This past fall, I was fortunate enough to visit Chicago not once but twice. My first trip was to Expo Chicago from September 19-22, 2012 at the re-invigorated Navy Piers. This art fair was wildly successful from the late 70s to mid 90s, and one that was part of my art calendar until it closed down and the Merchandise Mart Properties started a new fair, which was not very exciting and many people stopped attending. After a few years of absence, however, this year, to resounding optimism, the fair returned with its original team of directors and was truly revitalized.

Many of Chicago’s leading institutions took part in the fair, allowing me a chance to visit the Art Institute of Chicago, the Renaissance Society, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. The first highlight of my trip was The Renaissance Society’s exhibit of both new and previously exhibited work by Vietnam-born, Berlin-based artist, Danh Vo. Vo’s show juxtaposed historical and personal artifacts, drawing from the heartbreaking story of his family and him having to flee South Vietnam in a homemade boat. The show established a dialogue between Vo’s Asian background and European upbringing, inviting the viewer to witness a unique mixing of culture and intertwining artistic practices. Further, the Renaissance Society collaborated with the Art Institute of Chicago, brining Vo’s ongoing work We The People into a new context.

The Art Institute of Chicago presented one of the best exhibitions I have seen. It was best in terms of the uncompromising presentation of artwork that is tough—tough to experience and tough to understand. Chicago was the perfect city to tackle this, featuring work by internationally acclaimed British artist, Steve McQueen, whose films address the Black Male in a city that has a history of race issues.

When I was studying in London in the mid 90s, I saw McQueen’s first films, such as BearFive Easy Pieces and Just Above My Head, which are the type of works that I still think about. McQueen primarily works with moving images, many of which started as black and white silent films with an emphasis on the body. This exhibition was brilliantly curated—as curating an installation of sound works is never simple. Here the curator created vignettes, stoppages of sound with a silent film, and rooms that were easily accessible and took you out of the flow, with seating and time to experience the longer films.

Over the past twenty years, McQueen’s work has evolved, incorporating sound and color, often challenging contemporary British social and cultural practices. I was particularly invested in two films, “Western Deep” (2002) and “Caribs’ Leap” (2002), which referenced the black male and were presented as a single work. They were filmed in present-day Grenada, going into the mines to show the suffocation and psychological pain of working in a confined space. The men become a machine, working mechanically through compulsory exercises. What was most interesting for me was that the videos presented a more universal look at race, as opposed to my more American-based knowledge, and the way in which the films were presented together painted a horrendous picture of what happens if you fall into a system. I am still haunted by the visuals and sound of this piece – it is hard to describe the claustrophobic space McQueen is able to create, mimicking the real space in the film, with darkness, sound and the imagery he chose.

After this work, I viewed “Girls, Tricky” (2001) which gives a close-up view of “trip-hop” musician Tricky, as he intimately records the song “Girls.” McQueen spent four days in the studio with him, allowing him to capture a real sensitivity and giving the audience another view of the black male. “Deadpan” (1997) was another spectrum of his work – still haunting, yet through humor. This black and white video focuses on McQueen, the one central figure. The artist stands still as the façade of a building crashes on top of him, his body remaining unharmed as it directly aligns with a hole in the façade for a window. Multiple camera angles record this comic and death defying moment. The composite of these works, Bearincluded, shows you the stereotypical Black Male that McQueen identifies – the hip hop star, the machine-like worker, the comedian, and the fighter.

Another standout work from the show was “Queen and Country” (2007-9), a non filmic work. McQueen was hired to be the official artist of the Iraq war, a British tradition since World War I. This two year long project led him to contact 115 families of soldiers who died serving their country, asking them for a photograph of their loved one in uniform. McQueen then turned these photographs into postage stamps with a small silhouette of the Queen placed on the top left corner. He attempted to have the stamps used but despite the overwhelming support of the public, it was not approved by the Royal Mail. The stamps were presented in cabinets, which were ordered chronologically by the subject’s date of death. As a viewer, one interacted with the work by pulling out the drawers to observe more and more stamps. It felt as if you were pulling open coffin doors.

After my excellent experience at the Art Institute of Chicago, I visited one of Chicago’s most interesting galleries, Corbett vs. Dempsey, who specialize in Chicago painting, sculpture and works on paper from 1940 to 1980 as well as contemporary artists who connect, in fact or in spirit, with these lineages. This includes many of the Chicago School artists as well as major international artists such as Arturo Herrera, Albert Oehlen, Christopher Wool and the show that I was able to see, new works by Joyce Pensato.

Pensato, is well known for her large scale paintings, working largely in black and white and usually employing signature images from popular culture. For her Chicago show, she presented many expressive paintings of images such as Groucho Marx and South Park Kenny in addition to collages, a new branch of her work. The collages – images of Muhammed Ali, Marlo Brando, and a young Al Pacino – are assembled in various fashions, having you feel as if you just walked into her studio – paint splattered, ripped, pasted together and refashioned to Pensato’s liking. Indeed, you have entered Pensato’s world. The men are staring and glaring aggressively, similar to the vibe one feels from her overly expressive paintings. Adding to this sense of cacophony is her installation of selected sculptures—Elmo, Simpson, and other over indulgent pop culture dolls, which have you wondering if they are smiling with you or at you. With this type of source material from her studio, the show felt specific, planned and also wonderfully accidental.

All of this plus the backdrop of one of the most beautiful architectural cities, and the must-see Anish Kapoor “Cloud Gate” sculpture in Millennium Park, made for an incredibly memorable Chicago experience.