It was my first visit to a New York art fair, and I was already hoping it would be my last. As expected, there was the fairly rampant complacency one would expect from commercial-level art, but the utter lack of intimacy with the few works that were actually good didn’t help either.
At this point, it’s almost my duty as an artist to despise going to the Armory and SPRING/BREAK shows. (And then somehow “ironically” like it because that’ll show ‘em.) But it’s one thing to hear something is awful, and another to actually trudge through the dense crowds, mixed with those that are introspectively nodding with the air of people much too aware of themselves and the few people trying to enjoy the festivities.
Despite the corrosive bile of spite reflexively welling up from my gut, I managed to spot a few bright moments. It was relieving to see some good work clinging to life within the belly of the beast. By the end of the day, I was left to ponder: can objectively good art still thrive within the art industry ouroboros?
I had only heard rumors and read articles about the Buzzfeed of fine art. It certainly didn’t disappoint its reputation, with a confusion of walls displaying greatest hits, new and old, flanked by numerous displays that had the passing semblance of art. A touch of casual abstraction here, a shiny object there, and three splashes of Kehinde Wiley just to help it all go down with the croissants from one of the bakeries. After running between cafés and sculptures alike, it was oddly…normal. Strangely familiar, like a hometown you return to find all of your high school friends living in except with a shiny new crop of Starbucks.
There was an undercurrent, though, of wanting to escape; for the pieces to play and enthusiastically enjoy themselves. It was just being subdued, one method or another, by the habit of surface-level intellectualism so prominently on display. Just look at these pieces and try not to think of something fun:
Playground, doodling… and a space squid. “All hail Space Squid,” I muttered to myself, satisfied by a glimmer of hope from such a seemingly silly moment. A desperately-sought hope in a field of works where most can be summed up thusly:
The aesthetic equivalent of cat toys and something that would have been really popular a decade ago. I ended up weaving back and forth, taking plenty of other photos that make the same statement. Themes continued to jump from the common thorough but empty formal
investigations, overly-esoteric concepts, and art clearly made for interior designers. It was as though, somehow, throwing money at the issues didn’t make a substantial difference.
But, luckily, it wasn’t a total loss: every now and then, I’d be hit by something that honestly deserved more attention. It’s a shame to have such a pessimistic experience because, just from the cursory research on some of these galleries, it’s easy to tell there is still a large community of good artists.
Some interesting prints by Namsa Leuba at Echo Art’s booth, tucked into a corner
A sculpture that strongly reminded me of my Mother’s pottery
A wonderfully strange video piece by Brian Bress from Cherry and Martinand
a third Wiley spotted ensnaring the crowd’s attention
After exiting that maze, I wondered how many of those pieces worth admiring were new to the circuit–how much innocence had yet to be lost. How many would keep fighting the good fight. And then I saw the fifth sculpture made of mirrors and promptly left.
“Puerile” is perhaps not entirely accurate for the SPRING/BREAK show because that would assume genuine motives. Similar to the Armory, there were some nice formal pieces and a few that actually pulled off a balance of concept and execution. Unlike the Armory, though, each group had a small room or two for showing off their work, themed by the notion of a carbon copy—”21st century repost culture”. Let’s say some utilized the opportunity better than others…
Started off with pleasant formal qualities where you can sort of see the theme
…But it came in full strength in rooms such as Shulamit Nazarian’s. The cozy room had an interesting build-out for Genevieve Gaignard, essentially being an amalgamation of rooms in your grandparent’s well-used home. It was an appropriate intimacy that pleasantly blended Miss. Gaignard’s art with the scenes; the confusion was only betrayed by the gallery-quality frames.
An interesting performance with human clothesline holders and a lot of whistling and jumping.
…The 4RL room I enjoyed the most in how least likely someone would walk in and exclaim, “wow, so internet” before promptly leaving. That projection onto the print I enjoy mainly because of how it ups the ante for all of those other works of a hanging cloth in the woods.
…A lounge area, as far as I could tell. Was there art? Did it matter if I recognized the art? Maybe the Great Truth can be found by taking selfies underneath swirly lighting fixtures on hand-made pillows—I’ll never know.
…The diner scene I enjoyed mainly by its surreal aspects; you have to enjoy a room with sculpted pies and blueberry bagels.
It was around the sixth or eighth mirrored sculpture that day that I realized the only thing that separated the Armory from the SPRING/BREAK show was the veneer of sophistication and the proximity of pastries.
There was this one moment during my exploration that stuck with me in particular. I was wondering between plinths holding a variety of grasping hands when the curator came over to emphatically explain the work. Apparently, the artist was investigating how texting abstracts and dehumanizes spoken language; my reply was pretty much “yep”. I didn’t have the heart to argue that writing has been doing that for a slightly longer time, give or take a few millennia.
I walked through another glowy door into a room where a woman was gazing through the anus of a wooden man.
If anything, the curators and artists at SPRING/BREAK at least knew a bit how to produce an object. Did the crawling construction have a purpose? I’m sure I would have been lectured into old age about the myriad of subjects that are investigated by this ode to the Human Centipede series. As it was with the room projecting Hackers behind antiquated printers, the tapestries of porn thumbnails, printed fabric hung all about in all manners, prints of texts, prints that changed appearance depending on red and blue light….When I got to the luminescent, tie-dye room, I was certain people thought of making something “new, nostalgic and intellectual”, but then decided only two of those were needed and that the 70’s/80’s were a great time for everyone.
At the end of the day, it seemed like there was some success: there were a few earnestly good works being produced within an industry where just the semblance of creativity and culture is more invested in than gold. But the fact that I found something positive within the watered-down experience of an art fair does not make it any less anemic. Do artists make sales? With the way galleries are presenting art with the fleeting attention span in mind, I’m sure they are. Buzzfeed is certainly making a profit from their torrent of listicles.
The thing about Buzzfeed is that their growth has allowed solid, respected journalism. Perhaps all of this shallow navel-gazing is simply to afford the deep, rich works that will truly stimulate minds. Maybe, it’s all a part of the plan!
…No, I don’t think so. At this point for many artists, it’s painting for the sake of money. Which is a shame because they’re being shown up by the artists who remember to have a bit of fun. And to that, I say: all hail play. All hail… Space Squid.