at the art deco-y City Suites Hotel. Smaller and more friendly, Nova is more suited to the current Chicago mood and market, I think. Visitors to the fair were greeted at the door by a big guy with a booming voice who turned out to be none other than Chicago artist Tony Fitzpatrick. A great, gregarious man, benevolent and endowed with persistence and talent, Fitzpatrick will tell you that his densely, intensely iconic pictures are allegories of Chicago, but to my mind it is he himself who best symbolizes the City of Big Shoulders.
Fitzpatrick’s Big Cat Press was exhibiting prints and drawings by local artists who had worked with him over the past 12 years, as well as a few of his own pictures. Tony’s work is well-known and rightly so; the work of his employee Michael Pajon was more of a surprise. Like Fitzpatrick, Pajon works in a folk idiom. His etchings share in the spirit of Kafka -- funny and with a strange, sickly vivacity, as in Captain Turk, which, as the name implies, depicts a nautical turkey in 19th-century garb.
NOVA was a Brooklyn event as much as Chicago one, since so many of the galleries came from the New York borough. Pierogi, which opened a new space in Liepzig on the same weekend, had its space packed with works on paper. A Dawn Clements doodle of Condi Rice a la Francis Bacon was a steal at $500, if you could stand to live with that mug.
For fans of dopey Republican visages, the Front Room Gallery, also of Brooklyn, had an impressive photograph of Times Square by Sean Hemmerle. One wouldn’t guess that such a conventional subject could add up to a provocative photograph, but Hemmerle has defied the odds. This work depicts a massive, pensive George Bush head on the Jumbotron electronic billboard, Blade Runner style. Overlooking the empty metropolis, Bush is clearly the head of state, though he doesn’t look like he wants to be there at all.
Hemmerle’s picture generates mixed unease. On the one hand, it brings home the menace of contemporary power, and on the other it makes clear that this is anything but an authoritarian regime -- the old familiar one-two punch of fear and guilt. The photo is big; it comes in both a "tall" edition of five and a "grande" edition of three, for $1,700 and $5,000, respectively.
More Brooklyn: Dam, Stuhltrager Gallery’s Loren Munk has revived Museum of Modern Art founding director Alfred Barr’s famous chart of modern art in his new paintings, but in the one on view at the fair he has reversed the equation and produced not a genealogy of Modernism, but of its hammy champion, Clement Greenberg. A great painting for reminding oneself how these crazy ideas get started, the work is priced at $4,800.
And as far as reflecting on the art world goes, however, nobody beats the art world’s own peddler, Eric Doeringer, who has been a kind of itinerant artist-salesman for several years, bringing a suitcase full of his knock-offs of high-profile works by major contemporary artists. Should Doeringer really be famous, like Sherrie Levine, or is his work kind of stupid? It’s unclear, but that’s the risk of it, and it’s just the right thing. I was inspired to take home a miniature Christopher Wool, and I got a gratis copy of Doeringer’s Matthew Barney fanzine to boot. Here’s a bit of its text:
Shifting his weight, the man on the stage widened his stance. He let out what seemed to be a deep muffled chant. Slowly and precisely, and to the astonishment of the onlookers, the man began to lower his testes. With exquisite control, a fraction of an inch at a time, the ball sack began to appear, and soon all could make out the sturdy outline of two massive balls.
"Only one man. . . ," thought Koons.
And as the balls descended, it became clear that ONE of the spheres was sporting a tiny mask! And no ordinary mask: it was clearly from a tiny replica of a classic Cremaster mask!
"Barney! Barney!" Koons began to chant, and soon the whole room was booming.
If Doeringer issues a challenge to stupidity and gross physicality, then that challenge is answered by artist Joe Sola, who gave a performance with two young men who had answered an ad Sola placed around town soliciting people who dislike contemporary art. The lads delivered to Sola, a fairly heavy guy, a powerful wedgy, hanging him from a hook in the wall. The onlookers giggled. This all took place at the booth of Miami’s Lemon Sky, which has recently closed its exhibition space and now focuses exclusively on fairs and artist projects like Sola’s wedgy.
What about California? The new Bert Green Fine Art from downtown Los Angeles was presenting glossy, high-production photographs of actors from Six Feet Under -- with their heads covered in shreds of photographs of their heads. HBO commissioned the work from photographer David Meanix, but Six Feet fans will recognize it as the art of Claire, from the episode where she has her first art show.
Bucheon Gallery from San Francisco brought some fine drawings by T. Marvel Hull to Chicago. Hull seems to be onto something valuable with his dystopic collages of what I’m guessing are Old School communists. One smaller work, titled Existential Crisis, is $650.
The long day wrapped up at Adobe Books Backroom Gallery from San Francisco, taking a rest among paintings by Alison Blickle, who, Backroom curator Eleanor Harwood says, "has recently fallen in love." Hence, the title on the image of the naked pretty girl on a bed, a self-portrait of the artist, is You Know I’m Yours First. What a world.
Congratulations are due to Harwood, who is opening her own San Francisco exhibition space at the end of summer, to be called the Eleanor Harwood Gallery. She brought out the champagne to celebrate in style when we were joined by Frank Haines, a former San Franciscan who has been in Chicago on a residency at the West Loop space Three Walls. Haines’ stay had culminated the week before with one of his intense, mystical performances.
I have known and admired Haines’ work for quite some time, but I had never met him, and so I had never realized how deeply sincere he is about his magic. I believe it now; half an hour in Haines’ company and I learned all I need to know about the magic societies of the Bay Area and Chicago, what it means to be a Taurus (Frank’s sign), and what to expect from the full moon.Chicago Galleries
Elsewhere in the West Loop there were considerable art goings on, as one might expect on a fair weekend. Kavi Gupta Gallery had on view a pair of loveable videos by Swedish artist Johanna Billings, whose Magical World, the much-lauded children’s choir performance of the Sydney Barnes song by the same name, is currently playing at P.S.1. Those who want to own the work, however, can see Gupta, who has priced it at $8,700 each, edition of six.
The gallery also has the artist’s newest work on view, a 15-minute-long vid titled Magic and Loss that shows a group of young adults speechlessly packing up an Amsterdam apartment. The work is quiet and materially satisfying, what with all that junk getting organized before one’s eyes. The characters work like ants, in synchrony and without verbal directions. No one seems to be in charge, so whose apartment is it? Where, after all, is the owner of all this stuff? One begins to consider death without quite realizing it has made its entrance, and the silence of the workers fills with weight -- but never with finality, as all of this is only imagined.
Billing’s Magical World faced stiff, and no doubt unwitting, competition from local artist D’nell Larson at Bodybuilder & Sportsman. Her video, Close Your Eyes and Think of Me, features her parents in their chintzy basement recording studio doing hits by Mazzy Starr, Joy Division, Nirvana and The Cure. As in Billings’ piece, these tunes were picked by the artist, but Larson’s work uses the grace of realism to its advantage, as Larson’s parents are actually professional wedding singers, and covering recent hits is de rigueur in their real lives. Where Billings had to mold her event from the raw material of a Croat after-school program, Larson simply turned the camera on her folks, made a few requests and started taping. You may bring the Larsons into your home for $2,000, in an edition of five.
Wendy Cooper Gallery is exhibiting new works by Chicago artist Sabrina Raaf, large, cinematic photographs in which bodies seem to defy gravity, like in Levitated, a mammoth (86 x 28 in.) image in an edition of seven, priced at $3,000. Suggesting something like Stanley Kubrick crossed with Sam Taylor-Wood, Raaf’s panoramic photographs of elegant condominium living are made with the help of a film stunt company -- more evidence, if any is needed, of how photography’s budget has soared in the recent past.
Fantasy pictures were borne by more humble materials at Bucket Rider Gallery. Painted on what appears to be torn-up driftwood, Sarah Cromarty’s new works depict livid tropical paradises, as if rendered from life by a castaway with whatever material supports were at hand. But the castaway would have to have had a craft shop on the back side of the island, for each of these works is dressed up like a hussy with glitter, cheap embroidery, hanging beads and dyed feathers. Cromanty is an assistant to Jim Shaw, and it is clear that she has picked up the essence of Shaw’s blend of auteur craftsmanship and polyester visions. Her works run from around $2,000 to $3,100, with some collages in the $500 range.
The weekend ended at the University of Chicago, my home turf, with the Renaissance Society opening of Berlin-based Mai-Thu Perret’s Apocalypse Ballet. Five papier-mâché female figures dressed in new-age outfits and wigs, armed with neon rings, are scattered across the space, frozen in a choreographic tableau. Though they are dressed, these figures aren’t like mannequins; they are clumsily constructed ("sausage-like," the artist called them), hand-made and so declare themselves to be sculpture. The installation includes a giganticized aluminum teapot, opened by a door in its side and decorated on the interior by a few small pattern paintings on wooden panels.
Perret’s work deserves serious attention, but it doesn’t demand it. Tracing the sources of each element of the piece entails traversing a wide swath of 20th-century Western culture. The overall composition comes from Perret’s fictional writings, where she has developed her imaginings of a contemporary women’s commune in Borgesian style, by writing entries of their journals. The neon rings come from a Busby Berkeley film; the dress of her figures come from the Futurists; and the shape of the teapot from the Bauhaus.
But we are discouraged from getting too serious about all this archeology. The work is glib, like the artist herself, and its most interesting quality is not what these appropriations add up to, but how they deconstruct our expectations of appropriation itself. As the Perret herself put it, "We probably make too much about knowing where things come from." Indeed, the sentiment rings true as the spirit of our artistic times.
Perret’s work, then, does not siphon the authority of History by referring to it. It is rather an effort to relieve some of history’s weight, to dissolve its stubborn fixity back into the primordial sludge of the present moment.
ABRAHAM ORDEN writes on art from Chicago.