Slimmed-down Art Chicago shines in 'fair wars'

Chicago Sun-Times, May 3, 2005

BY MARGARET HAWKINS

The Art Fair Wars have come and gone, and though there was something for everyone to enjoy this past weekend, the consensus in the art community is that the winner is: Art Chicago in the Park, hands down.

After much debate over where and when the fairs would be and who would show up, three art fairs ended up descending on Chicago all at once: Chicago Contemporary & Classic at Navy Pier, Thomas Blackman's old standby Art Chicago in its new venue in Butler Field behind the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Nova Young Art Fair in a parking garage in the West Loop. Like the porridge of the three bears, each fair had a different temperature, from tepid to cool to just right.

Art Chicago, set up in a big tent and slimmed down by attrition and defection, was the liveliest, attracting the faithful from Chicago galleries as well as national and international dealers, though many of the regulars from the old days, when Art Chicago was the best and brightest international art fair in the country, didn't show up this year. Still, those who did come seemed re-energized. The space, smaller than the old Navy Pier venue, was pleasantly crowded, like a good party, and the casual setting -- in a tent in a park -- only seemed to help. Some physical details were actually better; fresh air leaked into the tent in a way it never could in Navy Pier's hermetically sealed Festival Hall, and the increased oxygen flow may have helped to raise everybody's spirits.

But that wasn't the only fresh air around; perhaps the near-death of Art Chicago was exactly what it needed to come back to itself. Painting and drawing dominated the show, and about two dozen international galleries showed up. There were especially strong showings from Spain and Korea; one of the better booths was Spanish Galeria de Arte la Ribera, with big paintings of moody interiors by Rosa Martinez-Artero.

Less space seemed to make for a friendlier neighborhood feeling. Some of the most interesting work was in the Stray Show, also organized by Blackman and featuring young and independent galleries representing edgy young artists. Formerly situated across town, this time they were clustered at one end of the tent, and that seemed to work better. Easily identifiable because of their smaller booth spaces and looser presentation -- artists' names were typically written on the wall in pencil -- they were like the sloppy kids' table that keeps a stodgy family dinner from getting too dull. One of the most exciting galleries at the young end of the tent was Hotcakes, from Milwaukee, featuring Japanese anime-influenced work by Chicago painter Jeremiah Ketner.

CC&C at Navy Pier was more conservative and, from what I could see, less well-attended. With only 69 exhibitors, it had to fill the same cavernous space that almost twice as many had filled in the past, and it gave the show a somewhat vacant feeling, especially for those who remember the crowds of the old days. The wider hallways and larger booths made for a beautifully presented but very sedate show. The work was more sedate, too, seemingly targeted more at interior designers and collectors thinking about home decor than at collectors looking for the extremes of emotion and ideas that fresh new art can offer.

There were exceptions, though, that made for some pleasant surprises. Gallerie Lelia Mordoch from Paris showed interesting work by painter Yukio Imamura, and the project spaces devoted to public art offered a breath of fresh air, including a kind of urban garden by Michele Brody and Buzz Spector's humorously poignant postcard panorama.

On the opposite end of the hipness spectrum was the Nova show. Situated in a parking garage on West Washington, it featured 40-some young galleries and some independent artists and was heavy on installation, sound work and general irreverence. The low lighting and cramped grunginess of the surroundings made the work feel more intimate, a perfect antidote to any residual stuffiness left over from either of the other two shows. The show almost had the feeling of a student production, with one sound installation set up in the ladies' room and, down the hall the night I was there, an earnest young man in tennis shoes reading poetry next to a keg of beer.

Best of all, perhaps, was "Bootlegs," a one-man show by Eric Doeringer, an unaffiliated artist from New York whose copies of contemporary paintings were piled under a hand-lettered sign: "We'll beat any price. Paintings $40-$60." Doeringer travels around the world selling his knockoffs at art fairs, sometimes close by the originals he duplicates through collage, digital photography, paint and varnish. It's a takeoff on bootleg Rolex watches and Gucci bags, and, like those, they look pretty much the same as the originals.

Which is the point, of course: not to take it all too seriously. It was a perfect ending to the art fair experience, putting it all in perspective. Until next year.

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