- Diane Thodos
Chicago Art Expo 2022: Getting to the Story
New Art Examiner Spring quarter issue 2022
Whenever writing about the gobsmacking variety of art that Expo Chicago dishes up, there is no way around being forced to choose what story you are going to follow. It can be exhausting to cope with the mind-numbing horde of images, serving up large amounts of kitsch and glitter mixed in with quieter works that call for private concentration.
I cannot help feeling weary of the predictable production of endless novelty tailored to feed overheated market appetites. Truly we no longer have art movements, but art markets—which are inimical to contemplation, critical interpretation, analysis, skill, and a sense of history. Still, every year I am tempted to sort through Expo’s offerings to find the thread of a story that is able to glean something about our current cultural situation. It is worth the challenge to try and peel away the spectacle and institutional framing of Expo to give an alternative view.
For the last few years there has been an explosion of young Black artists who are heavily promoted by high-level galleries. To what degree does it reflect an actual cultural shift of awareness about Black consciousness in the larger culture? I decided to start with the work of older artists as a means of understanding the present. Elizabeth Catlett’s Negro Es Bello (1970) reflects a monumental solidity expressed through the graphic tradition of Mexican muralist art. The faces in Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled (Man) (2017) and Portrait of a Black Man in a World of Trouble (1990) make bold eye contact with the viewer, directly expressing critical self-consciousness about Black identity and self-empowerment. These themes bring to mind aspects of Marshall’s mentor and former teacher, the social realist artist Charles White. Both Catlett and Marshall are grounded in traditions of social realism dating back to the 1930s, which is significant to how they use the figure to express a deep awareness of cultural politics and Black identity.
Frank Morrison’s Respect The Process (2022) and Jesse Howard’s The Emergent of a Black Man(2022) partake of this same sense of cultural politics and Black identity. Though neither John Ahearn nor the artist known as Swoon is African American, Ahearn’s South Bronx relief portraits and Swoon’s etchings of women in such works as Cairo (2022) make strong eye contact and express a proud sense of minority identity. Subjects are carefully observed holding their bodies and gazes with confidence, which gives us a sense of who they are as real people and often reflect the attitudes and cultures of the communities and neighborhoods where they live.
Robert Peterson’s impressive hyperrealistic portrait Sunshine (2022) is rendered in high detail yet also reflects how fashion can construct identity in a way that camouflages the self. Derrick Adams’s print series How I Spent My Summer (2021) shows swimmers with polka dotted swim caps. The cheerful blue water and colorful inflatables belie a sense of uncertainty and loneliness in the subjects, who show a moody lack of fulfillment from the empty promises that consumerism and “the good life” bring. Jonni Cheatwood’s I Can’t Because of Reasons (2022) goes a step further with alienation, covering the faces of two Black women in incomprehensible colorful abstract blotches that ooze with Dadaist depersonalization.
Lynthia Edwards’s Ten Little Black Girls (2022) shows the artist’s heavy stylistic reliance on Romare Bearden’s expressive collage method, which she repeats in her large canvases. The same Bearden-inspired collage technique is apparent in Adams’s Interior Life (Woman) (2019). Mickalane Thomas’s print July 1977 (2019) combines Bearden’s and Jacob Lawrence’s collage techniques with a 1970s blaxploitation-style female nude. Assessing the work of Edwards, Adams, and Thomas, I cannot help feeling that such an homage gets too close to appropriating a certain collage approach into a branded context. The strategy seems to require the treatment of the figure as an alienated postmodern self appropriated and reassembled from the fragments of the modernist past. What does it mean to have “Black identity” signified by so many artists using the same strategy of graphic stylization? Scholar Kobena Mercer talks about this problem. Mercer, notes art historian Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, gave a brilliant cautionary talk at the annual James A. Porter Colloquium (last spring), cosponsored by Howard University and the National Gallery of Art, about the speed with which Black images by African-born and African American artists were entering the market, moving into collections as financial investments that doubled as symbols of wokeness, but were not publicly visible long enough to be engaged critically by art historians. Mercer openly questioned whether the plethora of easily consumable images of blackness and Black people on the market is a good thing.1
In a similar fashion, the production of abstract art at Expo reveals disturbingly intense market imperatives at its core. An endless train of Zombie Formalism continues to dominate contemporary abstraction, with no sign of relief in sight. There is some difference between the attitude of postmodern abstraction from the 1980s and 90s and abstraction now. Abstract art today has conveniently dispensed with the baggage of postmodern deconstructive rhetoric—all that talk about the “death of the author” and “the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.” There is no longer any need to crack open October magazine, read Arthur Danto, or dig into Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. Any number of ready-made decorative designs in minimalist, color field, op art, and abstract expressionist stylization—or amalgams thereof—will suffice, thank you. The market is waiting!
Looking at the abstraction from different periods on display at Expo is instructive. Joan Mitchell’s 1960 abstract expressionist graphic prints at the F. L. Braswell booth become a cynically appropriated “textual” fragment in David Salle’s print Syrie (2014). All pretense of even nominal historical self-consciousness is lost in Liliane Tomasko’s slapdash regurgitation of Willem de Kooning’s brushwork in all that we want (2021). Stanley William Hayter’s 1936 Untitled shows painstaking attention to the emergence of surrealist automatism embedded within a Kandinsky-inspired abstract landscape. Chelsia Culprit’s large charcoal sketches on unprimed canvas at the Revolver Galeria booth turn surrealist automatism into a quickly executed graffiti-style cartoon.
All this is a sign of entropy and cultural stagnation as much as it demonstrates the degree to which abstraction from modernist times (before 1960) has failed to establish any culturally meaningful legacy in the present. Today modernist abstraction—and African American art of the modernist era—have become reified as symbols of styles that can be easily codified and branded to fulfill market needs. In addition, it is noteworthy that Expo had less representation of mid-career artist than in the past, showing a gap of continuity between older blue-chip art and the youth culture generated styles of the present.
The alienating and impersonal effect of so much of the “branded” art on display is a symptom of exactly what Karl Marx and György Lukács had predicted. Art creation that has abandoned the human life world of social relationships and meanings has become reified as a commodity object within a totalizing market system. It can be confusing to try and comprehend how a Rembrandt, a banana taped to a wall, an invisible sculpture, and a cookie jar owned by Andy Warhol all operate on the same level as pure market commodities divorced from any basis of shared human cultural values or experience. That is why the “art object” has become excruciatingly arbitrary.
As with Expo, this market orientation also reflects the economic systems we live under on a larger scale. Consolidated power among elite monopoly corporations get to dictate what our economic system is like, in much the same way that a tiny number of dealers and their ultra-rich clients get to determine what is significant. The Art Market Is a Scam (and Rich People Run It), a Wendover Productions video available on YouTube, has a lot to say about this extraordinary consolidation of power:
“Forty-three percent of art dealers, nearly half, had fewer than 20 unique buyers in 2020. … Thirty percent of solo exhibits at museums in the US, considered the hallmark of success, featured artists represented by just one of five galleries (Pace, Marian Goodman, Hauser & Wirth, Gagosian, and David Zwirner).”2
In spite of these well-worn realities, I came away from Expo remembering the works of figurative artists who remain grounded in their sense of self and dedicated to using their skill to communicate human feeling and genuine social experience hidden away from the distracting bright lights of market sensationalism and the effects of concentrated wealth. Here’s to hoping we see more of their work next time.
Diane Thodos is an artist and art critic who lives in Evanston, IL. She is a Pollack Krasner Grant Recipient who exhibits internationally. Her work is in the collections of the Milwaukee Art Museum, the National Hellenic Museum, the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, the Block Museum at Northwestern University, and the Illinois Holocaust Museum among many others. For more information visit dianethodos.com.
1. The Many Problems with Deanna Lawson’s Photographs Gwendolyn D. Bois Shaw Hyperallergic Sept. 23, 2021. https://hyperallergic.com/679220/the-many-problems-with-deana-lawsons-photographs/.
2. The Art Market Is a Scam and Rich People Run It https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZ3F3zWiEmc.