Last weekend, as I wandered around 2011′s iteration of Art Chicago–now value-added with crunchy nuggets of NEXT!!–I came to the odd realization that I now feel more “of” Chicago’s visual art scene than outside of it, and as a result I am starting to lose what’s always been precious to me: my ability to call shit as I see it, regardless of who I might offend. I really want Art Chicago and NEXT to succeed because I want the galleries and artists who live in Chicago and who partake of the commercial system to thrive and to prosper. So let’s think of the forthcoming assessment of this year’s combined Art Chicago/NEXT fairs as the ‘If You Don’t Have Anything Nice To Say…’ report, because I feel like I have to emphasize the positive, in the face of what I personally experienced as mostly negative. I will say this: I sincerely hope that Karen Archey’s info on ArtInfo is accurate, and that Art Chicago/NEXT’s 2011′s participating exhibitors did indeed sell the shit out of their wares, because I saw not much other purpose to it all other than successfully doing just that. To be sure, commerce is what art fairs are all about, but it doesn’t hurt if you throw a little ‘shock of the new’ at people while you are selling the aforementioned crap out of it. In the two previous years of this fair that I have attended I saw a fair amount of interesting experimental projects and a slew of lively–and just as important, timely–public conversations thrown into the mix, along with some stupid stuff like Jell-o wrestling and teeny tiny DIY-comedy clubs–projects that felt amateurish and ad hoc and yet whose purpose, I realize now in retrospect, was to remind people, in a kind of ‘have another beer and you’ll see what I mean’ kind of way, that it was the art fair context itself that was truly ridiculous. That kind of silliness was mostly absent from NEXT this year, and I, for one, missed it.
This year’s fair merged NEXT’s presentations of galleries focused on emerging artists with the more established Art Chicago vendors, now shown side-by-side on the same floor. This was no doubt an economic decision, but it had a deadening effect overall, with NEXT’s galleries not surprisingly suffering the worst from it. Whereas in previous years NEXT (and its high-energy GOFFO sub-section) provided a breath of fresh air along with some genuinely good art, this year the NEXT booths were slotted into a section on Floor 12 and thus became pretty much indistinguishable from their coiffed and business-suited elder brethren. I barely felt the presence of GOFFO this year. Proximity to Art Chicago seemed to implicitly encourage all the NEXT booths to play it safe and be on their best behavior, and while this somewhat more formal atmosphere may have benefited larger commercial galleries like Kavi Gupta or Western Exhibitions it made the work in booths from smaller alternative spaces/projects like LVL3 or ACRE feel less adventurous than they might have otherwise. On the other hand, some of the best paintings I saw at NEXT were by a Canadian artist named Beth Stuart at the aforementioned LVL3 booth, and my ability to hone in on said paintings in relative quietude no doubt benefited from the fact that there wasn’t some crazy-ass parade marching up and down the aisles to distract me. So I guess that legitimacy thing works both ways.
Overall I thought Art Chicago suffered even moreso from what it usually suffers from: ‘over the couch’ syndrome, i.e. too many mediocre paintings and photographs, all of reasonable size and ‘striking’ visual impact to hang as an appropriate ‘statement piece’ over the living room couch. Archey characterized a lot of the Art Chicago work as having a “sci-fi transhumanist” feel to it, and I’d have to agree. As I wandered about I started playing a little game with myself: what if someone took a digital image of every painting and photograph in both Art Chicago and NEXT and then layered them, Jason Salavon-style — what would this quintessential work of fair art look like? Pretty much like any number of the paintings that were already hanging on the walls, I concluded. There was also an odd, images-encased-in-glass, plexiglas, and/or resin trend running through the fair which greatly disturbed me. Two examples follow–the first is blood encased in glass, the second is drinking straws sculpted in the forms of lips and eyes and then encased in glass–although there were countless additional works of this type that I didn’t photograph:
I think I’ll just sum up the rest of the fair–my personal take on it, anyway–Best/Worst style, as follows:
Best non-Chicago booth at NEXT: I’d give this to Charlie James Gallery, a commercial space located on Chung King Road in L.A. James seems to have brought his A-Game with this booth, and also showed a variety of artists–I especially liked Ala Ebtekar’s collage drawings and Libby Black’s built-to-charm, paper and hot-glue versions of roller skates and opera glasses. Nothing terribly deep here, but all the work looked sharp, sellable, and smart–everything that a good art fair showcase should be.
A for Effort Award: to Robert Berman Gallery, for making a good-looking, focused booth that (presumably) sold the shit out of Shepard Fairey’s album cover art. Obey, indeed.
Shepard Fairey album cover art at Robert Berman Booth, Art Chicago 2011.
Best Chicago booth at NEXT: I thought they all did a great job, but I’d say a tie between LVL3 and Post Family. LVL3 for its super-”on it” presentation of works–all were strong, and they all looked great together, and Post Family for showcasing the collective’s usual sense of flair in a visually engaging yet uncompromised manner. (Bad photo, sorry!).
Work most likely to be impulse-purchased at NEXT: Sandow Birk and Elyse Pignolet’s print duo, “A Conservative Map of the World,” 2011, and “A Liberal Map of the World,” 2011, both archival pigment prints that could be had for the set at $3900, courtesy of the above-mentioned Charlie James Gallery. A huge crowd-pleaser, and genuinely amusing.
Best Chicago booth at Art Chicago: this is a tough one, but I’ll go with Carl Hammer Gallery. They gave a lovely presentation with terrific examples of works by gallery artists such as Joseph Yoakum and Roger Brown. The full package, elegantly presented.
The ‘Where the Heck Were They??’ Award: Shared by Rhona Hoffman and Tony Wight.
Worst Art-Making Trend: the above-mentioned bodies, body parts, and viscera-encased-in-glass works seen throughout the fair.
Best Attempt to Do Something Different: Team Art!’s ongoing auction/destruction performance, in which any work of art that didn’t sell during its auction slot was immediately hacked to bits. Maybe not the freshest idea in the world, but the participating artists felt genuine pain at the destruction of their works (which included a preponderance of sad-eyed kitty cats and doggies, natch), while my own refusal to save the life of a threatened work filled me with a real, albeit fleeting, sense of guilt. Like I said before, it was the kind of silliness that effectively pointed to the larger sense of silliness that surrounded us all.