New Art

by Pedro Vélez

The road to recovery starts with recognizing that you have a problem. The good news is that Chicago’s problem has finally been diagnosed. Local collectors are not powerful, sexy or charismatic enough to sustain or promote the city’s art scene. So instead of crying like little babies about it, several dealers shook off their skeletons and lured collectors from out of town into a little somethin’ somethin’ with Gallery Weekend Chicago (GWC), Sept. 16-18, 2011.

Wisely modeled after Berlin’s gallery weekend, GWC was spearheaded by, GWC was spearheaded by dealer and veteran art-fair hand Monique Meloche, along with Whitney Tassie, her gallery director, and a team of other people. Eleven galleries were invited to participate: Andrew Rafacz Gallery, Corbett v. Dempsey, Devening Projects + Editions, Donald Young Gallery, Kavi Gupta Gallery, Monique Meloche, Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Shane Campbell Gallery, Threewalls, Tony Wight Gallery and Western Exhibitions.

Judging from the tales and the looks you could say GWC was a success. I know they’re already planning to do it again in 2012.

The opening celebration took place at the swanky James Hotel, where local art-fair mogul Tony Karman toasted Lisa Freiman, curator of the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the U.S. pavilion in the 2011 Venice Biennale. Other guests included L.A.-based collector Jane Glassman, Cincinnati-based curator and entrepreneur Christian Strike, and Christopher Vroom, the New York collector who founded the Artadia Award.

Mercedes Benz cars chauffeured these and other VIPs around town from gallery to restaurant to gallery again, with tours of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago MCA thrown in.

Saturday night the New Art Dealers Association sponsored a party in an empty house, which I hear has been on the market for quite some time. Chivas Regal whisky, which was sponsoring the event, transformed the place into a trendy club with huge open bar, fake Picassos and girls dressed in glitzy minis. People were tipsy happy and having a good time, including NADA director Heather Hubbs and the Los Angeles contingent of L.A. caterer Nino Mier and Mary Leigh of Cherry and Martin Gallery, artist Erik Frydenborg and art star Amanda Ross-Ho, who started her career here in Chicago at the now-defunct gallery Dogmatic. Ross-Ho is one of many homegrown talents that leave the city every year to enjoy greener pastures in L.A. or N.Y. The list is so long and depressing I will name no more names.

“Not too shabby for something that was conceived just five months ago,” said Scott Speh, owner of Western Exhibitions, one of Chicago’s edgier commercial galleries, which currently has on view a solo project by the New York artist Maria Petschnig (b. 1973). “Gallery Weekend Chicago is a good platform to build upon,” he added.

After the weekend I called up Ohad Jehassi, a collector who splits his time between Miami and New York. Jehassi owns works by artists like José Bedia, Carlos Estévez and Purvis Young as well as Neo-Geo Chicago painter Geoffrey Todd Smith and conceptualist Joseph Grigely.

An art fair veteran, Jehassi said “the vibe in Chicago was laid back, intimate, friendly, enthusiastic.” Yes, but had he bought anything? He said he had his eye on one or two works.

The galleries all had openings, of course, and one good one was at Tony Wight Gallery in the West Loop gallery district, where Chicago photographer Barbara Kasten (b. 1936) unveiled “Ineluctable,” her new show of large-scale abstract photographs. A true master, Kasten develops incredible vastness through transparent planes, shadows and traces of light as seen through glasses over large-scale, black-and-white colored assemblages. In Studio Construct 119 (2010), a pointy glass corner punctures a tiny hole on a black piece of paper ever so slightly, a rupture that is as delicate and intimate as the cosmos. Photos are $11,500 in an edition of 5, and still available at the time of my visit.

I couldn’t keep to the 11 GWC galleries, so I ventured to 65GRAND gallery. One of Chicago’s most respectable spaces, it features the enjoyable “Picture Framing,” a solo show of figurative paintings by William Staples, his third at the gallery. The new works, small and flat, use irregular canvases, sometimes with holes cut into the surface to create a bit of literal depth. Thought, not as dramatic as Lucio Fontana, they are still effective. My favorite, Sea Cliff, in pasty burnt oranges and blues, is Staples’ version of the famous French Etretat Cliffs once painted by Courbet. Prices at this show range between $800 and $2,000. Once again, none had sold at the time of my visit.

Another gallery I visited off the beaten path was SideCar Gallery. Its address is in Indiana, a 20-minute drive from downtown Chicago. SideCar is run by Michael Kaysen, a 25-year veteran of the Art Institute’s installation department, who has plenty of good stories to tell about artists’ egos. Those can’t be repeated, but he does report that Anselm Kiefer and Robert Ryman are very laid back.

The show at hand “Air: Tasteless, Odorless and Colorless,” features works by two Chicago artists, Claire Ashley and Mark Booth. I was engrossed by Ashley’s inflated plasticized sculptural canvases, which are propelled to life by small electric fans. One can’t help but think of the oversized color-field balloon installations of the German artist Katharina Grosse. The difference here is that Ashley’s paintings relate specifically to the human body, occupying a tactile space between flaccidity and tumescence.

Crease, for example, is a voluptuous bag with brightly colored geometric lines and shapes painted on its surface that reminds me of the way people stand on a bus shelter. Prices for Ashley’s works — which can be easily stored once they’re deflated — fluctuate between $1,200 and $2,000. None had sold either at the time of my visit.

The work in all three shows I visited is good and very reasonably priced. Now, all we need is a ballsy collector to move in and make a killing. Let’s hope somebody does and that GWC fulfills its promise.

PEDRO VÉLEZ is an art critic and writer hibernating in Chicago.

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