The Productive Messiness of Expo Chicago 2024

CHICAGO — More than ever, mixed-media work and hybrid processes seem to reflect our age of tension, disparity, and despair while slickly produced objects feel reminiscent of a time when the fraying world did not inflect our daily lives.

From April 11 to 14, the 11th edition of Expo Chicago, the midwest’s largest art fair (recently acquired by the London conglomerate Frieze), presented 170 galleries from 29 countries and 75 cities at Navy Pier. Two other art fairs took place simultaneously: the artist-driven Other Art Fair and the Barely Fair, run by Chicago collective Julius Caesar, featuring 20-by-20-inch miniature booths. 

It was the messy, the disparate, the hybrid, the inchoate that called most urgently in Expo. Perhaps this work felt as if it was trying harder to find the language to merge emotion with content, to harness the energies of the search within the courage of experimentation.

At the booth for New York’s LatchKey Gallery, Luis A. Sahagun stood near his portraits of his family members. Crafted from particle board, broken frames, beads, seeds, rope, drywall, and found materials, the works resemble Byzantine altar panels depicting saints. The faces, sketched in graphite, appear out of place in the ornamented panels, suggesting the ill-fitting forms of history imposed on non-European populations. Sahagun, originally from Guadalajara, Mexico, earned his MFA at Northern Illinois University. He said he seeks to reframe the way undocumented individuals are viewed. He not only ensconces the value and strength of each subject within the portraits, but also offers a kind of “spiritual cleansing” that draws on symbols from pre-Columbian mythologies. Having worked in construction for a decade, he employs materials that reflect the labor of migrants. 

One of the fair’s curated or site-specific projects, by Cleveland artist Lauren Yeager, reimagines the form of modernist sculpture, a la Brancusi, with 21st-century domestic plastic products. Yeager stacks foam ice coolers or plastic end tables in simple compositions. While commenting on non-biodegradable waste, her seemingly authentic love of modernist sculpture endows what could easily read as pastiche with formal dignity. 

Shirley Pettibone’s limp, tubular fabric sculptures at Duane Thomas fall into the “rescued from the compost” category. Pettibone, who passed away in 2011 and has been overshadowed by her artist husband, Richard, made this series in the 1970s, before turning to realist painting. Championed by Lucy Lippard in feminist art circles, the three draping forms on view were stitched and stuffed from paint-stained drop cloths. Their presence speaks of the body and the fight by women artists to infuse formalism with human vulnerability. 

Griselda Rosas’s large mixed media works on paper, representing Los Angeles gallery Luis De Jesus, were among the fair’s show stoppers. Rosas somehow combines the textures of paint with densely stitched or embroidered passages. The pieces are moody, atmospheric, full of surprises, and downright mystical in the way that they usher thread into the shimmery realm of fabulist landscapes. The artist, based in Tijuana and San Diego, straddles the US-Mexico border, and her stitching on paper can echo the back and forth, coming and going, of migration. In the far edge of one piece is a tear Rosas sutured. The divide is a wound; the wound needs repair. 

Dylan Rose Rheingold’s drawings and paintings at Miami Beach’s Jupiter Gallery were among Expo’s most exciting installations. Hundreds of pages from her sketchbook surrounded three paintings on canvas, as if engaged in a dance. Ideas, quickly noted in drawings, seemed to fertilize the air with promise, while their translation into larger paintings offered insight into the endless sifting, sorting, and selection of an artist developing work.

One of my favorite Chicago galleries, Monique Meloche, presented a varied program. Bahamian-American artist Lavar Munroe’s compositions incorporated shredded newspaper to make shaggy surfaces mixed with glitter, beads, spray paint, a hair braid, a shoelace, staples, thumbtacks, silk flowers, and a plastic insect. This mess of materials somehow distilled into a poised image of a man and woman in conversation, holding hands. This Herculean feat of hybridity sent chills up my spine: Munroe can clearly cobble a masterpiece out of almost anything. His creative process mirrors the improvisational ingenuity of survival tactics. 

In a similar fury, the self-taught Ugandan artist Emmie Nume’s charcoal, pastel, and mixed media drawings, presented by Afriart, feel like tumbleweeds. The 25-year-old artist’s line is radial, threadlike, wild, as if his hand can’t move quickly enough to exhume the figurative images. These works are tangled skeins drawn with brushes and sticks. Nume, who made his first drawing in 2021, has already had a residency at Afriart, and currently holds a Tracey Emin residency in England. 

Lording over one aisle of the fair was Israeli-American artist Ohad Meromi’s giant sculpture “Expulsion” (2018–24) at New York’s 56 Henry gallery. Adam and Eve teeter in twisty contrapposto. Their lumpy polyurethane foam bodies tower 10 feet tall. Even with heads bowed, they project a prideful presence. The idea of expulsion, especially at this monumental scale, resonates with the trauma of the current wars in Gaza and Ukraine. 

Overall, what might distinguish the midwest’s largest art fair is its mid-scale size and emphasis on smaller galleries. The blue-chips were not present, leaving room for a greater range of presentations, more emerging artists, more regional galleries, lower price points, and a general sense of joie de vivre.

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