Much Ado About Small Things: The Return of Barely Fair, Chicago’s Tiniest International Art Fair

Alexandra Drexelius, New City, April 20, 2022

The long-awaited return of Barely Fair-Chicago's tiniest international art fair-was brimming with spectacle. Arriving at Vernissage on a bustling Friday evening in April, one might assume that the interminable line of people led to the bar. Not so. The string of partygoers-libations already in hand, abuzz with anticipation-were queued to see the art. Visitors patiently waited to enter a diminutive gallery that offered even smaller attractions: thirty miniature art fair booths produced at 1:12 scale of the white cubes familiar to the international art circuit. In each gallery space, teensy works-from a mini polaroid now posturing as a large-format photograph to a paper model now resembling life-sized sculpture-gain stature in the confines of three petite walls.


Organized by Julius Caesar gallery, the second edition of Barely Fair observes the model piloted in 2019 while expanding its roster of galleries. Over a third of the original participating galleries returned for this year's iteration. While the fair continues to lean heavily on artist-run spaces from Chicago and the Midwest, this year welcomes bigger names, such as Blum & Poe and Massimo De Carlo, to the small platform.


Some of the booths mirror the theatricality of the fair's opening night. Swept up in the pageantry of the miniature, a couple of galleries opted to pantomime their own spaces. The Franklin crafted a model of their backyard gallery, dubbed "The Franklin Jr.," complete with earthy assemblages made from fungus, insects and nest debris. Likewise, Soccer Club Club squeezed a lovingly fabricated replica of its wood-paneled gallery-if not a tad misshapen-into the 20 x 20-inch space. Despite limited capacity, the gallery put on a salon-style hang of over twenty artists; the result is somewhat like a rogue dollhouse accumulating idiosyncratic clutter- sift through the chaos and the individual works still fall a bit short.


Other galleries embraced the commercially unviable, staging small-scale, large-scale installations. Michael Madrigali's cityscape presented at MICKEY peaks beyond the confines of the booth, evoking a near-moment of misreading measurements à la Spinal Tap. However, the metallic skyscrapers, positioned between model trees and animal figurines, recall the glorious world-building of the likes of artist Madelon Vriesendorp and designer Alexander Girard. Seen at a slight bird's eye view, this micro-metropolis holds your curiosity long enough to transport you elsewhere. Madrigali creates an immersive environment without letting you place a foot, or even a finger, inside.


Despite the amusing atmosphere, there is something profound in working this small. Details appear with greater purpose and the viewer, looking closely, may look more slowly. Sculpture in particular benefits from this presentation; unlike a painting, it has no edge and needs no wall. It commands space no matter how large the room. There is a casual grace about Dylan Spaysky's trio of animal bone sculptures presented by Good Weather. Sparsely glazed in nail polish, the bone stacks are a bit like rock cairns; natural forms now unnaturally formed, they evince an otherworldly composure. Similarly, a pair of works by Umico Niwa at Green Gallery, comprising foraged organic materials coated in oil paint, make the known strange. Sequenced out of detritus, the sculptures resemble alien creatures with torsos composed of spines alone. As they stretch and arch, their whole anatomy is laid bare.


Much of art viewing can be reduced to the act of looking at specific things in specific spaces. Barely Fair's greatest peculiarity is the engagement required by its miniscule constraints. While the art fair format can engender a fleeting scan over a lackluster expanse, here, the artworks, barely there, nevertheless command a closer look.


(Alexandra Drexelius)

Barely Fair is on view at Color Club, 4146 North Elston, through April 24.