Art fairs are a demanding format. Each booth has approximately 10 seconds to make an impact. The viewer will either come in for a closer look, or veer away in search of something more engaging. A good architectural setting is an asset. It can add intrigue and drama, break up the tedium of an endless parade of white booths with things on the walls. The Javits Center has many advantages, but architectural charm is not one of them. Spending an afternoon at the Armory can make the most enthusiastic fairgoer wince. Oh no. More white booths. More paintings. The Independent Art Fair, on the other, almost never has this problem. The fair’s two venues each have their quirks–the interiors of the Battery Maritime were not designed with fair booths in mind, and can yield dark, cave-like spaces; Spring Studios has great light and a certain Brutalist charm, but it can feel like an empty office building, and the spaces by the windows can heat up like a greenhouse. But, for those galleries who end up situated by the windows, a little sweat is a small price to pay for that glorious light.
Although it was early on a Thursday evening, a roving bar cart was busy making the rounds, skillfully navigating fairgoers, artworks, and booth walls. It was a warm night, and the building already smelled like stale beer. People were happy to be out. The fair had the atmosphere of a student show, the fairgoers reminded me of happy art students.
One of the challenges of writing about an art fair–even a moderately-sized one like Independent–is trying to identify trends or patterns between booths, finding signal in the noise. Others have already commented on the return of sculpture (WSJ), the greater sense of inclusivity (NYT), figuration in painting (the Art Newspaper), the prominence of magical realism (Artnet News). Sometimes writers give up and generate top ten lists instead.
The other question, of course, is: Did things sell? (On Friday, fair organizers reported that 14 of the fair’s 69 booths sold out, so yes?)
But that all comes later. The general experience of being at the fair is one of being led along by the eye. I know I’ve come across something good when the fair fades away. It’s interesting to compare my notes from this year with previous years–What did I see then? What do I see now? Looking at my old notes, I track my own shifting aesthetics, changes in tastes, moods, even subjectivities. Old friends, new loves–there’s a place for them all.
Things that Caught My Eye at the Fair
Emily Nelligan – Alexandre Gallery
Emily Nelligan (1924-2018) died a few years ago, at the age of 99. Great Cranberry Island–an island just off the coast of Maine, near Acadia National Park–was, for seven decades, the subject of Nelligan’s art.
Nelligan’s small charcoals are unassuming from a distance, but mesmerizing up close.
The serial nature of these works, the constrained palette (nothing but paper, charcoal, and erasers), remind me of a more lyrical version of On Kawara’s date paintings. I was here. But the I is obscured. The charcoals are lovely, numinous, but they are not, at least not to me, about recording a strong artistic subjectivity. Nelligan’s commitment to her materials and technique, the strictness of her methodology, remind me of Vija Celmins, another artist who produces lushly beautiful, mesmerizing drawings–and yet reveals little of her own subjectivity or selfhood through these drawings.
Wendy Park – Various Small Fires
Those shoes drew me in. My mom had the same shoes — white high-top Reeboks. I had them, too, though mine often had a touch of pink. Buying new Reeboks. It was our fall ritual. We would head to the mall and buy new shoes. That way, I had new sneakers for the new school year, and my mom could exchange her dingy, worn-out shoes for something fresh.
Park’s paintings are deeply personal, but they tap into shared memories of growing up Asian American and trying to make the Asian parts and the American parts fit, and make sense, in a single life.
All of Park’s paintings in the VSF booth revolve around the theme of Korean picnics in Los Angeles. It is a topic that is at once autobiographical–riven with her own memories of picnicking with her family in L.A.–and also one of rich art historical resonance (just think of all the Sunday leisure paintings you had to memorize in your art history classes: Seurat’s Sunday on La Grand Jatte, Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, Renoir, Cezanne, Berthe Morisot, and many others).
Wendy Red Star – Sargent’s Daughters
Sargent’s Daughters showed prints by Wendy Red Star. The prints were made after paintings that were themselves made after nineteenth-century parfleches. The prints are more interesting in dialogue with the parfleches, and Sargent’s Daughters, as always, presented a beautifully designed booth that invited viewers to linger.
Nicholas Pope – The Sunday Painter
For whatever reason, contemporary artists seem to favor the same set of materials. It is nice to see something different–in this case, blown glass. Nicholas Pope collaborated with James Maskrey, a master glassmaker at the National Glass Centre to create delicate sculptures embodying the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Virtues. The glass sculptures are paired with drawings by Pope, and it’s interesting to consider the translation from 2D drawing to 3D sculpture. What was the process? What did Maskrey and Pope talk about? The glass pieces themselves are also lovely to behold.
Rande Cook – Fazakas Gallery
Fazakas, a Vancouver-based gallery that places a special emphasis on works by established and up-and-coming Indigenous artists, brought a selection of sculptures by Rande Cook, a Kwa’kwa’ka’wakw artist based in Victoria.
The masks represent Atlakim, or Forest Spirits.
I don’t think I can do justice to the concept of the Atlakim, or to Cook’s work, so I’ll quote from a text provided by the gallery:
Following the tale of a young boy lost in the forest, the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw tale of the Atlakim (also known as the Forest Spirits) encounters a new story in artist Rande Cook’s recent sculptural series.
Traditionally told through dancers wearing a set of masks carved in red cedar, the dance of the Forest Spirits includes up to forty characters. These characters are connected to nature, the cycles of life and the condition of human appetite, and collectively show that everything has a purpose. Here, Cook invites the Forest Spirits into new material bodies that reflect the contemporary in both materiality and condition.
For the Independent, Cook demonstrates his prowess in the artistic and technical skills passed down to him from ancient times through his lineage with large, elaborately carved red cedar panels. With his masks, he utilizes new technologies to welcome the Forest Spirits into new bodies of enviro-epoxy resin, a synthetic material that mimics the tactile quality of tree resin and is widely used for industrial purposes. This intentional material choice points to a shift in traditional art practices for the market, where artists such as Cook have adapted to conditions created by the global forestry industry, which sees the land as commodity.
In search of an ecologically-conscious artistic vocabulary, Cook connects mycelium sonic devices to the trees and captures their vibrational language, which he then plays during the pouring of the resin to create unique compositions. The research of ecologist Dr. Suzanne Simard, one of Cook’s colleagues, proposes that trees are perceptive beings. This is in keeping with Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw worldview, which believes that all aspects of our natural environment are imbued with spirit. This understanding is then seen through the performance of the Atlakim ceremonial dance.
Antonius-Tín Bui – moniquemeloche
Some works dazzle with their technical virtuosity. Antonius-Tín Bui’s papercuts have that dazzle. (I learned traditional papercutting techniques in school, and it is a difficult craft!)
Bui pushes the medium in a variety of ways. It’s fun–and strangely emotional–to see tradition pushed this way. Out of the old culture, a new one is born.
The Fair format was made for works that are easy to consume. It is terrible for work that requires a certain attentiveness and emotional latitude. It is especially terrible for difficult work. Fridman Gallery’s presentation of Dana Kavelina demonstrated the strengths and weaknesses of the art fair format. Without the fair, I may never have come across Kavelina’s work, yet at the fair, I found it difficult to give it the attention and thought that it deserved. This work deserves respectful, thoughtful attentiveness. It is not work to gloss over while drinking a flute of champagne.
After spending some time in the Fridman booth with Kavelina’s drawings, I decided I couldn’t face another turn around the fair, not after that body of work.
Leaving the fair, I passed a pair of protestors holding signs asking passersby to support the Writer’s Guild. One of the signs read: GO AHEAD, MAKE MY PAY.
It was a glorious spring evening. The protestors were competing with sunny terraces and sidewalk bistro tables. One block down, at Independent, people were drinking champagne and composing acquisition strategies (for art, or maybe startups, or whatever else rich people are interested in acquiring this year). Uptown, the auction houses were gearing up for two big evening sales. The next morning, I would wake up to read that sales for the spring auctions were “soft,” bringing in a mere $506.5 million. I suppose, whatever else you can say about art fairs and art galleries–shopping in the primary market does one good thing: it puts money back in the artist’s pocket.
Other, recent pieces about the art market:
(X)S vs. (X)L: A Tale of Two Art Fairs, Independent 20th Century and the Armory, 2022