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River North

I was meeting some friends in Chicago one snowy weekend and decided to drive in a little early to check out an exhibition I'd been meaning to see. Everyone bailed on the experience so I forged ahead alone. It's disquieting entering an art gallery by yourself. Unless there's an opening, the space echoes with the gentle clicking of keys on an iMac by the sole front desk attendant. You exchange awkward pleasantries as you try not to creak the hardwood floors too loudly. Because for whatever reason, all the floorboards of art galleries creak! I always felt as if my back was being watched closely by the front desker, and I was self-conscious in the presentation of my "experience" of the art. Do you ever have that? It's especially grueling in a gallery you don't connect with and you can't just step in, look around, and walk out immediately. I made myself stop for at least 15 seconds in front of every other piece while my palms sweated and my heart raced. Escape was the only thing on my mind. It's neurotic and irrational, I know, but at least I was polite! I lost my self-consciousness after visiting the third gallery. This was River North! It was art mecca.

This district was the best thing I have ever found in Chicago. As I stepped out of one gallery, another beautiful space seemed to materialize out of thin air right next door. After I reached the end of a block, I looked up and another row of gallery windows met my gaze. They were like stepping stones; I didn't skip a step. My favorite was ECHT Gallery. It was not a typical white room pierced through with spotlights. ECHT was dark, ambient, and studded with the most gorgeously textural glass pieces I have ever seen in my life. I never took glassblowing in school, only Ceramics I. It was the first and only 3-dimensional art class I experienced and it was fantastically freeing. A lot of my classmates had never done anything 3-dimensional either and the course was an opportunity to explore and have fun with art again outside of the strict discipline of structured, continuous concept projects of advanced photography and painting. It was with reverence and a sense of regret that I walked through ECHT.

At Berlanga Fine Art, I couldn't open the door on the first try and scuttled away in embarrassment until Mr. Berlanga himself pushed it open with ease and invited me in. That's the other thing with a lot of these galleries; the owners who are featured in magazines and the art section of the newspaper are usually present and working. It's quite intimidating! I was the only person there with the exception of an assistant putting away photographs. Mr. Berlanga walked me through some of the pieces, offered me apple slices, and talked about visiting Cuba the year before which was the subject of this exhibition. He brought out an enormous book he helped to create with well-known photographers such as Sandro Miller. I poured over page after page of luminous black and white photos of life in Cuba. At the end of my visit, I thanked him profusely and sped out. The gallery has unfortunately since closed and Berlanga Fine Art has returned to private sales. But I definitely still recommend a thorough walkabout in River North. Go into every gallery if you're not socially anxious like me! Or if you are (and bring a friend)!

Veronica Zhang