For those who haven’t been before, Chicago is singularly solid, clanking, and built-up; population-wise it ranks in the country’s top three, and in atmosphere it is certainly a Great American City. In the Chicago district near the Expo site, the subway crawls between the rectangular masses of buildings at second floor height, sporadically flashing blue sparks at them; thousands of office windows stare at each other.
The city’s art fair, Expo Chicago, this year in its fifth edition, is contrastingly light amid this overbearing environment. It is inside the Festival Hall on the Navy Pier, which stretches its pedestrian walkway out into Lake Michigan with a ferris wheel, restaurants and boat-tour docks; especially at night, it is a scene straight out of an architect’s rendering for public space. The fair occupies one floor of the Hall with (this year) a very manageable 145 galleries. The list shows no particular bias other than a majority of mid-level American galleries ranging from Chicago locals (for example, Corbett vs. Dempsey, The Mission, and Rhona Hoffman), to Minneapolis, San Francisco, and twelve that are based in LA. There is a small sprinkling of big names (David Zwirner, Daniel Templon, Paul Kasmin, Marlborough, Pace, Perrotin and Matthew Marks) and some edgier offerings from New York (Team Gallery, Bortolami, Maccarone, Salon 94), as well as a couple of engaging booths from further afield (The Breeder, Athens; GRIMM, Amsterdam). The layout is low key and linear, with a rather flat VIP area (in which Rashid Johnson’s works—wooden chairs with blocks of shea butter on their seats—stand awkwardly at neck-height on big white box plinths), and a lifeless (at least during the preview) magazines area along the back wall. The Editions and Books section at the other end is contrastingly good, if quite limited.
The general impression from the fair’s content is of a lot of highly colored painting—if not all of it bombastic, then much is still over-charged. What this does serve usefully to do is to make clear a small number of pieces that are really worth a close look; at least to this pair of eyes, there are some real treasures to be found, some of relatively modest size or status and which feel fairly unusual in the context of a fair. San Francisco’s Crown Point Press has a truly arresting etching from an edition of ten by Bruce Conner (“Dennis Hopper One Man Show Vol. III, Image VI”, 1971–73) in which tiny figures scale a snowy, mountainous landscape depicted in brilliant chiaroscuro. It takes some moments to notice eyes open in the jagged spine of rock running up the middle of the composition. At Alexander Gray Associates there is a metal sculpture by Melvin Edwards, “Good Friends in Chicago” (1972), with half oil-drum-shaped ends and slim trestle legs.
Very surprising is the collection of Roy Lichtenstein work at Alden Projects’ booth which includes a flattened-out paper cup design, a “Foot Medication Poster” from 1963, and a framed patch of used wallpaper from 1968. Nearly 50 years later the foil is cracked, but the dots are resiliently intact. Seen at both Jane Lombard Gallery and Rhona Hoffman are works by Michael Rakowitz. At Jane Lombard, a mini-exhibition from the current series May the Obdurate Foe Not Stay in Good Health contains small works coupled with quotations and recollections. The objects, made from the packaging of Syrian foods imported to the US which are increasingly hard to buy in Syria, are reconstructions of artefacts destroyed, looted or at risk amid the civil war. This is an extension of the project “The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist”, compiled in cooperation with the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute and Interpol’s website, which in turn recreates objects stolen from the National Museum of Iraq after the US invasion in 2003. Not at a gallery but at the Chicago Conservation Center’s side booth is a large vertical graphite and oil wash drawing by Mauricio Lasansky. One of The Nazi Drawings (#19) made in the 1960s, its brutal composition appears gradually, with a naked figure attacked by the harshly-rendered bodies of birds, each a rash of hard lines.
Appealing among the technicolored paintings at the fair is Hernan Bas’s “Who the hell is Robert” (2016), which has a Vuillard feel (at Galerie Peter Kilchmann). Martin Wong’s work, too, is here with P.P.O.W from New York. James Cohan declined to bring any Xu Zhen, whose paintings from the cake-frosting-like series Under Heaven are by now an art fare staple, but did show two Anselm Kiefer works. Of these, “Untitled (Secret Life of Plants)” (2004) is absorbing, its foreground dominated by a deeply cracked clay surface while grey, boxlike towers lilt in the background to the right.
Expo Chicago falls this year at one of the most politically-charged moments in US history. The fair, doesn’t obviously register this—one might say “of course”—unless a proliferation of saturated paintings speaks of escapism. The sales, perhaps, will tell; or not. Meanwhile, the Trump Tower protrudes to a height of ninety-eight glassy floors, just up river.