The best and often only good reason to go to art fairs is to collect absurd stories, and this year's Art Chicago produced my all-time champion.
I'm a performing and visual arts writer for New City, a little alt weekly paper in Chicago, and every year our paper has a little booth at the annual giant Chicago art fair, which takes up several floors of the giant Merchandise Mart. Like all art fairs, it's an overblown, chaotic spectacle, but ultimately an underwhelming experience: scads of art galleries in endless rows of booths, with owners and gallerinas attempting to act blasé; art collectors wandering around getting (the dealers hope) drunk enough from little cups of Merlot to buy the art; artists with asymmetrical haircuts; and a woman carrying a little dog wearing an orange dress and orange pearls-- the dog not the woman--past our booth at least three times.
I go every year to watch people, dispense candy, and hear about how great our horoscope section is. This year I sat with my editor, who was writing frenetic emails and worrying about a political corruption story. I sat, desperate for a glass of wine but guessing said editor wouldn't be delighted by my drinking at the booth, so instead I ate atomic fireballs, completely sober in the midst of the madness. We had this huge pile of atomic fireballs on the table because it's our idea of social networking interfaces. Everyone loves candy.
My editor eventually left around six. I had to sit at the booth until seven, when they kicked everyone out, surrounded by stacks of newspapers and jawbreakers. I sat staring at the booth across the way, where a gallerina was slowly lifting one heel and then the other out of a pair of platform heels.
Then the woman came up to me. From a distance she looked about twenty but up close she was easily in her late forties or early fifties, wearing an incredibly short, neon green polo dress. Fake tan the color of a creamsicle, super long platinum blonde hair, tons of jewelry, a huge Louis Vuitton tote bag.
She approached the New City booth and immediately started to pile atomic fireballs into her purse. She didn't notice me at first, but when she did she seemed slightly embarrassed: "I guess I shouldn't be taking all this candy," she sighed, but I was morbidly fascinated and insisted she take all she want. That's what they're there for. Then she opened up to me, while continuing to shove handful after handful of atomic fireballs into her purse: She hates the art fair. Her boyfriend makes her come every year to buy art, and it's no fun compared to the candy convention. She goes to the candy convention every year, and it's like a fantasy, you can take all the candy you want and nobody gets mad at you.
She finally took the last atomic fireball and shoved it into her purse, her gorgeous lips pursed worriedly. She half-laughed: "I shouldn't take all these anyway because my boyfriend doesn't like atomic fireballs and he always gets mad at me when I give them to him because he doesn't like atomic fireballs and so I just give them to the lifeguard at the club. [beat] Okay, good night!"
She waltzed off into the depths of the art fair, where people were sulkily being ushered by security guards towards the elevators, plastic cups of wine in hand. I first wondered whether there really was a Chicago candy convention (there is), and why her boyfriend dragged her to the art fair. Did they come to look at anything in particular? What did they buy? Was he as bored by the fair as she was? Did they find the experience as absurd as I always do?
By volume, more and more gets written about the arts than ever before in history, but more and more critics seem to be talking to each other, or even more often, themselves. When I think about producing arts writing for yet another publication, my first thought is how to justify it. How will I keep from churning out the same grandiose previews, academic reviews, and navel-gazing think pieces I've been writing for local Chicago publications?
My second thought is this woman at the candy convention. It's easy judge her and make fun of her new-money, trophy-wife status, with her boyfriend who buys art for her while she'd rather be at the candy convention. But while I want a boyfriend who will buy me whatever I want at the Chicago art fair, I understand her impulse: I often might prefer to be at the candy convention, too--or at least my version of one. My friend and I joke about opening a gallery with trails of candy leading from the street into galleries, but the fact remains that almost everyone at Art Chicago is far more interested in the candy than the arts writing in New City.
Candy is a simple pleasure, one thing we don't need to be high-brow about, or worry about our taste in. With the exception of chocolate, which can be as complex and wrought with culture capital anxiety as wine, candy isn't difficult the way art is. You can't go wrong with your choice. Nobody will judge you if you prefer atomic fireballs to peach rings. Like most arts critics, I spend a lot of time worrying about my own biases and tastes. But every once in awhile, I experience art that makes me feel like a kid in a candy convention, cocooned in reverie and plentitude. And I know that my writing about this experience won't sound terribly smart, and so usually I don't end up writing about this work, or if I do, I cast as critical an eye as I can, pointing out that the astonishing Wooster group show could have relied less on television screens, or that the Abramovic retrospective was curated pretty lazily, while neglecting to note that I stood crying for ten minutes in front of video footage from "The Lovers, The Great Wall Walk."
I want this blog to cover art that excited me like a candy convention. I'm going to focus on less blockbuster shows (it's easy enough to find coverage of MCA shows, written by better critics than I) than the kind of art that makes Chicago special. I'll focus especially on emerging artists, especially performance and balls-out, risky projects in all media. The only criteria will be: can this compete with a candy convention?
Next up: Chicago's outsider art, two new shows at the Intuit outsider art museum and Russell Bowman Gallery, and the fight between transvestites I saw on the train last Saturday night.
Follow Monica Westin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/monicawestin