The Subtle Highlights

March 21st, 2011 § 0 comments

Standing out against a garish background of colorful artwork, I did discover a few artists during the March art fairs that caught my eye because their work differed from everything else: it seemed to represent a kind of realism that was lacking from almost all the artwork shown. Though you’d think bright colors would be the eye catcher, these artists stood out visually with softer, more muted color palettes, and conceptually with their quotidian, almost mundane subjects. Overall I found them more compelling visually and conceptually, actually stopping my stroll to get a better look at their work. Researching the names I jotted down afterward, I found that most of them are in their early to mid 30s, and are all holders of MFA’s from somewhat pedigree schools. While I don’t see this as an indicator of quality, it’s interesting to see where our artists are coming from, and how, if at all, they were trained.

Walking through Scope I was interested first by the black & white images of Noelle Tan, a Cal Arts graduate represented by the Civilian Arts Project in D.C. Two series of images, one a set of dark landscapes where nighttime shadows obscure rural fences, sleepy buildings, and other places eerily deserted, and the other a set of blown-out day scenes of parks and people, reminded me not only of my own work but of a landscape that feels familiar. Hidden within Tan’s extreme use of black & white are portraits of familiar places and activities, frozen and distorted through her process into images of fragmented abstraction. They are motionless photographs of indiscernible places, landscapes, and people that cast a feeling isolation around the subjects they depict.

Towards the end of my walk through Scope I found another artist, a painter who graduated with an MFA from the University of Georgia Athens and is represented by Frosch & Portmann, named Hooper Turner. A lot of the artwork I responded positively to resonated differently when I looked through the artists website afterward. The artwork for me was seen through the veil of a specific context, as each artist was surrounded by so many other artworks. I wonder how the context of the art fair, like a BFA or MFA exhibition, changes how we see and respond to certain artists and artworks. Throughout all of the shows I felt as though I gravitated toward the understated and the bland, toward small artworks making simple statements, perhaps as a reaction against the overall look of the fairs. Looking through Turner’s website now I’m not convinced by his work, but after spending hours at Scope I really did enjoy his small painting, perhaps a little over a foot in each dimension, of a woman assisting with a bra clasp. Painted in a post-impressionist style it reminded me of a contemporary version of 19th century images of women going about their everyday duties. The painting has an intimacy and a personal touch that drew me in, and it’s small size and simple subject lacks irony and cleverness.

The third artist I found was Joyce Y-J Lee, represented by the Hamiltonian Gallery in D.C, whose projected videos had a Bill Viola like quality, though perhaps without so much emotional pretension. Projected in two different pieces into the corner of the gallery space, the film is a compilation of drawing and video, depicting normal people acting out historical, and probably religious, master paintings. Clearly inspired by Viola, perhaps with a little Peter Greenaway thrown in, Lee references illumination and art history in her work, but like Viola her videos also have a contemplative quality that is engaging to watch. Staring into the corner of the room, observing her characters express emotions without a visible cause for them was a more transporting experience then the slow motion Viola video I watched later that weekend at the Armory show.

While Pulse was my favorite art fair last year, this year it lacked quality and the garish showmanship of Scope, leaving it feeling like the runt of the three fairs I attended. The Armory show, surprisingly enough, actually seemed to be the most interesting. It was also the most crowded, overheated, and expansive. The first artist I found at the Armory was a young photographer who graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago (I wonder if a certain wil’burg hating photographer knows or remembers him) named Chad Gerth, and represented by the Corkin Gallery. His aerial photographs of empty building lots throughout Chicago appealed to my sensibilities: ugly photographs of cracked concrete and grass that became beautiful footprints of an urban area. Another artist I knew but didn’t recognize was the Chilean artist Ivan Navarro, who installed a large neon fence around the empty space of his gallery’s booth, the Paul Kasmin Gallery. I will always remember Navarro as the youthful, shy, visiting artist at VCU whose lecture I somehow attended, and who shocked our conservative school with his guerrilla art. In the vein of other foreign artists I also discovered Pablo Helguera, a Mexican artist who seems to be more a writer than an artist, but whose slide installation I found confusingly interesting.

I also counted a couple interesting fiber artists. At Pulse, represented by Pentimenti Gallery in Philly was Matthew Cox, whose embroidered MRI’s I’m sure I’ve seen before. Like so much of contemporary fiber art they are materially interesting though somewhat visually unsatisfying. At the Armory show there was a large, colorful Soundsuit by Nick Cave, perhaps the only artist I can forgive for making garish and colorful pieces, as his work is like really good candy: it’s so hard not to like it. Cave’s new Soundsuits have been showing up everywhere recently. For my freelance work at a fashion photography archive I worked with his accessory spread for Vogue as my company represents the photographer he worked with, and for my fashion forecasting company I ended up scanning the images from the Vogue spread for an accessories trend report.

As Roberta Smith pointed out in her review of the fairs, you can learn a lot from them, and it turned out that I did. I learned enough about a handful of new artists to remember both them and their work in the future, and I discovered some interesting galleries and trends while researching. Two weeks ago, after first attending the fairs, I would have completely disagreed with Smith, but as it turns out, she was right.

…you stand to gain from perusing one or more of the several art fairs that have set down stakes across Manhattan…open yourself to the best in them and they become pools of information that can humble, broaden and energize you in significant ways.

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