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Art Fair

Beyond EXPO Chicago: A new renaissance for the city

Elisa Carollo

Apr 21, 2023

EXPO Chicago celebrated its 10th anniversary last week, welcoming visitors and collectors with a primarily curation-oriented fair. Healthy sales abounded since the VIP preview day, and Tony Karman, director of EXPO Chicago and active player in the growing appreciation for the Chicago art scene, commented at the end of the vibrant art week:


“The energy and enthusiasm in Festival Hall was palpable from our VIP opening throughout the weekend as we welcomed our local Chicago community and arts enthusiasts from around the globe. I am deeply proud of EXPO CHICAGO’s place as an essential part of the art fair calendar and how the exposition has cemented Chicago’s reputation as a global arts hub.” 



EXPO Chicago in Chicago (Apr 13 - 16, 2023)
Photo: Justin Barbin



This year’s edition of the fair featured a diverse roster of 170 exhibitors from 90 cities and 36 countries, displayed at Navy Pier’s Festival Hall and accompanied by a robust schedule of talks and events. EXPO Chicago put a spotlight on curators, with a year-round program designed for them in collaboration with Independent Curators International (ICI) and an annual Curatorial Exchange in order to attract curators from different countries to discuss shared perspectives, goals and challenges within the field.


Among the most engaging presentations worth mentioning, Chicago-based gallery DOCUMENT featured a striking sculpture made of fluorescent light tubes by Kiah Celeste. The piece attempts a reinvention of the legacy of minimalism with a physical and sexual touch, creating a great conversation with the more tactile, colorful sculpture by Julien Creuzet and the elaborate mixed media ceramic collage by Erin Jane Nelson. Bold queer narratives could also be found within the sentimental portraits by Colombian artist Giorgio Celin presented by KORNFELD Gallery, Berlin, or in the visceral depictions of queer party circles and the underground metal scene of Buenos Aires by Carrie Bencardino, presented by PIEDRAS, Buenos Aires. Meanwhile, the scenes by Moll Brau, presented by Martha’s Contemporary in Austin, stand at an intersection between an investigation of love and identity and a drawing of some interesting parallels with alchemical processes.



Installation view of KORNFELD Gallery’s presentation at EXPO Chicago, 2023
Courtesy of KORNFELD Gallery, Berlin



Mexican artist Claudia Peña Salinas, who studied at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, was also at EXPO. Working with CURRO, Guadalajara, Mexico, Salinas presented some fascinating bidimensional works that continue her research on Aztec mythology and indigenous notions of verticality and water symbolism. Embajada, San Juan also presented a piece by the same artist; a mixed media installation which had been acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg as part of the Northern Trust Purchase Prize. Around the fair’s aisles, visitors could also enjoy some spectacular installations such as the massive neon light equations by Andrea Galvani, or the hanging colorful sculptures by Julien Creuzet, who has just been selected for the French pavilion at the next Venice Biennale. These were both part of the IN/SITU and IN/SITU outside section curated by Claudia Segura, Curator of Exhibitions MACBA, Barcelona along with OVERRIDE | A Billboard Project.



Installation view of Andrea Galvani, Instruments for Inquiring into the Wind and the Shaking Earth, 2022 as part of IN/SITU curated by Claudia Segura at EXPO Chicago, 2023
Courtesy of Galería CURRO, Guadalajara, Mexico 
Photo: Justin Barbin



The city actually has a tradition of outdoor artworks, such as the monumental red Flamingo (1974) stabile by Alexander Calder in the Federal Plaza, Jean Dubuffet's 29 ft-tall sculpture Monument with Standing Beast (1984) and the iconic Cloud Gate (2006) by artist Anish Kapoor, the centerpiece of AT&T Plaza at Millennium Park in the Loop community area. Expanding this outdoor collection during the art week, artist Kenny Schachter unveiled his AI-generated multimedia installation Chicago is, was, will be… (2023) while Derrick Adams debuted a group of “funtime” unicorn statues greeting visitors at the entrance of Navy Pier.



Kenny Schachter
Chicago is, was, will be…., 2023
Immersive video installation 
Dimensions variable 
Photo: 150 Media Stream 



Outside the boundaries of the fair, the city also had a range of exquisite exhibitions to offer, starting with the largely acclaimed and (deservedly) reviewed Forecast Form: Art in the Caribbean Diaspora, 1990s–Today, soon closing at the MCA Chicago. The show succeeds in conveying the complexities of Caribbean history and its diaspora through a strong group of artists who do not confine themselves to any specific nationality criteria, instead prioritizing the message and the force behind the works presented.



Gio Swaby
Gyalavantin, 2021
Thread and fabric sewn on canvas
Courtesy of the artist, Claire Oliver Gallery, New York, and the United States of America Embassy, Nassau, Bahamas
© Gio Swaby

Going with a different approach, the Art Institute of Chicago decided to dig into their collection, focusing on the secret stories of a Dalí painting that they acquired in 1987. This superb curation, which features other masterpieces and archival materials, reveals how this artwork was actually a section of a large-scale painting for the visionary Dream of Venus pavilion Dalí created for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Still at the Art Institute, Bahamas-born artist Gio Swaby opened her first major institutional solo show, weaving in her delicate embroidery of narratives of Black empowerment and new agency amidst resistance against stereotypical representations of Blackness, especially of Black women. In the Institute’s Prints section, an insightful show takes visitors to discover the printmaking experimentations by Lygia Pape, one of the pioneering figures of Brazilian Neo-Concretism, a movement which significantly extended the purely formalist approach to abstraction of concrete art to a more relational component.



Another must-see exhibition, the third iteration of Art in Common’s Boil, Toil & Trouble, with a brilliant curation by Zoe Lukov and production by Abby Pucker, showcases a remarkable group of artists dealing with “mystical, mythological, or spiritual frameworks and practices as they pertain to water”. The show articulates the contemporary shifts in which artists are becoming shamans or magicians in an attempt to retrieve a ritualistic dimension of art and explore alternative forms of knowledge and spirituality. At the Renaissance Society, artist Aria Dean presented a compelling video installation, Abattoir, USA! (2023). Entering the exhibition through cold storage doors and walking across a violently aseptic foyer, the viewer could access a 10-minute film engineered using 3D graphics. The setting was that of an imagined slaughterhouse which investigates notions of  violence at the boundary between human, animal, and machine in relation to killing and death.



Installation view of Aria Dean, Abattoir, U.S.A.!, 2023 at the Renaissance Society, Chicago 
Courtesy of the Renaissance Society, Chicago 
Photo: Robert Chase Heishman



Exhibitions at local galleries also featured some strong presentations, investing in ambitious installations supported by solid narratives and thoughtful curatorial statements. Among the highlights, the exhibition by Filipino-American artist Maia Cruz Palileo, who has staged a journey into the memory of ancestors and the re-emergence of archival knowledge at Monique Meloche Gallery, certainly stands out. The numinous quality of her visually powerful paintings is foreshadowed at the entrance by a system of mysterious projects intertwining ancestry, flora, and fauna. This show, titled Days Later, Down River (2023), immerses visitors in the mysterious atmosphere of a forest while activating the archival materials that inspired the artist’s practice.


Chicago’s veteran gallery dealer Monique Meloche commented enthusiastically: 


“We had over five museum groups visit our current solo exhibition by Maia Cruz Palileo from Seattle to Kansas City to Brussels. With the Curatorial Conference and Directors Summit EXPO Chicago has really figured out something genuinely special to further engage the commercial content of the show. The strong institutional presence along with many of their trustees tagging along to EXPO Chicago bolster the already strong support from our local collectors. [...] I’m a strong believer of what Chicago has to offer and am thankful for EXPO to not only bring wonderful curious visitors, collectors, and museum professionals not only to our booth but to our gallery which has been dedicated to operating in this city for over 20 years.”



Installation view of Maia Cruz Palileo: Days Later, Down River at Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago (April 1 - May 26, 2023) 
Courtesy of Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago
Photo: RCH Photography



Next door, Mariane Ibrahim Gallery is holding a solo presentation of works by Haitian American artist Patrick Eugène. His enigmatic portraits perfectly reflect the complexities of Caribbean history and identity, combining references from European modernism with African and Caribbean folklore. An installation at the entrance creates a powerful metaphor for migration and diaspora and contains an attempt to reconnect with the ancestors who lie at the heart of these paintings. A pile of vintage luggage materializes the 2023 exhibition’s title, 50lbs - a common weight restriction for airline companies - and asks, “What if an entire life should fit there?”


Remarkable were also all of the three shows at Kavi Gupta, starting with that of Allana Clarke staging a compelling aesthetic treatise on the poetics of black space through her very physical sculptural abstractions at the Washington Boulevard location, and continuing with the Elizabeth Street spacepresenting a memorable installation by Esmaa Mohamoud. The artist has worked on a poetic liminal space between spirituality and materiality, truth and illusion, enhancing the suggestive force of the works which are also addressing the complexities of Black body politics. 


Upstairs at the Washington Boulevard location, artist Suchitra Mattai transforms the space into a complex layering of stories and cultural traditions, drawing inspiration from saltwater ocean migrations to shape her family’s heritage. An imponent salt sculpture of a collapsed temple stands in the middle of her elaborate fabric works and paintings, alluding to a loss of traditional values that used to keep individuals grounded, but also suggesting a possible “osmosis” through an alternative transferral of legacies and energetic bonds that may allow to achieve a new existential balance.



Suchitra Mattai
superpowers, 2022
Embroidery floss, ghungroo bells, acrylic, and fringe
147.3 x 157.5 cm (58 x 62 in.)
Courtesy of the artist and Kavi Gupta, Chicago



In addition to its healthy gallery scene, Chicago also boasts a growing community of artists who have decided to stay and work in the city, including major names such as Nick Cave, Kerry James Marshall and Theaster Gates, just to mention a few. Gates is also behind the revitalization of Chicago’s South Side with Stony Island Arts Bank, a new cultural center which, since its opening in 2016, is giving new hope to a once very complicated neighborhood. South Side Chicago is home to an under-resourced community which has been responding to injustices with creativity and art. As Gates describes it Stony Island Arts Bank is “a repository for African American culture and history, a laboratory for the next generation of black artists,” and “a space for neighborhood residents to preserve, access, reimagine and share their heritage, as well as a destination for artists, scholars, curators, and collectors to research and engage with South Side history.”


This latest artweek is just one of the many initiatives in the art & cultural sector that are giving the windy city new hope and opportunities. With a quite rare and precious mix of both private and institutional efforts, collectors, artists, galleries, museums and even the art fairs are all actively contributing in this new “art renaissance” Chicago seems to be undergoing at the moment. The city also has a tradition that allowed very progressive movements to emerge. For instance, back in the 30s-40s, the city’s particular context between art patronage and art schools, but also violence and social injustice, nourished the Chicago Black Renaissance, blossoming out of the city's South Side and contributing to a dynamic era when Chicago was one of, if not the center of, urban African-American art, blues and jazz, dance, theater, poetry and fiction.