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Art Letter (04/28/05)

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