MDW Fair at Mana Contemporary | slideshow
The MDW Fair has become a biannual reminder of how Chicago's independent arts groups and galleries can really get things done when they work together. In its third iteration, held November 9–11 at the new Chicago branch of Mana Contemporary Art Center, the fair was a triumph of collaborative energy and vision on the part of its organizers—threewalls, the Public Media Institute, Document, and Roots and Culture—and more than 75 exhibitors, performers and publishers from Chicago and beyond. If Expo Chicago and SOFA are lavish galas, then MDW is a block party—a chill gathering where there's free popcorn and hand stamps in lieu of tickets, and one interactive program inspires a group of people to sit in a semi-circle, whittling key fobs. Read more about the highlights of the fair after the jump.
Despite the casual vibe, this expanded edition of MDW seemed the best-organized yet. While I preferred the openness of the former location, Bridgeport's Geolofts, Mana's long corridor connecting a couple dozen exhibition spaces was easier to navigate. While it wasn't always apparent where one gallery's work ended and another's began, some exhibitors found creative ways to organize their displays. The Hyde Park Art Center's smart sectional bookshelf displayed small-scale works by artists such as Sara Black, Heather Mekkelson and Christopher Meerdo alongside exhibition catalogs. The Peanut Gallery took an especially playful approach (literally), turning a portion of its space into a "Broken Peanut Casino" where participants could gamble to win art. Ryan Duggan's installation Basic Funeral, comprised of a bare-bones wooden coffin, chairs and a framed photo of Disney characters, took over Johalla Projects' entire booth, immersing visitors in a near-death experience.
I lingered in the Document booth, which showcased collaborative video works by Robert Chase Heishman and Megan Schvaneveldt, as well as Heishman's captivating IMG (2012–) photographs (see our slideshow, above), in which he uses colored tape to layer patterns over simple scenes and achieve a mesmerizing visual flatness. The lines and colors in his images worked nicely with Schvanevelt's spray-painted, fabric-wrapped canvases, which re-create the patterns on pant inseams. At Heaven Gallery, Morgan Sims's Palisade, a tent-shaped neon sculpture, captivated visitors.
On the first floor, various publishers and writing programs had tables, including Soberscove Press, Temporary Art Review, the Center for Book and Paper Arts and the recently formed Chicago Artist Writers group. At Claire Arctander and Sadie Harmon's Casual Encounters Photobooth, participants were paired with people they didn't know to sit for portraits, thus altering the personal nature of the photobooth experience, as well as building a record of the fair's attendees—many of whom, I gathered, were students, artists, gallerists, administrators and others with some connection to the art world. With better promotion, the fair could reach a wider, more diverse audience, not only fostering community within the Chicago art scene but promoting its artists beyond it.
Before leaving, I got my photo taken with a woman I didn't know, picked up a copy of the new Monsters and Dust and said bye to a friend in the key fob–making corner. No, MDW's not your average fair—maybe it's not a fair at all—and that's what makes it work.