The most serene art-viewing experience offered by Expo Chicago turns out to be on Grand Avenue, just west of Peoria Street, above eight lanes of traffic on the I-90/94 overpass. I began my fair experience there, two miles inland, with the intermittent hum of rush hour, in an attempt to organize myself spatially, proceeding from the outer reaches of the show to its very center, a point I was going to have to determine when I got to Navy Pier.
I had initially planned to drive Chicagoland’s highways in order to properly witness Expo’s Override project, which involved putting 20 artworks on 28 of the city’s digital billboards, but when I learned that each work appears for a matter of seconds in a loop which is 90 percent regular ads, I realized the folly of that scheme. Instead, I gmapped my way to the highway, found a good angle, poked my nose through chain-link fence, and waited for the art.
The moment of suspense did suspend my skepticism about the project. There is a long history, both locally and internationally, of art on billboards, and while I knew that Override included some interesting works, the overall project didn’t seem on par with that history. The fact that the works were chosen entirely from artists represented in the fair seemed like a missed opportunity, given that a lot of Chicago’s most publicly engaged artists don’t have gallery representation, much less representation at the fair. The promotional photographs I had seen, which set the various images strikingly against Chicago’s iconic skyline, were more glitzy than civic. So when Override’s organizer, critic and curator Stephanie Cristello, told me the project aimed to “fit into the experience of advertising but also disrupt that experience,” I didn’t expect much disruption; I expected advertising. More precisely, I expected an advertisement for the fair.
But after just a few short ads for the CW Network, Gain laundry detergent, and Potbelly sandwiches, I was already pretty excited to see something else, and when Angelo Plessas’s image, Fauna Magica, popped up, I got a surprising rush of adrenaline. There it is—that’s art! And then, before I could really think about it, the art was gone. Even though I knew the works would appear as every tenth ad—the City of Chicago is giving its tithe of slots to Expo for the month—the experience was like bird-watching. Honda, Navy Pier, CW Network, Gain, Chicago Parks District, Potbelly, Storm Team 5, Vrdolak Law, Supergirl…Sanford Biggers! Oh wow, it’s the Sanford Biggers, I think that’s the best one. It’s really wild to see that gigantic grin float above the city like… Gain, Navy Pier, Honda, and so on and so on, until… Toiletpaper! Oh wow, a Cattelan! What’s the other guy’s name? I guess Cattelan, or maybe both of them, has some work in… then Gain again, Honda again, Parks again, etcetera, until Joyce Pensato’s abstract drippy eyebrow-looking thingy! Wow. I wonder how that looks to a commuter.
I have no idea what the people in the cars were experiencing. The other pedestrians on the overpass were blissfully ignoring the highway billboard. Importantly, the works carry no identifying information. No highway driver could tell that the Vik Muniz piece, George Stinney Jr., was originally a subtle 63-by-42-inch collage. No one going 50 miles per hour would recognize George Stinney Jr. in this form, I suspect, even if they were familiar with the history. (In 1944, at the age of 14, Stinney became the youngest American to be sentenced to death and executed.) Would I have preferred a simple line stating that awful history? I think so, yes. Was it powerful to see a mug shot of an unnamed African-American boy flash briefly against the Chicago skyline? It certainly was.
The other pieces were less pointed and their impact was less clear. Does the word “Toiletpaper” combined with an image of a pool table carry any titillation and surprise outside the art world? A regular ad for toilet paper wouldn’t have been out of place in the regular ad-stream, and some of those regular toilet paper ads are pretty weird. What about abstraction? If you’re not familiar with her work, or invested in contemporary painting, would a Joyce Pensato just look like a drippy glitch? Come to think of it, most of the pieces, for all their variety, would have mainly registered as glitches, odd and very temporary breaks in the relentless flow of advertising.
For those of us in the art world, however, the Override project is actually more advertising. It adds to the blue banners around town and the banner ads on our computer screens. But for this one-man focus group at least, it is Expo’s most effective advertising. As I walked the two miles down Grand Ave to the fair, I was more excited than I usually am for such gatherings.
Entering the labyrinth of the fair, with its 145 galleries, I kept thinking about the perimeter that Override had established. If Joyce Pensato’s work was functioning as a five-second glitch for drivers on the highway, how was it functioning for visitors at Corbett vs. Dempsey’s booth? Were people looking at it longer here? It was hard to say. Certainly this was a more informed audience, but I have to confess that I almost wanted to tell people, You should see her stuff out on I-90. It’s really peaceful there and you can get a good look at it. It’s amazingly strange set against the buildings like a flying glyph, more like Batman out there than it would be in here, come to think of it. You just walk west on Grand until you hit the highway…
But I resisted the temptation. I was supposed to be winding my way to the center of this thing. I had initially thought the very center, the private core, of the fair would be the group of 25 curators that Expo had invited as guests, paying for their three-day trip and taking them to private lectures, collection visits, studio visits, luncheons, and a symposium. Underlining the fact that “curators don’t have the means that collectors have” to attend fairs, Nicole Barry, Expo’s deputy director and head of VIP relations, had detailed the curators’ itinerary for me over the phone as she was herself on a private bus, leading the group on a tour. And of course, these curators in turn serve as an attraction for the fair, potentially purchasing works for their institutions and giving artists various opportunities. This nexus was certainly a space where one could behold the unholy minotaur of art and commerce. Alas, I wasn’t on that bus.
Pacing round and round the labyrinth, with artworks and outfits swirling endlessly by, I finally realized that the most stable point of the fair was the dealers themselves. They praised the event’s organizers, and they regaled the artworks and artists with expertise and enthusiasm, and they of course spoke kindly of the collectors and the curators passing by. The dealers were the ones standing still; they were the ones here year after year.
According to Ed Gilbert, who directs the Anglim Gilbert Gallery in San Francisco, the fair in Chicago is by far the best experience on the circuit. “You don’t question your existence here,” he told me with an easy and knowing smile. Even if you make less money here, he explained, Expo Chicago reminds him of the early days of art fairs, when Art Chicago, which ran from 1980 to 2011, was the only major fair in the United States. “There was only Basel, Chicago, and Cologne… In the ‘80s there were birds in here, and people smoked, and everyone organized things more like what nowadays you’d call a pop-up space.” Back then, fairs were a place to try out new things and meet new people, Gilbert recalled. Pavel Zoubok, who had the booth next to Gilbert’s, was nodding in agreement. He added that his Chicago collectors move at a “civilized pace” because people tend to spend their money at the same pace they earn it. “They don’t have funny money,” Zoubok explained. His tiny dog was pulling him in the other direction. “Plus, they let me bring my dog!”