Noël Jones is originally from Kenai, Alaska and now lives in Chicago, IL, where she works in the Department of Learning and Public Engagement at the Art Institute of Chicago. She is the creator of EYE TO EYE Flashcards: Gender and Sex Edition, and is finishing her M.A. in New Arts Journalism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
“Caught in the Whirlwind of EXPO Chicago"
September 30, 2018
by Noël Jones
As I stepped into the convention hall of EXPO Chicago in Navy Pier’s Festival Hall, I fantasized about what it would be like to drift unhindered through its dazzling maze of white walls before the public arrives, viewing each of the 135 international galleries’ offerings in the peace enjoyed by the art market’s wealthiest collectors. Sarah Thornton says in her book, Seven Days in the Art World (2009), “It is a joy to snoop around an art fair before the feeding frenzy begins,” and I believe her.
People milled around in all directions. I arrived hungry, and spent thirty minutes and too much money sitting at the upscale picnic tables near the first of several Eataly stations, eating my way out of a tepid Bolognese and a plastic carton of olives. Three men in their early thirties pulled up next to me at the table, happy to have found each other.
Reaching middle-age as a woman is like being endowed with the superpower of invisibility. Men no longer lower their voices around me like hunters that whisper when a deer steps out into a clearing; they boast in full voice as if I cannot hear them, which makes for good eavesdropping.
“See why I love this?” One says, gesturing toward a woman passing by. He seems to have invited the other two. He regales them with stories of “this chick I’m hanging out with tonight” and “this other girl I’m driving down to Napa with tomorrow after I land in LA and pick up a motorcycle I have there” before telling them what really brought him to the fair—the art. "It's my thing. Some people collect postage stamps, and can spend hours looking at them. For me it's these shows—I go to all of them." He said the gallerists were surprised that he knew so much about the art, that "they couldn't believe I didn’t have a degree." Impressed by this, his friends ask what he looks for. "Number one: technique. Number two: I look for things that might bring an emotional reaction. Then I read the artist's background. This new young one just hit the jackpot--let's go--I'll show you!"
Can eating too many olives make you sick? Maybe a weak stomach is another symptom of being over forty, like deafness.
The hearings on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court have left many women feeling nauseous, rendering us hyper-aware of the spectrum of misogyny we navigate in our daily lives. In his opening statement against allegations of sexual assault last week, a red-faced Kavanaugh warned Democrats by quoting Hosea 8:7 from the Old Testament. “You sowed the wind. For decades to come, I fear the whole country will reap the whirlwind.”
But other storms are coming our way, from which our metaphorical whirlwinds distract us. Themes of climate change seem to have been surfacing with more regularity in art exhibitions in the last few years. But unless specified, can we know for sure whether these works are direct references to superstorms? Or is it that growing awareness of climate change has caused storms to seep into the consciousness of artists (and viewers) as a metaphor for other upheavals? This year’s fair included a few examples.
The Marc Straus Gallery of New York featured Paul Waldman’s Elephant Swim, a modest oil painting, composed of two blue landscape panels with jagged edges arranged one over the other, so that they interlocked like puzzle pieces, depicting five elephants that have been swept out to sea.
Salon 94, also of New York, presented an installation by Carlos Rolón, entitled, 90 Years, directly addressing the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. The back wall of the gallery was covered in an enlarged photograph of a pink house half demolished in the storm, leafy trees in the distance visible through the barren skeleton of its roof. Piled in front of the image was a mountain of household rubble: chairs, screens, a microwave, torn blankets, a TV, and the dead brush of various trees and bushes.
But it was Roberto Fabelo’s Gothic “Habanero” outside the Cernuda Arte Gallery of Coral Gables, Florida, that struck me the most apt representation of Kavanaugh’s caveat. The enormous painting, measuring 92 ½ x 79 ½ inches, is done almost entirely in black and white oil paint on canvas, with the exception of the red tongue of a giant Doberman Pinscher, being ridden by a middle-aged, Rubenesque, she-devil in nothing but long black boots, matching gloves, and a hooded Batman mask. Central to the composition is a tornado of swirling pots, pans, an espresso maker and other cookware, that appears somewhat controlled by a coven of other she-devils, who are either naked or adorned in random articles of dominatrix attire. One woman’s head is a futuristic mash-up of a strange bird and an alien. Another has a devil’s tail and wears a cooking pot on her head like a jaunty cap. Another is bald. An egg fries on her head. In one hand she holds a giant kitchen fork, tongs to the ground. Her other arm is raised, steadying a giant fish hook that appears to have been lowered down from the sky, as if a construction crane might soon hoist the whole mess away. She surveys the scene with the posture of a foreman. Between her massive thighs, the hands of a tiny male faun are pinned, rendering him immobile.
Whether intentional or not, Favelo’s canvas is the best depiction I have seen of the vision of hell terrifying men in the midst of the #MeToo movement. The painting feels almost juvenile, like something a talented teen might have drawn on the back of his class folder, as bald in its presentation as the woman holding the hook.
I stayed to look at it for a while, watching women pass by, laughing and stopping to take pictures. Most men averted their eyes and walked on, in search of something more attractive.