Opening night of EXPO Chicago. Photo by Cheri Eisenberg.

CHICAGO - When Art Chicago was cancelled in 2012 and heard from no more, people were scratching their heads. The death of the city’s longest running major art exposition was a big blow for an international metropolis with a significant art market and pride in its cultural heft. But later that very same year, EXPO Chicago stepped in to fill the void, and I can report first-hand that the sophomore run was impressive

I was just in the Windy City last week, on the day before the fair officially opened, so I stopped by to get a sneak preview of the event, which ran through Saturday. The location is a winner: Navy Pier, sticking out into Lake Michigan. The Pier’s Festival Hall was huge indeed, and its toweringly high ceilings were put to good use by the Macarthur “genius” award-winner Jeanne Gang, whose Studio Gang Architects designed the whole fair layout. She hung three huge but lightweight sculptures called Cone, all in different materials, which provided nice eye candy and a visual break from rows of booths.

David Klamen’s Pantheism, 2011. Courtesy of Richard Gray Gallery. 

More than 125 galleries were on hand, with a nice representation of top local galleries like Rhona Hoffman but also international powerhouses like Matthew Marks and David Zwirner. Plenty of good art lined the aisles. George Condo’s painting Female Portrait, 2012, in Per Skarsted’s booth, stood out to me for the total assurance of the composition. David Klamen’s trippy painting-of-a-painting-of-a-galaxy, Pantheism, 2011, held my attention in the Richard Gray Gallery installation.

My favorite mini-exhibition was surely “Eyeline,” a joint production of Chicago’s Corbett vs. Dempsey and New York’s David Nolan Gallery. Stretching across their two booths and hung right at (you guessed it) eyeline, it included more than two-dozen portraits by the likes of Georg Baselitz, Carroll Dunham, Richard Artschwager and Jim Nutt. It was great to see a coherent installation that was actually about something, rather that the tasteful but random assemblages in many booths.

There was also a whiff of social activism at this fair that set it apart. Human Rights Watch was presenting a Jenny Holzer text piece, and the Natural Resources Defense Council had a booth at the fair, as it did last year.

Vaughn Bell’s Metropolis

The NRDC area featured the work of Seattle-based artist Vaughn Bell, and his piece Metropolis consisted of four big glass terrariums, all joined together in a large cube that was suspended from the ceiling. There was a hole in the bottom of each quadrant, and visitors were encouraged to stick their heads in and come face to face with native Midwestern plant species, the type that can get pushed out by human development. I did as instructed and liked the fresh perspective inside, which seems indicative of the overall fair.