The best part of this year’s Expo Chicago art fair for me was the walk from LaSalle Street Station to Navy Pier (where the fair was), and the walk west afterwards. The Saturday streets were teeming with tourists, happy couples, panhandlers, and many other types of humanity. I rarely tire of watching people. Looking at art can be another story altogether.
At the east end of Festival Hall, I wandered into the darkened lecture/interview area and sat and listened to the Bad at Sports guys interview William Powhida and the gallerist hosting his show at the fair. They were talking about art that commented on art. Also about how hard it is to have humor in art and still be taken seriously. It was enjoyable for the most part and I got a quick sketch in, but then I wandered out to look at what was on show.
My strategy at these fairs has always been to run through the entire thing quickly, then return to anything that made my eye stop. Most years that amounts to four or five paintings or drawings and this year was no different. There was a good corner where a David Park portrait was next to an Elmer Bischoff figure painting, with a Richard Diebenkorn drawing round the corner. I was also happy to see a Leon Kossoff painting along with a couple of drawings. There was an Alice Neal children’s portrait too, that made all the work around it look like newspaper clippings. The thing I liked best though were a couple small Harold Haydon cityscapes.
Jim Dempsey (from Corbett vs. Dempsey gallery) told me that Haydon mostly labored on his art in obscurity, earning his living as a critic and teacher. The little paintings I liked were from the ’30s but he went on to do strange ‘binocular paintings’ that it hurts my head even now to think about. The little Chicago backyards and buildings in the ones of his that I liked, reminded me of so many back porches and humble, unremarkable city scenes that have always inspired me to pick up brushes and paint.
Much of the rest of the fair began to blur after an hour or two. What is it that’s so exhausting about looking at artwork? I can look at the world all day and night and feel restored and sometimes even excited to respond in some way, but put me in a room of canvases, photographs, and sculptures, and it feels like my life force is being bled out after barely an hour. I’m not talking about the gallerinas, unfortunately-attired art dealers, or a lot of the crowd, which, has little regard for those around them trying to look at work or simply to pass by. Every public event is populated by a healthy contingent of the clueless; that’s part of the bargain of leaving one’s house. What I’m wondering about is just the experience of looking at others’ artwork and why—after a few minutes of joy and appreciation—the whole thing turns into such a chore. A task that one must get through.
I go to art fairs as a sort of penance. They represent what a lot of the world that doesn’t make art thinks that art is made of. So much of what’s on view is meant to comment on other artwork rather than anything out in the world that any one of us can go look at with our own eyes. I’ve never understood why so many artists make art about art rather than about life. Life is so much more interesting.
After I left Festival Hall and walked west towards State Street and the Red Line, the malaise slowly lifted and I was able to take in my surroundings with some semblance of appreciation. A simple walk down a Chicago street brought me back to why I paint and draw.