Return of the Pier Show

Return of the Pier Show

Mieke Zuiderweg

While the 2014 edition of Expo Chicago, the city’s largest art fair, has not brought back the glory days of the 1980s and 90s, when “The Pier Show” made Chicago a capital of the contemporary art world (if only for the four to five days of its duration), the most recent iteration cements its return to high quality. Now in its third year under the aegis of Tony Karman & Co., Expo Chicago is helping local artists reclaim the city’s prominence on the national and international art scenes.

From its inception, the art fair at Navy Pier was the only thing of its kind in America, and the world’s blue chip galleries made pilgrimages to Chicago to show their wares. Since the turn of the millennium, various factors converged to diminish its significance—primarily the astonishing global proliferation of contemporary art fairs like Art Basel Miami and the New York Armory Show. But it is not simply that the art world has changed dramatically; the world at large has undergone similarly dramatic shifts.

Some who regularly attend Art Basel, which is largely considered the most prestigious of the international art expositions, complain that Expo Chicago includes too much secondary market material. Because there is so much art in the world, there is always something new to see, and there was plenty of great art at the fair, from a series of provocative panel discussions and an exhibit curated by Shaquille O’Neal (seriously) to an array of site-specific installations at the Piers.

Center cone by studio gang architects.
courtesy Justin Barbin

The various installations elevated the expo to another level. This is the second year that the show has provided space for experimental work like the performance/installation pieces from 6018North, which this year offered Bling Bling, an exploration of the democratization of luxury. 6018North’s director, Tricia Van Eck, assembled three room-sized participatory installations that explore our culture’s ambivalent relationship with expensive, often shiny objects and concepts. Steve Adkins’ contribution, The Indifference Curve—which he had first created as his School of the Art Institute of Chicago MFA thesis project—was a champagne garden that suggested Versailles with photo imagery, sod, and paving blocks emblazoned with the Louis Vuitton logo. Visitors were raised in a throne-like chair and served champagne as though they were part of Louis XIV’s court.

Various artists contributed to another room, sheathed in gold and silver Mylar, which examined “the seductive world of glamour and kinetics.” Into this world of sumptuousness, Alice Berry, who is trained both as a visual artist and as a psycho-therapist, offered 15-minute therapy sessions, representing “the ultimate luxury—being listened to.

Monika Wulfers’ neon sculpture, Five Equal Sides, Not a Pentagon, provided a simple but dazzling and mesmerizing experience: moving among the sets of lighted tubes permitted visitors to create their own perceptions of geometry and space.

Quite a few of the installations were grouped under the “In/Situ” banner, which curator Renaud Proch described as an homage to the city; while for some the Chicago connection seemed unclear, and for others, the designation of “installation” strained credulity; several were real show-stoppers.

Jessica Stockholder—currently on leave as chair of the University of Chicago’s Department of Visual Arts—offered Once Upon a Time, a signature twisted tower composed of brightly colored consumer items, mostly plastic, that clearly displayed her interest in crossing color field painting with three dimensional expression while allowing her to comment on themes like order vs. chaos, material acquisition, and spatial experience. Markus Linnenbrink contributed WHATWENEVERWEREAFTERALLSTILLHAVETOFINDADAY, a powerful wall-sized image that married his heavily gestural, vertical drip technique with a richly textured and almost kinetic horizontal stripe pattern. Alois Kronschlaeger’s Grid Structure #1 recalled Sol Lewitt’s orthogonal constructions, but Kronschlaeger greatly expanded and embellished the basic cage-like forms with the shadings and rhythms of applied color, which shifts and diffuses as the observer moves around the gridded towers.

Each of these projects suggests fascinating ways that architects and interior designers can and should think more about how installation art can enhance almost any large public space, and they herald the return of Chicago’s major art fair to national  prominence.