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Close it, sell it, MAKE SOmeTHING new
by Pedro Vélez
Last year I gave Art Chicago a favorable review. It was a fun, hot, classy mess -- the Rachel Zoe of art fairs. To be honest and fair, you have to show Merchandise Mart chief Chris Kennedy some respect: the man is trying hard to rehab the brand. However, this time around Art Chicago reminded me of Hollywood actor Nick Nolte: very confused and resting in his laurels.

So, what went wrong? Well, you can only beat a dead horse for so long. Although art fairs are commercial ventures, if you marinate them in urban shopping mall mentality and subtract elitism from the concoction, they become State Fairs. Consequently, Art Chicago had an indecent amount of filler spaces and boutique galleries. And though entrance was free of charge and the fair was well attended, which would sound like a positive thing, dealers complained that foot traffic didn’t consist of influential people or "cultured types."

Kevin Van Gorp (former assistant director at Miami’s Kevin Bruk Gallery) noticed another problem: scared art dealers! "There is no money in the first place, and everyone knows it. So, if you know you're not going to sell, that should free you up to do something legitimate or innovative, which in turn will perhaps lead you to some critical appraisal." His rant resonated with another hot topic of conversation during the weekend: Chicago should forget its art-fair dreams and focus instead on the idea of building an international Triennial.

Art Chicago 2010
One of the strongest presentations at Art Chicago was at  David Klein Gallery from Birmingham, Mich., who specializes in postwar American art and featured works Richard Artschwager, Sam Francis and Liz Cohen, the artist who posed as a pinup with her very own customized Trabant. Artschwager’s 1995 crate sculpture, Untitled (sh-3), was priced at $45,000. Liz Cohen’s iconic Bodywork Hood (2006), from an edition of five, was $10,000. Cohen was present in the booth, having driven all the way to Chicago from Detroit. I was starstruck and pleasantly surprised to see her in this context, since I consider her one of the most important transgressive artists of our generation. 

Another steal for collectors -- inexplicably, it was still available Sunday -- was a large oil-on-linen monochrome by Jamie Adams priced at $30,000 at Philip Slein Gallery from St. Louis. Titled jeanniebigbed (2009), it’s a exquisitely realist grisaille homage to Jean Seberg (of Godard’s Breathless), which has her in bed studying the contortions of two other women, or perhaps they’re alternate versions of herself.

At Haunch of Venison -- the Christie’s-owned gallery’s first foray in an art fair -- the feeling was festive. "Got things brewing, whether the brew becomes drinkable is questionable," said one of the suits standing in front of James Rosenquist’s 1947-1948-1950 (1960), offered at $950,000. Across the aisle, White Cube seemed busy, until I discovered the staff just wasn’t interested in talking to anyone. I gave it my best, tried several times, but they kept pretending to look feverously at their computer screens, as if oblivious to the universe.

Other standouts at Art Chicago included Philip Guston’s The Sculptor’s Shoe (1975) at Mark Borghi from New York, and a small cut-aluminum portrait of a red-headed Runaways-style rocker by Alex Katz titled Anne (1978) at Michigan’s Hill Gallery.

The NEXT fair
NEXT still has flair and promise, although it was significantly smaller and less ambitious. Sadly, the highly anticipated "Spanish Edge: Spanish Art in Context" section had no context at all. It was, pretty much, galleries grouped in booths, just like at any art fair.

Milwaukee’s Club Nutz ("the smallest comedy club on earth") stole the show with its constant programming of 15-minute acts by a range of different performers. The place was always packed and loud. I caught a good show featuring Ben Stone’s free-standing wooden robot, which told robot jokes in a typical robot voice.

Brooklyn’s Like the Spice was also always busy, and featured impressive photo realist paintings by Jenny Morgan, whose process involves sanding down the surfaces of her works to create strange spots and marks that help give her subjects psychological depth. Gallery director Marisa Sage seemed happy with sales -- works were priced at $2,000-$9,000.

Other standouts at NEXT: Sebastian Vallejo’s collaged paintings at Lloyd Dobbler from Chicago; Laura Ortíz’ painstaking thread-and-wax renderings of actual graffiti at Antena Estudio from Mexico City; small drawings by Saul Aguirre at Antena Gallery from Chicago.

Also cool: Tyler Cuffley’s collages at Bauer Ridgway (San Francisco); and custom-made poems for a voluntary donation by Zach Houston at Poemstore from Oakland.

Around Chicago
As for parallel events and exhibitions, the only one that stood out was the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s "MFA Show" at the Sullivan Galleries. You can see some highlights on my twitter page.

So, what should Chicago do now? I am going to side with the majority here: Close Art Chicago for good; sell Next; and let us build a world class triennial.

PEDRO VÉLEZ is an artist and critic living in Chicago