A soul-striking work from Obama portrait painter Amy Sherald. A stunning virtual reality experience above Lake Michigan from the boundary-pushing artist Nancy Baker Cahill.
These are among the public works of art you can see for free as part of 2023 EXPO Chicago, a ticketed art fair that runs through Sunday at Navy Pier.
The fair is marking its 10th anniversary with a larger, more accessible public art push in satellite locations across the city and suburbs, from Oak Lawn to Evanston, with an interactive map to make it easier to find the works.
People just walking down the street can see “really incredible artworks pop up,” said Kate Sierzputowski, EXPO’s director of programming. “It’s a peek into the work of Chicago-based artists and international artists.”
We put together a walking tour of four exhibitions for anyone who’s near the Loop in the coming weeks. Each is free and features the work of some of the contemporary art scene’s boldest names.
1. Start at the Peninsula Chicago
The Peninsula Chicago luxury downtown hotel hosts a contemporary art exhibition called “Neo Chicago” that boasts gems such as Sherald’s “All the Unforgotten Bliss (the early Bird)” (2017), the collection’s “hero piece.” It’s a striking image of a woman in a straw hat with a large, blue hummingbird necklace set against a muted peach background.
Susan Ellefson, communications director for the hotel, says the piece hangs low at the request of the artist so viewers can be eye-to-eye with the portrait’s subject.
For those looking to connect even more with the work, the hotel put a hummingbird dessert on its menu that was inspired by the art.
The 22-piece “Neo Chicago” exhibition features works from the private holdings of longtime collector and curator Beth Rudin DeWoody.
Another notable work on display is Kendall Carter’s “We” (2012), featuring 15 pairs of bronze-plated shoes that belonged to Carter and the artist’s loved ones. The shoes seem to float on wooden shelves. Ellefson says the work is a “self portrait” of the artist’s life.
“Neo Chicago” is on display through May at the Peninsula Chicago, 108 E. Superior St.
2. Head down the street to the 21c Museum Hotel Chicago
The 21c Museums operate in several cities as boutique art hotels and are known for rotating contemporary art exhibits in their properties.
Still, the Chicago location’s latest, titled “OFF-SPRING: New Generations,” is unusual in how it portrays the impact of religious and cultural rituals, carrying the theme across 100 multimedia artworks.
Sculptures, paintings, photographs and videos are used to invoke a familial familiarity.
In the atrium of the hotel, visitors are greeted by the works by the prolific artist Carrie Mae Weems, whose black-and-white portrait “Untitled” (1990) depicts a mother and daughter sitting at a table doing their makeup. Weems’ sepia-toned “May Flowers: (2002) shows three young girls with flowers in their hair and on their dresses.
Juli Lowe, the 21c Museum manager, curated the exhibition with Alice Gray Stites, 21c’s chief curator and museum director.
“New Generations” is on display through January 2024 at 21c Museum Hotel Chicago, 55 E. Ontario St.
3. Head to the lakefront
Los Angeles artist Cahill has become known for electronic works that use augmented and virtual reality.
She has brought an installation to Chicago that debuted in Miami and has been geo-tagged to appear over Lake Michigan near the Museum Campus so viewers who download an app can see it appear in the sky above the lake.
The project speaks to the potential impact of the climate crisis on the planet. It was inspired by conversations between Cahill and Sophia the Robot — touted as the world’s “first robot citizen” — about the climate crisis.
To see it, you need to download the free 4th Wall app. Then, just walk to the lakefront between the Shedd Aquarim and the Adler Planetarium. Point your phone at the sky, and you’ll see particles in the sky come together to form a planet that goes from being vibrant to dark and polluted.
This work can be experienced only at the lakefront near the Museum Campus.
On the way to the lakefront, look for one of the several bus shelters along Grand Avenue that display the photographs of Ethiopian photographer Aida Muluneh. Set against graphic backdrops, Muluneh’s photographs often feature women whose faces are painted faces or who are wearing bold colors and staring at the camera, images that are full of symbolism. The bus-shelter takeover — happening through May not just in Chicago but also in New York, Boston and Abidjan, Côte D’Ivoire — is part of a large Public Art Fund installation. Click here for a map of Chicago locations.
4. Walk to Navy Pier
A group of frolicking unicorn statues greets visitors at the entrance of Navy Pier. The exhibition “Funtime Unicorn” by artist Derrick Adams was timed to debut a few days before EXPO opened. It’s the artist’s take on play and leisure in the Black community.
EXPO is in town through Sunday, but other free public art installations will be on display long after the event at Navy Pier ends. Click on this list for more events and locations.