As the final day of the 2019 edition of EXPO Chicago arrives, the city teems with art mavens and aesthetes visiting the exposition. Post-vernissage, gallery after-hours fill the calendar, while openings, mid-day local food runs and champagne-fueled receptions keep Chicago’s art aficionados going through another day of art viewing. This year, the fair has successfully moved closer to balancing local and international contemporary global perspectives, with over 135 galleries featured in the eighth edition, featuring a range of artists and gallerists, like Hauser & Wirth and Marian Goodman, to NOME (Berlin) and Shulamit Nazarian (Los Angeles). In between the air-kissing and hand-shaking of sales, I took some time to search for boundary-pushing work. Below are a personal top ten, ranging from revered master works to newer artists representing non-Western narratives. (Note that my birthday is four months away.)
1. Kay Rosen at Rene Schmitt
Kay Rosen’s “Howdy Ma’am” (2019) features silkscreen prints on pastel rag paper that wrap around two lengths of booth walls. Accompanied by a fluid and articulate silent video placed on the booth floor, this drew my attention to the relationship between language and how one constructs meaning through the simple act of tracing, composition and color. As lines morph into angles, angles into alphabets, Rosen’s sharp sensibility is a refreshing take on text-based, social-critique art.
2. Solange Pessoa at Mendes Wood
Brazilian-born Solange Pessoa’s black-and white-paintings, “Untitled” (2016-2017), reveal strange, amphibious silhouettes that signify nature’s ability to mutate organic form. Working in oil on paper, the biomorphic representation of figures feels reminiscent of ancient folk art. What could be perceived as a series of mythological creatures or a string of genetically modified frogs sitting receptively on the external wall of the booth (in the otherwise stoic environment of an art fair)—the figures seem to breathe, listen and watch as Pessoa addresses memory and the impact of time on her personal relationship with her homeland of Brazil.
3. Mev Luna at Chicago Artists Coalition
Luna, who recently completed a BOLT residency at Chicago Artists Coalition, returns to the city for a solo presentation of their ongoing self-reflexive research. In the installation “If you go” (2019), Luna addresses familial history, the access and elimination of record and archive in immigrant narrative and the cyclical nature of living and dying as they trace the life of their late father. Public records are in archival tray screens that grow out of the edges of the booth wall, a video essay and a delicate presentation of moth’s wings strung in silver chains beneath a surveillance one-way screen meet the viewer in this space—questioning associations between colonialism, mimesis and disguise in the public sphere.
4. Lena Henke at Bortolami, New York
Featured in this year’s IN/SITU program, curated by Jacob Fabricius, Henke’s “Die Kommenden II” (2018) situates several vivid purple sculptures on a wooden fachwerkhaus-style timber frame pedestal. Walking toward the installation, characters begin to emerge amongst what seems to be an iron, a sleeping cow and chicken-wire fencing, setting the stage for conversations on politics, fiction and the formation of national identity. Situated on one of the main floors of EXPO, it harkens back to communal spaces one would see in rural areas, making for a welcome installation in the razor-edged aisles of the fair.
5. Kameelah Janan Rasheed at NOME
Rasheed’s series of diagrammatic representations of racial and social inequity bring together the schools of algebra and the study of human nature. Selected as this year’s Northern Trust Purchase Prize winner, four of her prints have been acquired to be gifted to the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. For Rasheed, an artist, writer and teacher, archival text functions as image, splicing words and employing the monochrome of xerox machines, her work points directly at the use of language, structural injustice and the politics of liberation. While the works can be sought individually, I particularly enjoyed the viewing of the work as a series (which is one of the merits of viewing work in an art-fair booth).
6. Omar Velazquez at Corbett vs. Dempsey
Based between Puerto Rico and Chicago, Velazquez revisits the history of painting, sculpture and music from the island, feeding a centrifugal inquiry on the politicization of Puerto Rican identity. In “Serenade” (2019), the artist saturates the background with colors that associatively link the subject to the island. As a child, the artist’s grandfather enjoyed the music of Trio Los Condes. But what drew Velazquez to the music was not the romance and tragedy of their ballads, but the darkness of their aesthetic (something that often surfaces in the artist’s work and music, as he’s one half of Artist Statement, a Chicago-based heavy metal band, with fellow artist Bryant Worley). Quipping on the culture of memorialization of injustice and gender-based discrimination, Velazquez paints the trio as concretized public sculptures replete with pigeon poop. He generously reveals, “One of their most famous love stories is that of a gravedigger who is bereft from the death of his wife. The gravedigger recovers her body from the ground, ‘celebrates their wedding night’ and kills himself with her… It’s the most violent and beautiful image, but it’s also fraught with gender specific bad behavior, it’s a local and culturally specific story that sounds kind of sick today.”
7. Andrea Joyce Heimer at Nino Mier Gallery
Heimer, an American Indian painter, exhibits large narrative paintings with Mier Gallery, which is pleased at the response to the artists’ work in the Midwest. The paintings feel like a distorted projection of a bird’s-eye perspective on narratives that situate the viewer outside the artist’s vantage point. One can’t decipher points of entry that are offered; some seem to be reserved exclusively for the artist. While one is drawn by an incredible amount of detailing and texture in each “scene,” the viewer is intentionally “left out” of context, as the artist plays with small shifts in perspective, the flattening of bodies in side profile and the scaling of landscape in relation to bodies on the surface. With titles like “Before Summer The Boys Fought For Our Love In The Locker Room, Or So We Thought” (2019) and “The 1988 Wildfires In Montana Were Caused, In Part, By Unattended Campfires, And Burned All Summer Long Until It Seemed The Whole World Was Aflame” (2019), Heimer is generous in her craft, exposing mastery of technique and storytelling all at once.
8. Pascale Marthine Tayou at Galleria Continua
Tayou’s “Landscape Cote d’Ivoire” (2011), made of chocolate and coffee with chalk, and “Poupée Pascale” (2019), crystal and mixed-media sculptures, tease the playfulness of hope that sits at the core of disenfranchised bodies from the non-western world. While themes of oppression and slavery, discrimination and visibility stand strong in the Cameroonian-born artist’s work, what is also experienced is a playful quip on the fetishization of the tribal and orientalist gaze. While a crystal figure seated on a pedestal wears a mask (shown in the reflection of a mirror here at the fair), the transparency of the body of a figure holding an instrument stands across the wall, poetically against the white walls of the booth, testing grounds between self-identification, the notion of othering and the mastery of indigenous craftsmanship.
9. Bireswar Sen at Delhi Art Gallery
No larger than the palm of one’s hand, Bireswar Sen’s landscape paintings of the Himalayas are on view at Delhi Art Gallery—a welcome and worthy representative featuring modern and contemporary works from India. While it has taken time for the presence of South Asian art to be felt at the fair, one remains optimistic with dedicated players like DAG in the game, who have brought works by FN Souza, Ganesh Pyne and Madhvi Parekh to lend a hand at the framing of Indian art history in the context of a Midwestern art market. Sen’s breathtaking miniature watercolors shine a light on the genius of the Bengal School of Art, as the artist spent years painting the desolate Himalayan landscape speckled with tiny monk-like figures no larger than the extension of a dot. In “Gloria in Excelsis” (1970), on view at DAG, the artist’s aim to capture the endless human quest for salvation in nature and its vastness speaks to an indigenous history of landscape painting from the Bengal School that didn’t aim to imitate nature, as much as it aimed to capture the spirit of it.
10. Julie Boldt, Rosemary Hall and Ed Oh at School of the Art Institute of Chicago
In a group presentation curated by Sarah Skaggs, a selection of the graduating students including Boldt, Hall and Oh, present their works in an attractive yet understated presentation at SAIC’s booth. The group exudes a strong sense of self-confidence and awareness, which could be indicative of the hyper-professionalization of emerging artists in the global art market. Personally, the subtle pairing of work that investigates the personal and the body, in relation to works that question sociocultural systems and the historical narrative of politics make for a complicated grouping. According to the curator, “These works present complicated and intentionally incomplete narratives about the world, reminding us that it is a place of perpetual becoming.” (Pia Singh)