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.
Here’s what’s got my attention, web-wise, so far this week:
*San Diego Museum of Art director Derrick R. Cartwright appointed director of the Seattle Art Museum.
*Art Institute of Chicago director James Cuno hopes to initiate massive fundraising drive for free Museum admission.
*No Boys Allowed: yearlong exhibition at the Pompidou Center is for women-only.
*Scope Basil is only three weeks ago away, and still ‘aint got no permit.
*”I spent a year asking why the contemporary art bubble was the biggest, bubbliest bubble of them all”: Ben Lewis’ The Great Contemporary Art Bubble preview clip on YouTube ( ART21′s Ben Street has a funny post on the film too).
*Speaking of Twitter, it could be coming to a t.v. near you.
*Beautiful/Decay needs YOU to help pick the theme for its next limited-edition publication. Winner gets a copy of the book. For free!
Mahan Gallery owner/director Jacqueline Mahan and her associate director Colleen Grennan are both art fair newbies, or at least they were before participating in NEXT this past weekend. Mahan Gallery, which is widely regarded as one of the best galleries for younger contemporary artists in Columbus, Ohio, has been open for almost five years. At NEXT, their booth featured the paintings and drawings of Ric Ocasek (yes, that Ric Ocasek).
On Monday, the last day of the fair, I asked Grennan to share some thoughts about her experience at NEXT/Art Chicago.
How did you like NEXT? Was it a positive experience for you?
Definitely. We’ve been able to meet and network with so many galleries that we hadn’t made personal physical contact with before now. (After being open for five years) we’re finally at a level where we felt we could contribute something to an art fair. Being here has kind of broken a psychological barrier for us. We’ve learned so much about what other galleries are doing, about new artists that are out there. It’s been a learning process – we overpacked artwork, for one thing. We’re learning where to stay, what to do, how to effectively network. Jacquie and I were both able to see what other galleries were doing and I think it will give us the courage to do even more challenging exhibitions ourselves.
Were you happy with your sales?
Our sales were really low. We did sell some work but definitely did not cover what we paid to get here. Sales seem to have been low with everyone we talked to. One dealer told us in past years, booths would sell out at the preview. So (the sales end of things) was a disappointment to us.
Were you able to go to any of the talks, panels and discussions?
I was able to go to two talks, and I found them both to be valuable. This fair is about the young and the new, so we see it as an opportunity to immerse ourselves and just soak up everything it had to offer.
What kind of response did Ric Ocasek’s work receive?
“Is that Ric Ocasek from the Cars? Wow, I didn’t know he was an artist!” That was always the first reaction. This fair, and his April show at our gallery, are the first times he’s ever shown his work publically, so there is always some initial surprise. Then people would get into the work and get excited about seeing this person that they know as a musician in terms of his work as a visual artist. People could make connections with him in new ways.
So what do you think you’ll take away from your experience here?
Personally it’s made me think a lot about how to engage local audiences and a larger national audience at the same time. We’re ready for that next step as a gallery and being here has given us the opportunity to think about how to position ourselves and to get our name on the map outside of Columbus.
Rarely have I felt the sting of my own digital poverty to the degree that I did today, my first day at Art Chicago, which would have been so much more pleasant had I not been lugging a flippin’ laptop around for hours (I thought they’d have wi fi in the press room and I could blog every so often while on -the-go, but alas, there were no such free connections, and so my laptop was about as useful to me as the proverbial ton of bricks and quickly starting feeling that way). Rendering me even more the unwieldy dinosaur was the fact that I do not presently own an iPhone or similar small multipurpose lightweight phone and texting device that would allow me to Tweet my reactions to things on the spot, which would have saved time on the front end of things (or is that the back end? I don’t even know, I’m so tired right now) and now that I’m home I don’t have the energy to fully recap everything I saw in a manner that will do it all justice. Oh and did I mention that I also don’t have my digital camera at the moment? Yeah. An iPhone would have helped with that too.
But apart from all that I thought NEXT was pretty great, and I spent my day exclusively there on the 7th floor of the Merchandise Mart, with plans to “do” the Art Chicago portion tomorrow (the latter being the part devoted to the more established galleries, while Next focuses on up-and-comers, emerging artists, the fresh and the new, etc.).
Art Chicago is extremely well-run and I thought the floor devoted to Next looked terrific. Clean, bright, and surprisingly spacious booths for the exhibitors. I felt like I could breathe and actually look at things, tho this, as with all Fairs, isn’t the place to try and digest too many big ideas. This was my first time at Art Chicago, but they had plenty of super nice Mart employees stationed right when you walk in to guide everyone to the right place with hardly a blip of initial confusion. The first thing I did after checking in (and pouting internally about the lack of wi fi) was zoom to the 7th floor to catch the first panel scheduled for that day, “Crisis and Opportunity: Programming and Exhibitions in the New Economy,” which was part of the “CONVERGE Chicago: Contemporary Curators Forum” program.
I loved the set-up for NEXT Talk Shop, the area devoted to the panels and discussions. It’s basically a lounge, with rows of chairs facing the speakers but some comfy couches and tables towards the side. It’s not in a separate room but totally open to the rest of everything else, so that it’s easy to drop in late or leave early without causing offense or undue commotion. A perfect way to stage these sorts of discussions in this context. The Crisis and Opportunity panel was great, and if I have the energy later on I’ll post bullet points from the presentations and discussion, but I would encourage everyone attending the fair to check out at least one of the panel discussions scheduled in the NEXT Talk Shop area — it’s comfy, the audio and visuals are working well, the speaker line up is fantastic, and it provides a nice sort of palette cleanser in between all the frenzy of the visual.
Except, NEXT isn’t really frenzied at all, and that’s what is so refreshing about it. I expect it will be a lot more crowded tomorrow and there were certainly plenty of people there today, but the booths were all concisely curated, and each focused on only one or two artists rather than the full slew of what a gallery has to offer. Don’t miss the Goffo section of NEXT, which had a really fun, laid-back yet energized feel to it. There were a lot of great, ultra-affordable artworks, books, prints and small editioned pieces. Also in the Goffo section was Tara Strickstein’s Jelly Roll: The Spectacle, which involved a cute girl (was in the artist herself? not sure) wrestling various volunteer (?) participants in a rubber pool filled with some type of silicone crystals. Scoops of the sweat-soaked, hair and skin-coated crystals were bottled after each performance and sold as multiples, although I neglected to ask for how much.
Once I get my hands on a camera I may go back and photograph some of the booths, but for now here are just a few of the artists whose work caught my eye in a good way, in no particular order. Consider this just a teeny slice of what there is to see (all of the images below are lifted, but these are the actual works that are on view at NEXT right now).
Ben Gest at Steven Daiter Gallery
Jesse McLean, “Somewhere Only We Know,” (6 min. video), part of Gallery 400′s special project for NEXT, “Better to light a candle than curse the dark.”
Carlos & Jason Sanchez, Light + Sie Gallery
John Sparagana at CTRL Houston (he has a piece up at Tony Wight Gallery right now, too):
Sangbin Im at Dean Project
Florian Sussmayr, Nicholas Robinson Gallery, New York