Back in 2019, before “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” I told myself: this is the last year I’m writing about EXPO. I’ve seen every iteration since its re-inception at Navy Pier and written about all but one. They’ve been great, but also, pretty much the same. Same layout, same galleries—a lot of works even look the same. Plus, EXPO always makes my eyes hurt, which typically leads to a headache, culminating in vertigo, and, during one banner year, a race to the nearest toilet.
Unsurprisingly, the culprit for this year’s headache and mild nausea was more likely the previous night’s alcohol consumption rather than too much art—as both my and what seemed like every gallerist on the floor’s “Friday at 11am hangover” could attest. While most years, I’ve set a goal, a theme, nay, a quest that guides and organizes my circuitous sojourns around Festival Hall’s drywall palisades, this year, I just wanted works that might soothe a splitting skull.
With the visual equivalent of a javelin missile fired from the shoulder of some Ukrainian hero off the table, I sought instead sedate hues, placid scenes and soft textures (check out Olga de Amaral’s funky fibers at Richard Saltoun #229). So, armed with a bottle of ibuprofen, a Propel by Gatorade, and sixteen ounces of gas station coffee, I decided to power my way through the ninth and samey-est edition of EXPO.
For many of us, respite from the pandemic has been found in the sanctuary of city parks and on the shores of Lake Michigan. Being surrounded by nature has always knocked the old blood pressure down a few notches anyway and there are some outstanding examples of landscape scattered throughout the fair. Summer Wheat’s cool blue “Love Birds (Left)” at Sulamit Nazarine (#235) is haunting, but it was Chicago-based painter Soumya Netrabile’s work at Andrew Rafacz (#351) that I kept coming back to.
Netrabile’s feature takes the viewer through the looking glass in a beautiful and lusciously brushed display of immersive landscapes. With painterly touches that echo Monet to Gorky, we see man not as the master of his world, but as an integral part of it. More conceptually pleasant than her solo show at Andrew Rafacz last fall, these works still feature the verdant greens and warm oranges, but are absent the sinister creatures hidden among the foliage. The result is energizing and restorative, without being overwhelming.
Just a few blissfully short yards down the 300 aisle’s concrete byway, stands Cape Town’s Martin Projects (#374) with a solo presentation of acrylic works by Cairo-based, Sudanese artist Salah Elmur. Elmur’s formal vernacular traces its origins to the European Modernism of de Chirico, Braque and above all, Picasso. BTW, have a look at that nice Picasso drawing at Smith Davidson Gallery (#261)—I actually own a book with that drawing in it!
Anchored by the majestic “Greenish Black Velvet and Two Trumpets,” Elmur’s work is as consoling as a stroll through Netrabile’s autumnal parks, but there is a poignancy to his mysterious figures that speak of lost love and dreams unrealized. Packed with alienation and dislocation, the weight of Elmur’s paintings is carried only by the countenance of his subjects and the few solitary objects they hold.
If these two utterly outstanding displays are not the aesthetic equal to the proverbial dog’s hair, I don’t know what is. Of course EXPO 2022 is still replete with white-bread abstraction. As psychically soothing as a TV fireplace at Christmastime and as easy to digest as a bowl of Cheerios, by the time I breezed past the fiftieth oversized color field painting, I was well on my way to craving a beer. A sure sign that the hangover has abated and another EXPO was in the history books. Now, about that pandemic… (Alan Pocaro)