"Art 1997 Chicago"
"Art 1997 Chicago," held May 9-12 at the Navy Pier, attracted record attendance (35,000 people). Adjunct programs included "Pier Walk '97," billed as "the largest outdoor exhibition of large-scale sculpture in the world;" "Installation View," an exhibition of site-specific installations of cutting-edge video, sculpture, and sound works; and, for the first time, a series of symposia (sponsored by The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, Sotheby's, and The Art Dealers Association of America). Overall, the 1997 edition of Art Chicago lived up to its hype, offering a wide array of artists and styles in an easily accessed manner not intimidating to people outside the art world.
While the work on view was diverse, several trends-thematically interwoven, yet occasionally in direct contrast to one another-were evident. For one, after (too) many years of dourness, artists seem to be getting back a sense of humor, wry as it may be, which is often utilized as a conveyance for the acrimoniousness particular to our contemporary lives. At Jiri Svestka Gallery (Prague), David Cerny reproduced in life-sized scale an olive-green Fiberglas "action figure" self-portrait packaged in cellophane with a cardboard tag identifying the contents as "Artist" stapled across the top. Reminiscent of those cheap models once available at five-and-dime stores, it spoke to the commodification of artists in a droll way. At the same gallery was Jiri Cernicky's Biodem 1 (1997), an over-the-top, pastel-tinged wall piece dripping from its foam-covered support with polyurethane blobs, silicone nodes, and loops of artificial pearls. Bill Scanga's 3 Pairs of Frogs with Pants (1996) at TZ'Art & Co. (New York) was exactly that: each frog was dressed in its own unique pair of pants before being immersed into a glass jar filled with alcohol. Set in neat rows on narrow glass shelves, which gave them an air of curiosity closet-cum-laboratory, they had the curious attraction of repulsiveness; but they were just so funny in their little baggies that one was compelled to laugh-an exemplary model of the tragi-comic.
A number of artists assumed the role of collector, classifier, and keeper of memories, often articulated through orderly rows of objects, as in Maria Porges's How Will We Find Our Way (1997) and The Gifts of History (1997) at John Berggruen (San Francisco). The shelves of her glass or wooden window boxes are neatly lined with bottles and jars made of wax; applied text defines each container's "contents." Hundreds of whole nutmegs, fitted with eye screws and carefully hung from black threads in a controlled cascade, comprise Susan Wing's Memento Mori (1997) (oddly enough, it emitted no fragrance) at Richard Levy Gallery (Albuquerque). Galeria Camargo Vilaça (Saõ Paulo) featured Valeska Soares's untitled floor piece, a long tube of cranberry-colored velvet with small, shiny aluminum feet on either end, tied into a loose knot and stretched across the floor, as well as Efrain Almeida's Gotas (1997), sacks made of velvet and voile dangling from cedar hands (truncated at the wrists) that emerge from the wall.
Concern with the harshness and loneliness of contemporary life was evident in Matej Kren's The Cell (1997), a claustrophobic "room" built from books and CD players piled carefully upon one another (on view at the aforementioned Jiri Svestka Gallery), which had a forlorn quality, compounded by the tragedy of all those books that can't be read. At Morris-Healy Gallery (New York) was Tom Sachs's Floridian (1996), a roughly-fashioned, glass-front cabinet painted with snippets of the phrase "Police line-do not cross," housing his collection of working, hand-made guns. At Galerie du Jour Agnès (Paris), Claude Lévêque's untitled floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall installation of identically anonymous mailboxes spoke of isolation, as did Joseph Havel's untitled column of stiff, white shirt collars at Galerie Gabrielle Maubrie (Paris). Hair Bonnet (1997), a wearable hat hand-knitted out of human hair by Dublin artist Kathy Prendergast, addressed the torture of tedious, repetitive work, and raises questions about who would make or wear such a painful chapeau. Also examining the absent figure were Oliver Herring's pair of knitted coats at Max Protetch Gallery (New York) and Xawery Wolski's Vestido No. 6 (blanco) (1997), a wall-mounted, cross-shaped vestment of woven ceramic beads at Galeria OMR (Mexico DF).
By far the most talked about sculptures at Art Chicago were by Dinos and James Chapman: several realistic, Fiberglas figures whose titles were overkill. Two Faced Cunt (1997), for instance, featured a nude, prepubescent girl's body, its two blond heads joined at the cheeks by-what else? Looming nearby at Patrick Painter Editions (Vancouver) were Paul McCarthy's six-foot Skunks (1993); the fake fur pair grinned from atop three-foot-tall artificial tree stumps, each clutching its large, pink penis and grinning with wide-eyed, cartoonish wonder. Similar in structure and humor yet simultaneously ghoulish, Mark Dion's eight-foot tall stuffed mole, Les Necrophones (1997), hung limply from a rope around its neck at Galerie des Archives (Paris).
Outside the exhibition hall, "Pier Walk '97," curated by Chicago sculptors Terrence Karpowicz and Michael Dunbar and produced by 3-D Chicago, included 110 sculptures (more than double the number of works shown in 1996) installed up and down the Navy Pier. The remodeled pier includes a large Ferris wheel, a carousel, pushcart shops, corndog and popcorn stands, and other accoutrements typically associated with amusement parks. The sculptures, many of which are quite large, were installed among the amusements and against one another. Under such circumstances, even great sculpture suffers.
"Installation View" was curated by artists Karen McGarry and Carla Preiss for a series of conference rooms on the second floor of the hall. Ten artists (Phyllis Baldino, Richard Bloes, Kevin Hanley, Hans Hemmert, Corey McCorkle, Larry Mantello, Casey Rice, and Margaret Welsh, as well as McGarry and Preiss) were invited to install site-specific pieces as an alternative to the pervasive commercial atmosphere. Although the installation was a mere staircase away from exhibitors and their visitors, I was the only viewer during my several visits-which is a shame, because some of the works were very good, though others, such as McCorkle's New Life Expo (1997), were perhaps too subtle for the general audience in attendance.
Among the symposia was "Public Art: How Far is Too Far?" moderated by independent curator Mary Jane Jacob. The panel included Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel; J. M. Tasende, an art dealer; Frank Ribelin, a collector; Joel Strauss, consultant for McCormick Place Art Programs and former assistant director of Richard Gray Gallery; and artist Tom Otterness. Despite the interesting topic and participants, this panel was not well attended. (In contrast, the following symposium, "Andy Warhol's Influence on Contemporary Art," was nearly filled.)
Overall, the fair offered an excellent mix of international work by artists ranging from cutting-edge to well-established, and was an opportunity for anyone with an interest in the arts to experience them in great variety and depth.