If you happened to follow the trail of well-dressed people out onto Navy Pier last night, they would have led you to Vernissage, the opening event of Expo Chicago, the biggest art fair of the year. Galleries from all over the world send their representatives here with some of their finest, or at least most salable, art, and members of the Chicago art world put on their finest clothes and go out to meet them.
As always, this year’s Expo had a mix of old and new: just about the first thing you see when you walk into Festival Hall is one of Yves Klein’s bright blue canvases from the 1960s and the bright blue mineral from which he extracted the pigment. And then as you walk further you’ll see art that was created this year and art that’s in progress right now. (That would be a drawing of the Chicago Columbian Exposition on the wall of the School of the Art Institute booth that was executed by a young man standing on a pile of books. He also happened to be completely naked.)
At Expo I tend to be drawn to work that makes some sort of comment on the world outside the gallery. Artists in recent years have had plenty to say about racism and sexism and the plight of refugees. One of the most striking exhibitions is the Tea Project, sponsored by Human Rights Watch. It’s an arrangement of 780 porcelain facsimiles of styrofoam cups; each cup represents a Muslim man who was detained at Guantanamo and is engraved with his name and a flower from his native country. Most of the detainees come from countries where people drink tea; slips of paper around the booth feature stories from people in each of the countries about what tea means to them and their favorite tea recipe.
Omar Imam, himself a Syrian refugee, has collected stories from other refugees and re-created their feelings in a series of portraits called Live, Love, Refugee, displayed by Catherine Edelman Gallery. In one of the most striking, 16-year-old Kawthar describes her rage and terror on her wedding night to a man twice her age, whom she married, she said, to help her mother. The caption is, “I wish to become a dragon and burn the scarves and everything in that tent.” Imam’s image makes that wish palpable.
The portrait of Kawthar’s rage is a sharp contrast to a piece by Adrian Piper, an artist and philosopher who was educating her audiences about microagressions back in the 80s. This piece is of a young black girl, and it’s covered by all the words she will grow up hearing over and over again whenever she dares to speak up: “It’s fine. I don’t know what you mean. I don’t understand the problem. Stop getting emotional.” And on and on and on.
In My Hair, My Soul, My Freedom, also at Catherine Edelman, Sandro Miller has created a series of portraits to honor black women and their hair. This collection did not attract as much attention as Miller’s portraits of John Malkovich did a few years back, but the photos are just as striking.
Praz-Delavallade, a gallery based in Los Angeles and Paris, featured some enormous and striking canvases and installations by SAIC grad Amanda Ross-Ho.
As always, Expo was overwhelming and insane and I probably didn’t even see half of it. But, as I was leaving, there was this:
Yeah, me too, Albert. Me, too.