Each year Art Chicago provides an opportunity to see work by major artists rarely exhibited hereabouts. A few examples:

Yoshihiro Suda, who lives in Tokyo, has a growing international reputation, but in the U.S. his work has thus far been shown only in New York and Pittsburgh. The pieces I’ve seen–small plants exquisitely carved in wood and finished to trompe l’oeil perfection–are often set against much larger walls or floors, making each one’s modest presence easy to miss but stunning when found: nature asserting its presence inside an artificially lit interior. D’Amelio Terras (booth B218) will be showing Spring of Wood–a flower stem protruding from the wall with the flower resting on a bed of sand below it, as if it had fallen off.

Ann Hamilton is best known for her installation art, which is extraordinary for the way it engages the viewer in the viewing process. Her print Wreathe, shown by Gemini G.E.L. at Joni Moisant Weyl (C113), is made with no ink at all–rather, raised scriptlike patterns are embossed on white paper. This white-on-white object is even quieter than Suda’s plants, and will likely make one blink, then wonder if its patterns are a decipherable language.

Another artist, Sandy Skoglund, makes pieces whose bright colors and endearingly overheated narratives immediately catch one’s attention; she also produces color photos of scenes she stages–often with performers–within her installations. Her recent work, Breathing Glass, will tour museums for several years, but so far Chicago isn’t on the schedule. Fay Gold Gallery (D213) will be showing a photo (which is displayed with the two performers upside-down) plus one panel from the installation–a section of the back wall that includes motorized glass dragonflies and tiny marshmallows.

Art Chicago also offers the work of deceased artists still underrepresented locally. Christopher Wilmarth, who killed himself in 1987, is best known for his sculptures that combine metal and glass etched with acid (one of which is in the MCA’s collection); his early wood-and-glass Nimbus (1969), at Hirschl & Adler Modern (B116), shows Brancusi’s influence, but also suggests some of the mysterious, even self-abnegating blankness of his later work.

Ray Johnson was the originator of “mail art” and is often credited as a proto-pop art figure for his use of images of movie stars and other celebrities in his work of the 1950s. He rarely exhibited in his lifetime, but his work was appreciated and collected by friends such as Jasper Johns. Since his 1995 suicide, his work has been shown more widely; Richard L. Feigen & Company represents his estate, but ever since their contemporary branch moved from Chicago to New York in 1997 his work hasn’t been seen here–in the last two years Feigen Contemporary hasn’t even come to Art Chicago. Fortunately, Virginia Green & Associates (D116) is bringing four pieces, including a collage and two books (a gallery rep will turn the pages for you if you ask, which doesn’t happen in museum shows). Green is also showing what could be the paradigmatic mail art piece, Letterbox (1964), a metal three-slot mailbox stuffed with 108 envelopes full of collages, cutouts, and drawings; some of the envelopes’ contents will be exhibited in a nearby glass case. Like Wilmarth’s, Johnson’s work has a hermetic, self-denying quality, but his playful side will also be in evidence.

Art Chicago 2001 takes place May 11 through 14 in Festival Hall at Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand. Hours through Sunday are from noon to 8 PM, and Monday from noon to 6. General admission is $12, with discounts available for groups, students, seniors, and multiday pass holders. For more information, call 312-587-3300 or visit www.artchicago.com.

–Fred Camper