In 2019, before The Day the Earth Stood Still, I said to myself: This will be the last year I will write about EXPO. I’ve seen every iteration since it was reintroduced to Navy Pier and have written about all but one. They were great, but also pretty much the same. Same layout, same galleries – many works even look the same. Also, the EXPO always hurts my eyes, which usually leads to a headache culminating in dizziness, and during a banner year to a race to the nearest toilet.
Unsurprisingly, the culprit for this year’s headache and mild nausea was the previous night’s alcohol consumption rather than too much art – as both mine and seemingly every gallerist on the “Friday 11 hangover” floor could attest. While for most years I’ve set myself a goal, a theme, yes, a quest to guide and organize my tortuous sojourns around the Festival Hall’s drywall stockades, this year I simply wanted works that might soothe a splitting skull.
With the visual equivalent of a Javelin missile fired from a Ukrainian hero’s shoulder, I instead sought calm tones, calm scenes, and soft textures (check out Ogla de Amaral’s funky fibers in Richard Saltoun #229). So, armed with a bottle of ibuprofen, a Gatorade Propel and 16 ounces of gas station coffee, I decided to fight my way through the ninth and loneliest edition of EXPO.
For many of us, respite from the pandemic has been found in the havens of city parks and on the shores of Lake Michigan. Being surrounded by nature has always pushed the old blood pressure down a few notches anyway, and there are some outstanding examples of scenery scattered throughout the fair. Summer Wheat’s cool blue “Love Birds (Left)” at Sulamit Nazarine (#235) is haunting, but it was the work of Chicago-based painter Soumya Netrabile at Andrew Rafacz (#351) that I kept coming back to.
Netrabile’s function takes the viewer through the mirror into a beautifully and lushly brushed display of immersive landscapes. With painterly touches that remind Monet of Gorki, we see man not as the master of his world but as an integral part of it. More conceptually pleasing than her solo show at Andrew Rafacz last fall, these works still feature the rich greens and warm oranges, but lack the sinister creatures lurking in the foliage. The result is energizing and restful without being overwhelming.
Just a few blissfully short meters down the concrete back road from 300th aisle is Cape Town’s Martin Projects (#374) with a solo presentation of acrylic works by Cairo-based Sudanese artist Salah Elmur. Elmur’s formal language goes back to the European modernism of de Chirico, Braque and above all Picasso. By the way, take a look at this beautiful Picasso drawing in the Smith Davidson Gallery (#261) – I actually own a book with this drawing in it!
Anchored by the majestic “Greenish Black Velvet and Two Trumpets,” Elmur’s work is as comforting as a stroll through the autumnal parks of Netrabile, but there’s something poignant about his mysterious characters, who speak of lost love and unfulfilled dreams. Packed with alienation and contortion, the weight of Elmur’s paintings is supported only by the faces of his subjects and the few solitary objects they hold.
If these two absolutely stellar displays don’t live up to the aesthetic of the proverbial dog hair, I don’t know what is. Of course EXPO 2022 is still full of white bread abstraction. As mentally calming as a TV chimney at Christmas time and as digestible as a bowl of Cheerios, and as I flew past the fiftieth oversized color field painting, I was on my way to a beer. A sure sign that the hangover was over and another EXPO was in the history books. Now for this pandemic… (Alan Pocaro)