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Art Chicago Surveys (and Sells) Contemporary Visual Arts

By Steven Rosen · May 5th, 2010 · The Big Picture
Last weekend’s Art Chicago, with about 150 international galleries displaying (mostly) contemporary art in their individual booths, is the best way for us Midwesterners to get a handle on what’s new and important in the art world regionally and around the world.

It was held at the city’s massive Merchandise Mart concurrently with NEXT: The Invitational Exhibition of Emerging Art, which offered another 90 galleries, alternative spaces, nonprofit groups and others whose work seeks to have an edgier, more experimental and zeitgeist-er quality. All told, it’s a lot to see in a weekend, but my wife and I did it.

With so much available to see — and buy, which, of course, is the point of an art fair — you really do wonder how so many newer, younger artists are going to establish careers. After all, the giants in their field aren’t exactly ceding territory: Art Chicago had work for sale by Chuck Close, Bill Viola, Elizabeth Murray and other established figures.

Some, I must report, resort to extremist gimmicks in their choice of material or intent, or create work so soaked in hip irony and intentional naughtiness that their impact is all novelty. Even some of the gallery names succumb to this problem — one was called Haunch of Venison, which showed Stuart Haygarth’s chandelier composed of reading glasses (that was actually quite illuminating).

I suppose an art traditionalist would say it’s time for a return to straightforwardly sincere painting, sculpture and photography.

Except the reality is that the same old approach to the same old subject matter gets, well, samey.

In reality, many of the most unconventional approaches at the show worked when backed up with loving craftsmanship and free of smugness. And there are plenty of strong artists out there working that way.

For instance, New York’s Diana Lowenstein Fine Arts displayed Michael Scoggins’ lively, supersized “child’s” drawings on ruled, loose-leaf paper, depicting “Super-awesome cootie man” and “my church.” I suppose you could say he’s making fun of parents who put kids’ drawings on their refrigerator, but i think he’s memorializing rather than trivializing that effort, down to the folds on the paper.

Similarly, San Francisco’s Hespe Gallery displayed Tim Liddy’s deadpan reconstructions of old board games like 1956’s “Test Driver” and 1960’s “Park & Shop.” At first, it looks like tired-out post-Duchamp conceptualism, signing an existing object and making it your own. But these are new works, their covers carefully painted on copper. They present the objects to be appreciated for their intrinsic beauty, not sentimental value.

At NEXT, Oakland’s Swarm Gallery had Taro Hattori’s sweetly delicate, gentle, small paper-and-cotton wall sculptures of three airplanes and a blimp flying through fluffy clouds. with a twist. The planes are bombers, the blimp the Hindenburg and those aren’t clouds but explosions.

While still photography was certainly well-represented, especially epic mural-size color images using digital technology and bold lighting, the work being done with video projections was most memorable at Art Chicago and NEXT.

Some was kitschy, like one artist’s garish videos embedded into painting panels. But others took Tony Oursler’s crowd-pleasing style of projecting moving images onto unusual surfaces further.

One piece that mesmerized me was Ben Whitehouse’s “revolution.” He used new software to film 24 hours in Central Park in real time from a stationary digital camera. Perimeter Gallery of Chicago was only showing excerpts, but this seemed to have the same timeless classicism of 19th century panoramic photos while being totally 21st century.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com



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