“IT SMELLS like the late ’80s!” dealer Christopher D’Amelio beamed last weekend. Two days ahead of the opening of EXPO Chicago, he was experiencing a delightful déjà vu. We were at the home of collectors Marilyn and Larry Fields, discussing galleries like White Cube that were returning to the fair after a hiatus. Outside, Lake Michigan shimmered. Inside, dealers circled around the Fields’ collection, turn-by-turn seeking audience with the hosts. It was a convivial atmosphere in which to celebrate the city and its signature art-world event. Four years into director Tony Karman’s revamped fair, it was still hard to shake a certain nostalgia for the days when the only competition was Art Basel and Art Cologne. But who wants to go back in time when the present looks so propitious?
Later that evening, at an opening for Kerstin Brätsch’s marbled, psychedelic paintings at the Arts Club of Chicago, I asked Gavin Brown why he wasn’t participating in the fair. He zipped his lips in response. Clearly answers weren’t going to be easy. So the next afternoon, when I came upon a giant inflated speech bubble with the word TRUTH spelled in black bold letters outside the fair’s entrance at Navy Pier, it seemed like a well-placed joke. For this project, artists Hank Willis Thomas, Jim Ricks, and Ryan Alexiev were inviting the public to record two-minute videos beginning with the words “The truth is…” In merry juxtaposition, on the fair’s second floor Tricia Van Eck of 6018 North had installed Rodrigo Lara Zendejas’s Chapel featuring artists as saints. Confession anyone?
At EXPO’s opening, visitors weren’t exactly clamoring for attention, but crowds did form around a few key booths. Dealer Monique Meloche had a steady stream of inquiries, as artist Ebony G. Patterson gave an interview about coffins made of patches of colorful textile last seen in Basel. At David Zwirner, D’Amelio rushed back and forth from the storage closet. Dealer Kavi Gupta tried to orchestrate a crowd in the midst of an impromptu tour in his booth, somewhat overwhelmed as he beckoned two assistants on standby.
Nearly half of the participants from last year were gone, replaced by new heavyweights such as Pearl Lam. Chicago galleries like Western Exhibitions, Volume Gallery, Regards, and Aspect/Ratio that had opted out of prior iterations joined in this year, along with the newly opened Patron. Veterans and arrivistes alike were hung salon style at the exceptional booth shared by Chicago’s Corbett vs. Dempsey and the New York–based David Nolan, but overall patterns remained the same: New York still had the strongest representation, young galleries had a section to themselves, the city’s educational institutions had their own area, selected artist projects were dotted throughout the maze, and prominent dealers were mostly clustered around the entrance. Except perhaps for Wendi Norris, who was, as she put it, “gentrifying the neighborhood” of secondary market dealers.
Daniel Buren was taking over the fair. Eighteen of his blue, orange, and pink Plexiglas panels were suspended from a clearing at the center. A blue-and-white striped piece stood by the discussion hall where the artist gave a hefty talk that weekend, and signature works occupied walls at White Cube and Bortolami Gallery. His cascading sheets served as a compass: I used them to find my way back to Koenig & Clinton to see Ulrich Rückriem’s quiet floor sculptures and CRG Gallery for Tom LaDuke’s mysterious paintings. Other highlights included Haroon Mirza’s work at Lisson Gallery, Solar Symphony – Sunlight Infinato, comprising solar panels with blinking lights and a vivid buzzing sound. Among Galerie Thomas Schulte’s well-considered selection, Idris Khan’s photos of repetition and erasure stood out. Deana Lawson at Rhona Hoffman as well as Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys’s stuffed figures at Isabella Bortolozzi offered compelling contemporary takes on portraiture. Final mention: David Rueter and Marissa Lee Benedict’s Dark Fiber at Chicago Artists’ Coalition, a somewhat frightening video of a cable being laid across seas, deserts, and snow. The weirdest experience? Sitting on a furry stool by the Haas Brothers at R & Company and being urged to “feel its balls.”
This year, Karman invited twenty-odd curators from the Midwest and elsewhere in the US, from institutions as varied as the Whitney and the Columbus Museum of Art, all of whom brought along their boards. Karman pulled in star power too. Hans Ulrich Obrist made an appearance at a heartwarming panel featuring Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, and Karl Wirsum from the Hairy Who. Meanwhile, Chicago’s institutions were taking EXPO week very seriously. The cliché we heard echoed about the city’s “collaborative spirit” was indeed true, but perhaps it was a little too much for any diligent viewer.
Everyone put their best face forward, installing new shows for the incoming crowd. The School of the Art Institute, which was celebrating its 150th anniversary, had multiple exhibitions opening over the weekend at its Sullivan galleries. Faculty member Matt Siber put up photographs of the undersides of billboards at DePaul Art Museum, while professors Seth Kim-Cohen and Laura Davis took over Threewalls. With a new architecture biennial opening in October, architectural form took center stage in Barbara Kasten’s show at the august Graham Foundation and artist Katarina Burin’s presentation of the work of Petra Andrejova-Molnár, curated by Jacob Proctor for the Neubauer Collegium. Meanwhile the Renaissance Society celebrated its one-hundredth anniversary with Irena Haiduk’s creepy mannequins and sound piece on the complicated desire around revolution.
Galleries were open late on Friday for Art After Hours, among them Kavi Gupta, who was showing Jessica Stockholder’s scattered sculptures—a piano on the ground here, a fridge on the wall there. One of the more “sensational events of 2015” took place that night at a gala at the Art Institute—tickets priced at $350 and $1000—to celebrate a retrospective of British architect David Adjaye, anticipating commissions from the likes of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Okwui Enwezor and Thelma Golden and artists Chris Ofili and Lorna Simpson were flown in for the occasion.
But if there was one place to be that weekend it was Rebuild Foundation and Theaster Gates’s opening benefit at the Stony Island Arts Bank. US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker was joined by collectors Eric and Liz Lefkofsky, Adjaye, Enwezor, Ofili, and Simpson—a testament to Gates’s pull. Whether one is a champion or a critic, the extraordinary impact of Gates’s efforts must be acknowledged. Here we were in one of Chicago’s most neglected neighborhoods in a neoclassical building that had been abandoned for three decades, and which Gates has revamped entirely in the hope that it will be an exhibition space, house music venue, or “a nursery, or a soup kitchen,” as needed. As Gates spoke about his vision—first in a British accent, then in an American one—his volume gathered strength. “Amazing things can happen in the black community!” he said, finally shouting, “All these people on the South Side!”