Art Letter

April 2005 Archives


We've got art fairs coming out our ears. But are they any good?

Art Chicago has moved from Navy Pier where the quality of the show, number of exhibitors and audience have been atrophying for years. Now located at Butler Field (home of the Petrillo Bandshell) this is a decent fair, despite Thomas Blackman Associates' best efforts to further ruin what was once the best art fair in the land. 

I exhibited in fairs organized by Thomas Blackman for over 20 years. Not only do I know most of the galleries and dealers who have stood by him as he implodes his Titanic; and I also know the carpenters, painters and electricians who install his shows. The trades people are complaining about the workload and having to finish their work with the exhibitors already present. They segue smoothly into discussions about Blackman's bounced checks, being kicked out of Navy Pier for nonpayment and about the many trade companies who won't work for him because he still owes them money.

Inside the tent yesterday, less than 24 hours before the public gets in, there is 3 days of work to do. 

There are two types of exhibitors setting up their booths. They are all True Believers.  A positive attitude abounds.  There are either newbies who've wanted in this show for years and now that Blackman has essentially begged exhibitors to come many are thrilled to be in what was once a really good show. They believe in their art.  They love their art and they want to talk to you about it. They are decidedly not commercial. For them it is love, not commerce. And for me that is a wonderful breath of fresh air. (Art fairs have gotten to be a soulless conglomerate of oozing, hustling purveyors pretending to care about snake oil.)  The naive newbies' positive attitude make these show very worth attending.

And then there are the loyalists, the ones somnambulating in their booths, standing by their "captain" as the ship sinks.

This is an inconstant show, incredibly smaller than ever before. I went around three times trying to get my fill.  And now there are glass galleries exhibiting, and a heavy number of print publishers (I wonder if they know something the rest of us don't.) And the newbies.  There is some bad art, a little good art, next to no cutting edge or school-of-what's-happening-now art, a fair number of old friends like Stuart Davis, the remote Victor Pasmore and some Picasso linocuts, and some young, fun artists.

This isn't a bad show. It's just that it used to be so damned good and important to Chicago and even America and now it is competing with street fairs for relevance. [Two other opinions: One and Two, see April 28, 2005]

The Chicago Contemporary and Classic Art Fair, at Navy Pier, pushed me to words I've never used for art: despicable, drek, and horrendous. This show is an insult to taste, aesthetics, quality, commerce and common sense. Organized by Ilana Vardy, who worked for Thomas Blackman for many years, her show, like his, is a failed effort at commercial success. In this fair, the Contemporary is not compatible with the Classic (and here Classic means third rate, derivative "painting.") They just clash - sort of like Mexican wrestling matches.  But here we just feel the pain and not the humor. Unlike the True Believers at Art Chicago the majority of the dealers here aren't here to educate you, or even to share their enthusiasm, they're here to get their hand in and out of your pocket as fast as they can. And they are failing. They don't have the goods - most of this stuff looks like tourist hotel art or maybe the garbage that is sold in front of Montmartre except they try in this show to validate it with a fancy frame.

There's clearly an internal debate going on between being a commercial success or a quality show. It may be marginally successful commercially once but it won't be missed if we don't see it again.

There are a few exceptions.  a limited number of artists have been invited to present one-person installations and a couple of them are good.

Furthermore, though I don't think I saw any gallery that had a knockout booth, there were a very few wonderful pieces like a Wilfredo Lam at Aldo Castillo's booth (a Chicago gallery). And I'm intrigued by Rusty Scruby's work at Pan American Gallery, and installations by Buzz Spector and Michele Brody, but clearly these were anomalies.

Over in River West is the NOVA Young Art Fair.  This place is fun, vibrating with positive energy, exuberance, fun art, silly art and some fantastic art, some in a tent and some in a building that looks like it is either ready for, or in the middle of, being rehabbed.

I like that the show says it is about 'young art" instead of by "young artists." I think that is an important distinction.  I'm tired of the flushing out of "emerging artists." There's been so much emphasis on emerging that a large number should just submerge. It is quite difficult for an artist to break out of that emerging pool and into the mainstream, for today's "art collector" has focused on the minnows and not the pond.

What distinguishes this show, besides the detritus, is that it has given space directly to artists, instead of solely to galleries, though there is a section for them too.

Lou Mallozzi and Sandra Binion are not what I'd call young, but their art is.  Each pushes at the boundaries, the restraints and explores nonlinear thought. And sometimes it's really good.  I guess from where I sit Sabrina Raaf is young. I've liked her work for a long time and she's developed a strong track record.  I learn and grow from her work.

And then there's a rash of fun stuff, like a huge cross made from picture hangers, or a chandelier made from rope hangman's nooses.

The show looks to have a lot of promise. I was there yesterday afternoon and it opens tonight. This is a first effort for Michael Workman, editor, publisher, and bullmoose looney of Bridge Magazine.  And like many first efforts, this one is optimistic and innocent. There is a diary of Workman's experience online. A lot of work remained to be done yesterday, but artists have long done whatever's been necessary to get their art out and one more all-nighter looked mandatory, which is also to say that I'm eager to go back to see if they got the work up, the space clean and the exhibit rockin'. I'm betting on yes. [Edit: After going to the opening I think the show is sketchy - a partial success.]

My overall opinion about these art fairs is that they should just give up - especially the first two. (NOVA is really just tagging on and likely wouldn't exist if these other two wanna-be-big shows weren't around.)  Blackman and Vardy charge over $4000 per each 10 x 12 foot portion of a booth, plus more for lights and inclusion in the catalog. An exhibitor could easily pay $40000 to either show and this does not count freight, transportation and lodging.  By my math the organizers get ten times more money from booth rental than they do from attendance.  They are not motivated to attract attendees (though they sure should). They've been motivated to maximize the moment and their myopia generates a poorer show each year.  They are not about growing their audience, developing a market, augmenting their community or 98% percent of the things they should be.  My belief is that they should apologize and go away - after they pay their bills.

I would like to see nothing for a year and then I'd like for us to band together and pick up on Julie Walsh's idea to create The Chicago Biennial. I find this much more exciting, relevant and forward thinking.  I know lots of museums, collectors and people who want to come to Chicago and want to see good art. I'm interested in getting them back - but an art fair isn't going to do it.

The galleries around River West have spruced up too, some even having openings last night (a Wednesday).  Unequivocally the best exhibit I saw was by
Jeff Carter at Kavi Gupta Galllery.  Maybe this isn't for everyone. This is art about art - a look at the pretense, the vocabulary and the materials intrinsic to art and exhibiting art; all touched by Carter's ability to make the imperfect perfect and his wry sense of humor.

Downstairs at Thomas McCormick, Barry Tinsley has matured enough that he is capable of setting his art free, giving it breath, movement and grace like never before.

A block away, on Peoria, G.R. N'Namdi has a group show up - check out Chakaia Booker. She makes powerful sculptures from recycled tires of all sorts. Next door Rhona Hoffman is having an Italian exhibit. It's elegant and restrained.

Across the street 3 galleries have mounted new shows. Bodybuilder and Sportsman is presenting Dannielle Tegeder's renderings of futuristic systems and constructions of utopian spaces. At Jonathan Rhodes' not for profit Three Walls Gallery is a thoughtful group show.  Bucket Rider has a show by Gisela Insuaste.  Serious yet whimsical work. It is about place. Sparsely executed it is nevertheless quite sensitive.

Donald Young consistently presents excellent shows.  I think I used to be envious. Now it's just respect. Rodney Graham intrigues and challenges me.  I don't feel that I've fully grasped what he's up to, but the more I see the more I learn, the more he grows, the more I'm challenged. That's a good agenda.

Head East to River North.  At Zolla Lieberman Gallery, Deborah Butterfield is showing her mastery of horses once again.  This is an artist of incremental growth and impressive integrity.  She used to make life sized horses from found branches.  Now she casts them in bronze and patinas them to look like wood. The integrity? Though she could cast the bronze in editions, they are unique. The growth in her oeuvre is subtle. She's resisted the pressure for significant quantum change, but there is progress - she keeps getting better.

And lastly, a giant in our midst -- an artist for the ages, and a Chicagoan, Ruth Duckworth is 86 years old and making phenomenal art, just like she has been for half a century. She never rests on her laurels and is always moving forward. Quiet, unassuming, her art speaks volumes for her. Delicate and sensitive, her sculptures are joyous in their restraint. A substantial survey of her work opens tomorrow night at the Chicago Cultural Center.  Don't miss this one.

I had a good time looking. The art scene here is ripe for change. And I'm going to do something about it (not alone!). If you see me out there, ask me about the museum we're working on. We want your participation.

Thank you,

Paul Klein


As you can see, I've solicited a guest writer:

My name is Curt Conklin. I am a passionate supporter of the gallery scene in Chicago and I love to talk.  So it makes sense that I would fill in for Paul (but let's hope no one checks my credentials). The opening schedule is pretty light these last two weeks, but the weather's finally inviting us out. 

One of my favorite shows of the week is Jim Dine at Richard Gray Gallery. Jim Dine resonates in my memory as the guy that paints muddy large-scale bathrobes and other banal objects. For this show the theme is Pinocchio, but there is nothing banal about it. Anchoring the show are seven wooden Pinocchio sculptures evoking the craftsmanship of Stephan Balkenhol.  Most are striking particularly lifelike poses that seem incredibly human, in spite of simple lumber limbs which shouldn't want to cooperate. They seem gleefully life-affirming like elderly men having a morning stretch in the center of a public space. There are also two series of paintings; one painted on the felt scraps of a print maker, the other a triptych including two paintings and a collage. The metaphors of Gepetto as the artist (breathing life into his art, creating beauty from remnants) are rich and lovely.  This show officially opened last week so don't show up on Friday night looking for wine and a handful of nuts. Check the regular hours and give yourself enough time.

Also on the opened-a-while-ago tip, is Kutlug Ataman's Stephan's Room at Rhona Hoffman Gallery. Paul mentioned this in the last Art Letter, but it's worth a little more attention. I first saw Ataman's obsessive people studies at Documenta 11 when he introduced us to a real-life woman that loved orchids. This time the character (and he is a character) is fascinated with butterflies. He lives with them, paints them, kills them, collects their corpses, and attaches their attributes to the people in his life.  Meanwhile five other screens displaying related footage distract and further immerse the viewer.  For art video, it's a long piece but its worth a good sitting.

Formally similar is Su-Mei Tse's The Ich-Manifestation at the Renaissance Society. Both pieces use multiple large video screens hung throughout a darkened space. Both videos rely on images from the animal kingdom for their impact. But where Kutlug Ataman is giving us a focused portrait, Su-Mei Tse's is vaguely asking us to question what it means to be human. Her subject is turtles; viewed close and projected large. There are three in the back, following, and one in the front leading with a portrait of another turtle mounted to his back as some sort of motivational carrot. The viewer is invited to stand between them, where he too becomes a follower. The huge scale of the animals draws attention to their anthropomorphic qualities, and our own unavoidable knowledge of turtle myths (slow, long lived, clever) further muddy the water. I found myself wondering how the piece would change if the subject was monkeys, with their similar Darwinian connotations, or simply people.  Our species specific baggage changes but the point is the same - we are what we follow.

A silver lining of writing about a slow opening week is the opportunity to check out the less traveled galleries.   My next recommendation is for just such a space. The NIU gallery is showing Research a show featuring the work of Jessica Almy-Pagan, Paola Cabal, Dianna Frid, Gisela Ensuaste and Edra Soto. There are at least three things that I can think of that tie these artists together, but apparently I'm not supposed to talk about that. Instead, I'll focus on the art. The first thing the visitor will notice upon entering the gallery is the room filling piece by recent Driehaus Recipient Gisela Ensuaste. Large flat stones of coal or charcoal float wistfully, illogically in the room.  Below them thin spindly legs stretch organically to the ground, the natural effect heightened by vines growing here and there.  The illusion is disconcerting, until closer inspection reveals that the stones are not stones at all but objects convincingly constructed from electrical tape and (we can assume) florist foam.  All of a sudden, what seemed dangerous to the viewer shifts to impossibly fragile and we are aware that the breeze of our passing could send the whole system crashing.  It's odd, impressive, and really beautiful. This is an artist to watch.

Even more interesting is the work of recent Artadia recipient and University of Chicago professor Dianna Frid. Now in the interest of full disclosure I am on the board of Artadia and a product of Midway Studios, but neither of these has anything to do with the impressive body of work that this woman is amassing.  Furthermore, I'll admit that when I first met her, I didn't get it and she probably mistook my confusion for disinterest. I still don't get always get it, but I appreciate the direction it sends me. Dianna likes to make big art.  The first piece I saw was a Ferris wheel like structure, too tall for most ceilings, but made completely out of cloth so that it draped to the floor like a downward growing plant. Other architectural objects she has done literally fill gallery walls. She has three pieces at the NIU gallery - one large piece and two more consumable pieces. She uses unconventional materials like tape and tin foil sparingly and fabric liberally.  The main piece in the NIU Gallery show renders hub and spoke shape on the floor in multiple types of tape and foil - the pattern of the spokes difficult to quite discern. Atop this circular field are three objects, two of them shaped like stars or old military forts, and one a small hill. Each is made of dozens (scores? hundreds?) of pieces of fabric cut to shape and stacked into a seemingly solid shape.  Small holes of concentric circles bore through parts of the structure.  The objects have a numeric and masculine feel while the method of construction evokes historically feminine craft work. The draft lines she uses to guide her cuts tint the edges of one shape a soft pink, its brother a pastel green, and the hill yellow. The result is a set of intriguing attractive objects that possess an obvious but elusive relationship to each other. If anyone sees Dianna, tell her I'm a fan.

Chicago Life #3
Last September I started a website to promote art in Chicago and to give art enthusiasts a forum in which to express themselves; Like so many times in my life, as I throw a lot of ideas at the wall and climb up on those that stick, I end up in places I never thought I'd be. I love the process. I begin something without a vast plan, people respond and my course is altered.

Here I am again. I rather figured the forum on the would get contributions from art collectors, administrators and artists.  As far as I can tell (people can log in and contribute anonymously) almost all the contributions have been from artists.  I know from comments made to me personally and from emails that a much broader spectrum of art fans read than contribute.

There are quite a number of subplots that have developed, from artists getting together to talk in person to those who use the site to plot their evening's activity.

What impresses me most is that we are rapidly moving in the direction of creating a new art museum that will exist to serve, nurture and embrace the broad spectrum of artistic talent that exists in Chicago.

I didn't generate this idea. It came from two of Chicago's most significant artists, Wesley Kimler and Tony Fitzpatrick.  They are smart, successful and clearly care a lot about the community in which they live and work. Many artists chose an insular existence, guard whatever recognition they garner, create in a vacuum, venture out rarely and though they contribute aesthetically, do not make a tangible difference where they live. Not so with Tony and Wesley. As much time as they dedicate to their art they take time to participate, knowing, among other things, that raising the level for all raises it for them too.

And then there's the sad story of Ed Paschke's death; sad because he died and sad because he was an artist with a thoroughly international reputation who lived in Chicago his whole life and in dying it became obvious that the local museums, the Art Institute and the Museum of Contemporary Art, considered him nothing more than a local artist. We all loved Ed because he always had time for us, whoever we were. He made us feel like we mattered.  He was a wonderful man.

My good friend Tony Fitzpatrick - a Chicago artist if there ever was one - contributed some ideas for this article.  He wrote:

When the news crews went out searching for a Paschke painting to film -- neither the Art Institute nor the MCA had one hanging. This underlined the fact of the mission of both of those institutions; and that mission is not to showcase art that is made in Chicago.

There is a rich history here and it seems that nobody is really paying much attention to it. Chicago is a necessary city-- it anchors the Midwest and the Great Plains states and its aesthetic is markedly different than that of either coast. Chicago as an art community has always gone its own way-- paying attention to neither trend or fashion-- this city's aesthetic is stubbornly it's own. This is a big city comprised of individuals; and a great many of the artists who have lived here, chose this city specifically because of its indifference to fashion or trends or 'movements.' In the late 60's and early 70's when New York was still chewing on Pop art idioms; Chicago was blazing a trail gleaned from 'low art' figuration and a comic-book vernacular that came to be known as 'Imagism'. There was nothing like it anywhere else in American art. It was our own. And for about 100 years before this -- we did it our own way.

We need a museum here that deals with what's here, that addresses not only the past, but the present and the future as well, that embraces our history and nurtures our future, that appreciates the artists who have paved the way and still contribute that opens doors for the next generation of artists, that gives our many fine art schools' students a reason to stay after graduation and that taps into the breadth of non-visual art, music and theater that we are so damned proud of.

Too many of our city's self-appointed, self-impressed art community leaders are narrow-minded apologists who can't see the rich turf between their toes, but instead think its greener elsewhere.

These people can't see because they don't look.  How is it that some of Chicago's "best" collectors have never set foot in a Chicago gallery yet sit on the board of a museum pretending to be relevant?

It is time for change. It is inexorable.  It is coming to a town you love - even if you won't admit it.

The demise of the Chicago Art Fairs is not irrelevant. It was good for a decade.  And then it collapsed under its own stagnating weight.   It could have grown and it didn't.  It didn't nurture its own and newer, better versions arose somewhere else to fill the void. But like Chicago after The Great Fire when what arose was better than what was, it is time for a vibrant, full-fledged, multi-disciplinary, noncommercial museum that is about the artists, the musicians, the people and not the money, the glory, the benefactors and their interest in self-aggrandizement.

I got input from Wesley Kimler too - a powerful and brave painter whose spins ideas faster than a spewing Gatlin gun. 

We need to reenergize. We need to metamorphize the lesson of the fairs into the idea of a truly contemporary museum - an attempt at infrastructure -with not only a physical presence but a base in cyberspace as well, that the museum will try as no museum has previously done, to be truly interdisciplinary in its approach, fostering the infrastructure that is all that is really lacking for Chicago to be a leading metropolis on the international stage for all of the arts. We want a cyberspace devoted to theatre, music, and visual arts - more of a museum/cybermagazine promoting what is curated and what is noteworthy.  We want to mix the arts and stir it up!

For example, I have spent an evening in Wesley's gritty studio, sitting on the dirty floor with multi-pierced art students, BMW pilots and the former president of the board of one of those museums I was chastising, listening to Nick Tremilus and Billy Corgan play music less than 10 feet in front of me.  It was Corgan who said "this is a new song. I finished it on the way over here."

Isn't this what the art experience should be about?

Chicago is a city of possibility.  It rewards those who make the effort. Half a century ago Nelson Algren wrote about how this is a city you can love and you can hate, but don't expect it to love you back.  It is a real city with little or no pretense. It is more American than most. It has texture and it has depth and it has great art, music, theater, poetry and gristle and soon it's not going to be such a secret.

A century ago Daniel Burnham threw down the gauntlet.  It is time again to pick it up. It is time to alter the landscape, time for the art that is shown to be an extension of those who make it, time for the community to have a voice, time for art to be relevant, and time to look at the influences of, and upon, art today. It is time for a museum to acknowledge and examine its roots, to know, show, grow and make history, to play well with its neighbors and to celebrate the diversity and talent that is, has been, and will be Chicago.

Paul Klein wants your ideas. This isn't about him.  It's about people - all people, and artists, and musicians and poets and actors.  It's about art in all its glorious forms. Your input is invited. So is your participation.  You can write Paul Klein ( and he will see that your ideas are heard.