Bringing together more than 170 galleries from 36 countries, Expo Chicago hosted its VIP preview on Thursday morning. The fair’s aisles were moderately filled during the first few hours, with a mass of people filling up the Navy Pier during the evening vernissage hours.
Now celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, Expo Chicago made apparent this edition that it is still intent on bringing world-class art and leading curators to the Windy City for a fair experience unlike any other. The fair made good on its promise.
Below, a look at the best on offer during the 2023 edition of Expo Chicago, which runs until Sunday, April 16.
Athi Patra-Ruga at WHATIFTHEWORLD
Some of the works brought to the fair by the Cape Town–based gallery WHATIFTHEWORLD appeared to be unfinished. In fact, however, these pieces constituted discrete works onto themselves.
Artist Athi Patra-Ruga’s stunning portraits of his queer Black femme community, both contemporary members and members from generations prior, are made via a semi-obsessive process. He starts in pencil, then works in pastel, then tapestry, and finally stained glass, with the portraits evolving along the way. One of his subjects is Sengalese dancer Féral Benga, who moved to Paris in 1925, became a star at the Folies Bergère (at times performing in drag), befriended Josephine Baker, and posed for Carl Van Vechten and George Platt Lynes. Unlike these figures, Benga has faded into obscurity. Patra-Ruga’s works are meant to combat that near erasure, “a testament to the people who get forgotten,” the artist said during the VIP preview. By depicting Benga in drag at a time when right-wing conservative politicians in the US are legislating against it, “it’s highly political, but it’s highly necessary that I do that.”
In another drawing, the artist has posed musician Desire Marea as late photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode, who died of AIDS-related complications at 34 in 1989. By mixing these two temporalities, Patra-Ruga is also trying to create a new form of documentation for his community. Because there are many stereotypical portraits of Black men in the history of portraiture, Patra-Ruga sees his works as a form of “healing wherein I’m wresting them” from those prior depictions.
Oluseye at Southern Guild
Toronto-based artist Oluseye is also focused on how objects construct memory. For his ongoing series titled “Eminado,” which means “good luck charm” in Yoruba, the artist has created a series of talismans using found objects (always in black, except for cowrie shells in some works) that he has collected while tracing the path of the transatlantic slave trade, moving from Africa to South America, the Caribbean, and the United States. (He photographs each object in situ so he has the location data in his personal archive.)
These small-scale sculptures can contain objects—combs, strands of acrylic hair, plugs, car parts, and more—from anywhere between two and six countries. Sometimes, these objects are brought together for aesthetic reasons. Other times, it’s because they share a history. In piecing them together, Oluseye said he is trying to “reimagine the talismans that Africans would have carried across the Atlantic” just a few centuries ago. In doing so, he hopes to “build a complex presentation of Blackness” and reconnect people.
Claudia Peña Salinas at Embajada
It’s increasingly rare that artists will make works specifically for an art fair, so it was a pleasant surprise to see this new sculpture, titled Hotel Palenque-Chicagos Worlds Fair, by New York–based artist Claudia Peña Salinas. The work responds to the 1933 World’s Fair, held in Chicago to celebrate the city’s centennial, which presented a reconstruction of a Mayan temple, and to Robert Smithson’s visit in 1969 to the Hotel Palenque in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.
In a text about the work, Peña Salinas described the latter site as “a hotel in constant construction and destruction,” with Smithson going as far as to call it a “never-ending ruin” in a slide presentation from the year of his visit. Peña Salinas’s minimalist sculpture, consisting of a gold-plated armature, is meant to imitate the architecture of the hotel.
In one section, an original postcard showing a photograph of the Mayan temple from the World’s Fair that Peña Salinas was able to source. That fair is often credited with introducing the American public to Mayan architecture, with the widely disseminated postcards acting as a pre–social media information-sharing tool. To this postcard, Peña Salinas has added a short message to Smithson from the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who visited the 1933 event, that she produced by plugging in their texts to an AI chatbot and prompting it to create a text. “I wonder what you make of this place if you were here with me,” the imagined Wright, who died in 1959, writes. The piece cleverly collapses the two time periods and brings them into the present.
Beatriz González at Casas Riegner
One of Colombia’s most celebrated artists, Beatriz González, who recently turned 90, has two major works at the booth of Bogotá’s Casas Reigner from 1985, a year that marked a turning point in her career. Hanging on one wall is a tapestry, showing deer in a forest, onto which González has painted the corpse of an old man whose brutal murder was widely publicized in sensational news stories at the time. An evolution from her earlier furniture pieces of the 1970s, this work pairs a bedspread’s kitschy pastoral scene with the seriousness of Colombia’s political situation in the wake of the Palace of Justice siege by the guerrilla group M-19. Installed in front of the tapestry is a long scroll-like piece that is presented on a small, foot-high plinth. On it is a repeating image of an elongated, prostrated body, in various weights of charcoal, that would become a recurring motif in González’s later works. While this woman’s body may appear to be eroticized, González meant it as an expression of the immense suffering she witnessed in her country.
Debra Cartwright at Fridman Gallery
Fridman Gallery has a suite of watercolor drawings that act as studies for larger oil paintings by Brooklyn-based artist Debra Cartwright. The works reflect on the painful history of the medical torture that Black women endured under J. Marion Sims, a physician whose experiments were done without anesthesia. In researching this history over the past two years while completing her MFA at Rutgers University, Cartwright has created spare drawings in which collaged body parts coalesce with delicate blobs and shapes, offering women an interiority that Sims had denied them.
Karen Navarro at Foto Relevance
Houston-based artist Karen Navarro has long been thinking about her own migration from Argentina eight years ago. For a photo-based series titled “Neither Here Nor There” (2021–22), she has photographed several people who either immigrated to the US or whose family did so one or two generations ago. She then blows up these images to a large scale and fragments them. Next, she mounts the prints to wood and seals them with resin.
In one portrait printed across four blocks, a man’s face just barely misses the perfect alignment, with small gaps in between; in another, horizontal strips from a photograph of a woman give the effect that the image is glitching as it loads. Navarro, who was on hand during the VIP preview, said she wanted to explore the ways in which identity is socially and culturally constructed, especially for people who have immigrated to the US. The gaps in the works’ compositions represent the times where “you don’t know your own history” and how that offers an opportunity to “fill it in” with whatever you want.
Audra Skuodas at Abattoir
Cleveland’s Abattoir gallery has brought to Chicago paintings and drawings by the late artist Audra Skuodas, who was born in Lithuania and spent much of her career in Oberlin, where her husband, John Pearson, was a printmaking professor. Skuodas, who died in 2019, had a memorable presentation as part of the second Front Triennial in Ohio last summer that including her studio, which ARTnews said “makes the best case for her as a seriously underrated artist (outside Ohio, at least).” On view at Expo is at least one work that was included in that exhibition, depicting a contorted, spindly figure whose elongated body seems to radiate movement. Set against a pale green background, a vine of thorns wraps itself around a part of the figure’s body, in what is likely a self-portrait; various sections of the canvas feature bright red cuts that Skuodas termed “wounds.” Last year, ARTnews said a Skuodas retrospective should be in the offing; this Expo booth offers potential proof that this may be coming closer to fruition.
Lynda Benglis at Ortuzar Projects
Lynda Benglis has long been known for her unique ability to shape conventional art materials into forms that seem to defy what is possible for her mediums. That couldn’t be truer of her pleated knot works, several of which are on view courtesy of New York’s Ortuzar Projects. In these works, Benglis effortlessly transforms and shapes various types of metal—copper, zinc, steel—into transcendent twists, rendered with varying degrees of patina that give these sculptures elegance and heft. These are works that beckon viewers in and lure them into quiet contemplation—a feat amid the bustle of an art fair like this.