All’s Fair

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The art fair experience is, at best, a bit like that of making art. It requires strategy and instinct but is open to happy accidents and discoveries. So just what did I discover during my immersion in this last week’s art fair tsunami in New York? For much of the time, I was anchored at Spring/Break, that peppy subsidiary fair in the old Condé Nast building where I was curating a show, and didn’t throw myself into the whole Art Fair marathon. But I did what I could.

My first drop-in was at Collective Design, in the Skylight Clarkson North on Washington Street. This stunning show, in a glimmery industrial space, was stripped and raw, pure Post-Apocalyptic Chic. The first stand I looked over was that of the French publisher, Assouline, where massive books on display included those featuring Fernando Botero and, naturally, Andy Warhol—limited editions for $845 apiece—but also volumes targeted their client base with on wine, golf and wristwatches. Collective Design has been the only wholly design-oriented art fair, but it indicates the pumped-up musculature of the art economy that this year they presented Hybrid, a program which, as the name suggests, treats the fine art/design divide with less than complete reverence. A risky procedure, art being pretty much useless by design, whereas design … well, you can see where I am going with this. Donald Judd always bluntly insisted that the chairs he designed were just chairs, but good for the fair for giving it a try.

Ultra-sophsiticated tech was on the menu here in design world and elsewhere in the fairs, both as a toolkit and as grey to inky-black subject matter. At the Independent fair, Ryan Trecartin’s collaborative work with Lizzie Fitch at Spruth Magers put the armory of tech—such as the drones used in extreme sports—to dexterous use. At Spring/Break, the Castor Gallery showed wall works made by the Swedish artist Jonas Lund out of laser-cut black plexiglass, cumulatively representing 100,000 shares in a crypto-currency built on the Ethereum blockchain. The release promised that ownership would give the collector(s) power over “Jonas Lund’s artistic practice and career trajectory”. What would transpire if/when bitcoinage follows tulipmania and dot coms over the cliff was left unexamined.

Also at Spring/Break, was Evan Desmond Yee’s Museum of the Future, a look at our current world from a post-human point of view, including a gnarled drone and an iPhone encased in pretense amber. And down on the 22nd floor—once the Vanity Fair offices—Brett Wallace of Amazing Industries showed pictures of the first drone deliveries of wooden crates marked CULTURE. You may have noticed drones being rather a theme here. Hey, with all those metal thingies whizzing around, what could possibly go wrong?

Scope was, as always, the fair where the bright angels of kitsch were most thickly clustered, but there were also oases of real feeling, such as Roberto Dutesco’s The Wild Horses of Sable Island. These are photographs taken over thirty years of horses descended from the survivors of shipwrecks off Nova Scotia. Their haunting subtext is that Sable Island is a goner, a victim-to-be of climate change.

Also at Scope, the Haven Gallery from Northport, Long Island, showed artists with a Juxtapoz magazine aesthetic, which is to say makers of images way too obsessive to be characterised as run-of-the-mill kitsch. The outsiderish and visionary art on offer there from Stephen Romano was another surprise. Romano’s artists included Wolfgang Grasse, Barry Williams Hale and, particularly strikingly, the work of William Mortensen, a Hollywood photographer of the 20s to the 40s, whose fondness for making ultra-manipulated photographs caused the purist Ansel Adams to call him “the Anti-Christ,” but which have made Mortensen a figure of special interest in the Age of Photoshop.

Flying Blind, the show I curated at Spring/Break, consisted of three artists who worked under self-imposed physical constraints. Two, Ford Crull and Jon Tsoi, did so blindfold while Scot Borofsky worked without looking, usually with his hands behind his back. Each had his own specific motivation—Tsoi, for instance, is a Taoist, a believer in harnessing the famous Ying and Yang—but, broadly speaking, each was breaking away from overthinking, and giving himself up to energy and chance. Each brought excellent work to the show and made more in performances during the run.

And quite a run it was, the realtor’s mantra “location, location, location” being peculiarly true at an art fair. Opposite Flying Blind was CU Next Tuesday, featuring cartoony pieces by the artist Cupid Ojala and others. Further down the corridor was (Hotel) XX, which had been curated by Indira Cesarine and showed the work of twenty-five women, including a provocative display of faux Barbies. Also down the corridor was When The Towel Drops, a show in a space frequently pulsing with what I took to be loud, orgasmic gurgles, in which curator Natasha Becker was screening snippets of movies deleted over the years by Italian film censors and put together by a three woman artist collective, Radha May. Bits from a Brigitte Bardot movie were included, also Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point and Ingmar Bergman’s Brink of Life, from which I learned that not all the sounds were orgasmic, because notes indicated that the censors had insisted that “The scene in which Stina seems to be in pain due to labor will be deleted”.

So back to my question at the beginning. What – apart from those above – were my happy accidents, discoveries made during Armory Week? Arcadia, an installation at Spring/Break, was certainly one. It is the work of a New Yorker, Chambliss Giobbi. Who spent two years weaving flowers, pebbles, and small trees, such as sagebrush, augmented by construction paper, into a Mobius strip, an embodiment of three dimensional Euclidean space discovered in the mid 19th century. Giobbi’s Arcadia is about both future math and a past paradise, it is nine foot wide and five foot tall and it was swinging gently as it hung from the ceiling by a chain.

At the Independent, the John Altoon drawings and the disturbingly organic forms by the ceramicist Ken Price were looking startlingly fresh at Franklin Parrasch.

And so to the Armory itself.  Yes, the week is called Armory Week but I had left the piers till the end, knowing that the heavy hitters would have good stuff up but expecting no surprises. Wrong. The first surprise was the Bruce Nauman show at the London gallery, Sims Reed. Thirty prints of ruthless perfection, including I can suck you dry. But the second surprise, the showstopper for me, was at the Allan Stone Gallery. Stone’s gallery on the Upper East Side is now gone, but this was a show of an artist he had long represented, Wayne Thiebaud.  

Thiebaud, now with the Acquavella Gallery, is well-known for his paintings of ordinary objects, often edible, like slices of cake and ice-cream cones. Although often associated with Pop, he treated his subject matter without irony. Here, though, were totally different Thiebauds, like the landscape shown above. Surprises such as these are a commanding reason to trudge around art fairs.




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