Emerging Artists Reign Amid Absence of Mega-Galleries in Expo Chicago’s Online Fair

Emerging Artists Reign Amid Absence of Mega-Galleries in Expo Chicago’s Online Fair
By: Angelica Villa

Since the pandemic’s lockdowns began last year, Expo Chicago has postponed its upcoming ninth edition twice: first from September 2020 to April 2021, then from April 2021 until later this year, with dates still to be announced. Like other major art fairs, Expo Chicago has hosted online iterations of its fair, with the second edition having closed on Sunday

Typically hosting some 180 galleries for its in-person affairs, the online edition of the fair gathered together 98 exhibitors, just over half its typical showing. Notably missing were mega-galleries like David Zwirner and Hauser & Wirth, which had participated before—a sign that the over-saturation of digital art events has made it difficult for medium-sized fairs to retain major blue-chip dealers. That, however, seemed to benefit the dealers that did show up, many of whom brought work by emerging artists.

“There are opportunities in these challenges,” Tony Karman, the fair’s founder, told ARTnews. “We’re continuing to think how EXPO Chicago can evolve and embrace what the art world is embracing dramatically and that is a digital component. I anticipate that all of that will contribute to, what we hope and expect is, a renewed in-person experience.”

Despite the online art fatigue, some dealers wanted their Expo Chicago presentations to diverge from the expected, with the hope that they might surprise collectors. “After a year of having everything online, people are getting a little bit shell-shocked by it all because there are so many of them [OVRs] now,” said Bennett Roberts, cofounder of Los Angeles’s Roberts Projects. “Instead of having our most popular salable artists, we wanted to come up with a different compilation that people wouldn’t expect from us.”

For its online presentation, Roberts Projects, which has been participating on and off in the fair for a decade, offered works by emerging artists Evan Nesbit, Lenz Geerk, and Brenna Youngblood, who recently was added to the gallery’s roster of artists. By the fair’s second day, the gallery had sold Geerk’s set of six black-and-white figurative paintings to a privately-owned museum in China that is set to open in 2022 for $75,000. Geerk is an emerging artist who boasts a long waitlist for vying buyers, according to Roberts, who said the work on offer also attracted attention from U.S. collectors.

Roberts Projects also sold Nesbit’s ink, dye, and burlap painting Bedlock (2021) for $7,500 to a collector in San Diego, as well as two of Youngblood’s mixed media canvases, Modern Welfare (2013) for $30,000 and Master P (2012) for $29,000, to two L.A. collectors.

Luce Gallery, of Turin, Italy, participated in the fair’s Exposure section, which focuses on emerging artists and was curated by Humberto Moro, deputy director and senior curator at the Museo Tamayo in Mexico City. Nikola Cernetic, the gallery’s founder, said that on the VIP Preview they received inquiries from both old and new clients. He sold all five of the vibrant figurative paintings by Zéh Palito on offer for $15,000 each, as well as Pete Mohall’s, Houses On Venice Beach (2021), a canvas depicting California made using tempera grassa, charcoal and acrylic resin, for $7,500.

New York’s Kasmin brought recent work by mid-career artists for its presentation, selling an abstract painting by James Nares’s titled Ignition (2020) for $130,000, Elliott Puckette’s painting On a Limb (2020) for $45,000, and Ian Davenport’s aluminum-panel work Squeeze (2020) for $32,000.

New York’s De Buck Gallery sold four quilt-based works by Tina Williams Brewer at prices below $50,000; three went to U.S. collectors and one to a Swiss buyer. The gallery also sold Stephen Towns’s figurative textile-based works The Bakers (2021) and Two Navy Sailors (2021), each at prices below $50,000.

Jenkins Johnson Gallery, which has locations in San Francisco and New York, sold an abstract painting by Lisa Corrine Davis to the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln, Nebraska. (The work had been listed for $29,000.) In an email, Wally Mason, chief curator at the Sheldon, said this Davis painting “adds an additional dimension to the conversation we aspire to create with recent acquisitions.” Those new purchases include works by Michelle Grabner, Carmen Herrera and Norman Lewis, among others.

New York’s The Hole sold works by Caitlin Cherry, Monica Kim Garza, Pedro Pedro, and Ry David Bradley within the first two days of the fair at prices between $8,500–$18,000. The gallery was initially planning to present a physical booth of Cherry at Expo Chicago, but after the pandemic forced its cancelation, the Hole opted to take those works and incorporate them into the inaugural show for the gallery’s new location in Tribeca. A representative for the gallery said that Cherry’s prismatic painting of a woman holding a bottle of Hennessy titled Railroad (2021) saw the most interest among collectors.

Jessica Silverman Gallery, of San Francisco, sold one work by photographer Coreen Simpson titled Eartha Kitt, NYC (1978), Woody De Othello’s Moving Along (2021), and Conrad Egyir’s painting of a man balancing books on his head titled Rainer’s Class (2021). The works on offer ranged in prices from $8,000–$18,500.

While EXPO is far from a regional event, part of the fair’s long-standing mandate has been to bring audiences a sense of Chicago’s art scene. Among the local vendors participating in the online fair was Gray gallery, which has locations in Chicago and New York, and showcased a solo exhibition of work of the late artist Ellen Lanyon, who died in 2013. Gray sold Lanyon’s acrylic on canvas painting Cloisonné (2010), featuring the artist’s signature symbols of the natural world like birds and flowers, for $20,000 to an American collector. (Proceeds from the sale of Lanyon’s work will benefit the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.)

“Over the last year we made a huge effort to remain in contact with our clients all over the world,” said Gray’s principal and partner Valerie Carberry. “That is why for Expo and at a time when we are slowly and carefully reopening our galleries it felt right and refreshing to direct our attention homeward, and focus on a great Chicago artist.”