Chicago is many things to many people. A city with loads of character and a fascinating history, it continues to evolve and surprise, and often in ways not so typical of a metropolis. In directing one’s attention to the contemporary art scene, a patchwork pattern of development becomes apparent. From clustered districts of small spaces to big institutes to restored structures as creative centres, not to mention the presence of a citywide Expo and a Biennale. What’s more, the particularity of a powerful black presence that elegantly redresses the balance lacking in art both historically and in the present day pretty much everywhere on the planet, is thriving here.

Chicago has many faces. This is not only noticeable when passing through the different neighbourhoods and observing the architecture, people, and welfare status, but also via the different types of art spaces that the city possesses. For many visitors, Millennium Park, with Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate, and the Art Institute of Chicago, with its great collection of paintings, are among the first stops. But they should not be the last, since contemporary Chicago itself has a lot to offer. The School of the Art Institute (SAIC), across the street from the museum, has a solid reputation. Talking to art professionals in Chicago, the SAIC turns up as a common point of reference in almost every conversation. The school recently organised a programme of artist talks at Expo Chicago, the annual art fair held in September, at the beginning of the cultural season.

seminar (Grey), 2014 by paul Winstanley, oil on linen, 155 x 160 cm, courtesy 1301pe, Los angeles

Director Tony Karman took over the running of the Expo four years ago, seeing it as his task to put Chicago back on the international map. Chicago is the third largest city in the USA. Even though the gallery scene is smaller here than in the major art centres on the east and west coast, one feels the potential of this city in its quantity of artist-run spaces and initiatives. As Karman noted: “Many of the collectors who come to Chicago want to find the next generation and to see what they are going to do.”

This year’s edition of the Expo mainly showed paintings, combining established international positions with new discoveries. Gallery 1301PE from Los Angeles showed the work of Paul Winstanley, who toured art schools in Britain taking photographs of studios. Those images initiated a series of paintings that are distinctive in terms of light, emptiness, and atmosphere. Chicago-based Matthew Metzger presented his work at Regards, a gallery that opened a space in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village in 2014. He also showed a series of paintings in a group exhibition, The Freedom Principle, currently at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, which explore the relationship between experimental music and art in the States since the mid-1960s. Metzger’s paintings reference simple objects and are painted very precisely, vividly depicting details such as shininess, shadow, scratches, and colour gradations. They appear abstract. Actually, his and Winstanley’s works suggest that the most interesting forms of abstraction can be found in figurative painting these days.

That Which can’t Be played, 2015, by Matthew Metzger, acrylic and oil on MrMDF panel, courtesy regards, chicago

Chicago has a couple of gallery clusters, one of them in the West Loop, a former meat-packing district that is now populated with studios, galleries, and restaurants, among which is the Chicago Artist Coalition, where young artists based in the city can apply for a residency, to be able to continue working after finishing art school. It seems to be a way to keep emerging artists in the city and create the chances that they might otherwise seek elsewhere. More to the west, gentrification has not yet altered the neighbourhood of Garfield Park. A few blocks from Kedzie station, the Julius Caesar artist-run space can be found in a residential street. This two-room exhibition venue is located in a building that houses an art studio, and is run by six artists who each pay their share of the rent and curate an independent programme. Co-director Maddie Reyna explains that all of the artists are allowed a free one-month exhibition of their choice and the rest of programme is discussed together. At the time DAMN° visited, there was a show by Shana Moulton in which domestic objects became projections of an imagined self. As a painter, Reyna is interested in notions about naiveté and innocence, and in introducing girly qualities in her work as opposed to male attitudes. Reyna also runs an apartment gallery in the Pilsen neighbourhood called Dreamboat, dedicated to the six artists she loves most. The format of a residential exhibition space is not an exception in Chicago, she informs.

For some years now, Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates has been active in the Greater Grand Crossing neighbourhood. With his Rebuild Foundation, Gates wants to revitalise neighbourhoods and to include the mainly African American population in cultural programmes – for instance, in his Black Cinema House, where a new generation is taught to tell their own stories. Gates’s newest project is the Stony Island Arts Bank that opened early October. Once a symbol of prosperous times, the original bank had since become abandoned. Now restored in a way that leaves its history visible, the premises serve as an exhibition-, talking-, listening- and reading space. The first artist to show work there is Carlos Bunga, from Portugal, who has made a giant installation in the main space. The Stony Island Arts Bank is one of the venues participating in the current Chicago Architecture Biennial.

Three major artists who work in Chicago and appear on the international stage are African American: Theaster Gates, Kerry James Marshall, and Nick Cave. Marshall explores blackness in his figurative paintings, making the point that black people rarely show up in classic works, as can be witnessed in a visit to the Art Institute. Nick Cave recently presented multiple pieces in his Soundsuits series at the Cranbrook Art Museum near Detroit, colourful and ingeniously crafted suits designed as an emotional shield to protect one’s race or gender while still expressing individuality. These three artists address their artistic roots and engage in forming, hiding, questioning, and imagining identities. Considering where they live, it would be strange if they did not. It’s a powerful city, Chicago.

The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now is at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago until 22 November 2015. 

Under the Skin, by Carlos Bunga, is at the Stony Island Arts Bank, Rebuild Foundation until 03 January 2016. 

Bread ornament, 2015 by Madie reyna, 14 x 19", oil on foam core
official opening celebration of rebuild Foundation’s stony island arts Bank, october 2015 installation by Theaster Gates photo: steve hall courtesy of rebuild Foundation
Nick Cave at here hear exhibition, 2015 cranbrook art Museum, Bloomfield hills, Michigan
installation view from My Life as an inFJ, an exhibition at Julius caesar in september 2015 by shana Moulton.