Sunday, September 16, 2012

Wall Rides and Celebrities: Art I Hated at HFAF

Robert Boyd

I saw art at the Houston Fine Art Fair that I found excellent. That artwork will not be seen in this post. This is all about the art I loathed. Art that is inept. Art that is gimmicky. Art that slaps you in the face with its utter crassness.

Usually I didn't recognize the artist. But there are a few well-known names here. But fame is no excuse. Bad is bad.

Bad comes in a variety of flavors. Portraits of celebrities were one popular category of bad. Optical illusions another. One attendee referred to a certain kind of art as a "wall ride." I'm sure these will be obvious below. Kitchy, sentimental pieces get included. As do lazy pieces of art that are pastiches of other art. Art that panders. And art that is inept and awkward. You're all on my list.

The thing is, one can imagine artworks (and even identify actual examples of such art) that fit into any of the above categories that nonetheless succeed as artworks. I'm open to that. And regarding the pieces below, your mileage may vary. But spending several hours walking through this souk of luxury merchandise left me profoundly weary and dispirited. I felt personally insulted by much of the work on view. If I were a slightly more passionate person, I would have caused an incident. Getting thrown out of such a place would be an honor. But the whole environment was too enervating for me to accomplish an action like that, and besides, I'm a total chickenshit. So instead I write this nasty, mean-spirited blog post.

Alex Queral, Clint Eastwood, digital print on canvas, 60" x 48" at Projects Gallery

Alex Queral carves likenesses of famous people from phone books, then takes photos and blows them up. I guess it's slightly amazing that he can do this, but the likenesses are bad, and the images themselves are boring cliches.

Vik Muniz, Jackie (From Diamond Divas), C-print, 39" 32" at PanAmerican Art Projects

Vik Muniz has done many pieces of art that I like, but this series of portraits done in diamonds is crass and panders to the worst instincts of collectors. I mean, why not go the extra step and draw the portraits in cocaine?

Alex Cao portrait of Steve Jobs at Darke Gallery

Alex Cao's huge images--almost all extremely familiar--were perhaps the low point of the show. They are heinous. He uses some computer technique to take a very small picture and create the very large picture from it. So Steve Jobs is made out of millions of tiny astronauts.

Alex Cao portrait of Steve Jobs (detail) at Darke Gallery

Alex Cao portrait of Pamela Anderson at Darke Gallery

And Pamela Anderson is made of millions of tiny vaginas--specifically, L'Origine du monde by Gustave Courbet. The shallow irony of this combination hardly deserves remarking on. 

Alex Cao portrait of Pamela Anderson (detail) at Darke Gallery

Anibal Vallejo, Kennedy Assassination, 2010, oil and embroidery on canvas, 47" x 59"

And speaking of shallow, Anibal Vallejo's Kennedy Assassination is an pointless, emotion-free representation of the tragic historical scene. In addition to being a trivial depiction of an important event, it is badly composed and executed.

Lluis Barba, Archduke Leopold in His Picture Gallery in Brussels, David Teniers, 2008/2009, digital C-Print on perspex, 72" x 98" at Cynthia Corbett Gallery

Lluis Barba manages to combine two of the most crass trends observed in this art fair into one loathsome work. (Actually several loathsome works, but this is the one I chose to photograph.) He is quoting a well-known painting Archduke Leopold in His Picture Gallery in Brussels by David Teniers. And he crudely populates the painting with ineptly Photoshopped images of celebrities of various sorts. This work fails on every possible level.

Benito Huerta, So What, 78" x 78", at Thomas Paul Fine Art

I know Benito Huerta is well-regarded. I've seen work by Huerta that I like. But to show not one but two pastiches of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon suggests a dearth of ideas. (This was repeated at his solo exhibit at Avis Frank Gallery where the painting he riffed on over and over was Gauguin's L'Esprit des morts veille.)

Benito Huerta, Exile Off Main Street, 2012, oil on velvet, fir and tar on wood, 63" x 99" at Thomas Paul Fine Art

I can understand that Huerta might be contending with Picasso or Gauguin. That his work is in dialogue with the old dead white guys, or a critique of their colonial attitudes or treatment of women as subjects and objects. But in the end, this kind of art seems on one hand to depend on someone else's energy, and more important, it panders to the potential audience. And if you saw one of these pieces alone in a different context, it might be different. But in the context of an art fair, where work like this is distressingly common, these paintings are just one more pat on the back of the attendees congratulating them for their relatively-meager-but-not-non-existent-knowledge of art history.

Devorah Sperber, After Picasso, 5024 spools of thread, aluminum ball chain and hanging aparatus, clear acrylic spheres, steel stand, 2006, 96" x 100" x 60" at Bentley

But Huerta's paintings pale in comparison to the utter vacuity of these beauties by Devorah Sperber. Her two pieces, After Picasso and After Van Eyck are gimmicky wall-rides built around well-known paintings. These crowd-pleasing objects might work very well at a carnival or county fair, but they shouldn't be in art museums. On the other hand, they probably work well in the context of an art fair where the sensational is prioritized.

Devorah Sperber, After van Eyck, 5024 spools of thread, aluminum ball chain and hanging aparatus, clear acrylic spheres, steel stand, 2006, 96" x 100" x 60" at Bentley Gallery

Alex Cao Pollock piece

I had to include our dear Mr. Cao. Of course he does pieces that are reproductions of famous artworks. No way would he miss out on that portion of the art fair dollar.

Frank Hyder, Couple, mixed media on Plexiglass with LEDs, 48" x 22" x 3.5" at Projects Gallery

My gif doesn't quite give the true effect of this piece, in which the colors gradually fade into one another. This purely decorative object seems like the kind of thing one might purchase at Pottery Barn, except they would have enough taste not to have it change colors.

Delphine Boël, Truth=Freedom?, neon, at Cynthia Corbett Gallery

Do trite expressions gain gravity when expressed in neon? This is the real question that Delphine Boël is asking.

Chul Hyun Ahn, Forked Series #22, 2012, plywod, lights, mirrors, 22" x 21" x 4" at C. Grimaldis Gallery

Chul Hyun Ahn makes pieces that look like they recede infinitely. And that's it. There is no there there.  Just a cheesy optical illusion.

Chul Hyun Ahn, title unknown, plywood, lights, mirrors, 22" x 21" x 4" at C. Grimaldis Gallery

three pieces by Patrick Hughes at Flowers Gallery

When you walk by Patrick Hughes pieces, they seem to move. The novelty of this would last for one or two viewings, and then what? You are left with paintings of almost endless banality.

Rafeal Barrios, Horizontal Levitante M25 at Art Nouveau Gallery

Ditto with Rafeal Barrios's sculptures. Once you figure out the optical illusion that makes it appear that these metal sculptures are a bunch of planks in various combinations, there is nothing there. Barrios, Hughes and Chul Hyun Ahn create art that is the equivalent of magic eye posters, with an equivalent level of artistic interest. The primary difference is price.

Rafeal Barrios, Nimbus M29 at Art Nouveau Gallery

Claudio Napolitano, Pescador de Suenos, photography, 59" x 45" at Villa del Arte Galleries

Claudio Napolitano's pictures of children trade in rank, manipulative sentimentality. Look at this little fisher of dreams. So deep! So cute!

Adonay Duque, Child 19th Century, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 47" x 47" at Galeria Moro

Adonay Duque channels Margaret Keane in this horrific portrait.

Ramón Vázquez, Maternidad, oil on canvas, 39 12/" x 31 1/2" at Cernuda Arte

Ramón Vázquez has real painting skill, but unfortunately he exercises his skills on paintings that are relentlessly hideous.

Irina Elén González, Dama de los Mares, acrylic on canvas, 39" x 31 3/4" at Cernuda Arte

Look, her hair is clouds!

Deborah Azzopardi, The Unexpected Call, 2012, acrylic on board, 48" x 36.5" at the Cynthia Corbett Gallery

Roy Lichtenstein has a lot to answer for. But all the virtues of his blow-up of comics panels are absent in Deborah Azzopardi's The Unexpected Call. The weak linework, the inept airbrush-style shading, the blankness of the image. Terrible.

John Grande, I See Dots 2, oil on canvas, 40" x 41"

With the badly painted 60s model (Twiggy? Edie Sedgwick?)  underneath a Damien Hirst-like dot painting, John Grande contrives to create something even shallower and more noxious than his two sources. That's something of an achievement.

Olga Tobreluts, Naomi, 2009, cold painted bronze, 31" x 8" x 9" at Deborah Colton

I suspect that there are people who think Olga Tobreluts' Naomi is mega-classy. I am grateful not to have met them.

Cristobal Valecillos, Teatime, archival digital print on metallic paper, 36" x 26" at the McLoughlin Gallery

Ditto with Teatime by Cristobal Valecillos.

Elisabett Gudmann/Kirk H. Slaughter, CROWD:3, unique bronze with patina

This looks vaguely familiar? Is there some other artist who made massively attenuated figures with really long legs? Some other guy who did roughly modeled figures? Help me out, people.

Jose Bedia, Cumpliendo un Destino Inexorable, 2010, mixed media on canvas, 70.5" x 129" at PanAmerican Art Projects

Look--an invisible superhero is telling a battleship to hush. That must mean something! Like "war is bad!" So deep!

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, Oh Night I Entered Through the Window of a Locked Church at Pavel Zoubok Gallery

Grandma would like one of these.



  1. Thanks for saving me the trouble of going. I was feeling a bit, just a wee bit, guilty. Now I will not have that feeling of helpless rage that accompanies wandering though such flea markets of grad school cleverness while nursing a new hip. I presume there were some sorts-of-good things, but crap prevails like a bad smell off the ship chanel. Thanks Robert.

  2. art is art, if its bad, then it can be explained why?, its up for debate,,Y/N

  3. Feel free to debate all you like. That's what the comments are for.

  4. Giacometti! As I waited in line for drink tickets, before I even had a chance to look at any of the Fine Art part of the Houston Fair, I found myself immersed in a "there are no new ideas in art/the first thing they teach you in Art school is that there is no such thing as stealing in the art world, and that it is ok to do" discussion. I totally disagree, but how appropriate was that, Robert? As a mitigating factor, these sorts of events are supposed to be commercially oriented. It's an open call for anyone with $20k to spend on a booth, so it's a mixed bag, fine, art.

  5. Much of the work you chose to show in this post does indeed mimic graphic design or is derivative or is banal sentiment. Good for you to call it out. I am curious about sales. How much of this kind of stuff sold. I suspect a lot?

  6. I know that at least one of the Chul Hyun Ahn pieces sold. But I also know that work that I consider quite good also sold. The bottom line is that galleries wouldn't risk the price of a booth (not cheap) if they had no idea what would sell. It's always a risk, especially if it's your first art fair in a particular place. But I know at least some of these things sold.

  7. This article is funny and you're right on all accounts, although I'm partially-minded to think that complaining about the caliber of art at some art fairs is akin to complaining about the caliber of gifts at a Spencer's Gifts, but you pointed out some especially ridiculous stinkers.

    The Devorah Sperber things could have been interesting if she'd used the thread spools to make original compositions instead of just recreating detail from the work of better artists. Either way I can't imagine anyone wanting one in their house.

    Right about the Elisabett Gudmann/Kirk H. Slaughter things - if I were bored in welding class and wanted to recreate an Alberto Giacometti sculpture, it might come out looking like that. Plus listing the materials as "unique bronze with patina" is pretty ridiculous.

    Also kudos to the fair for the added cruelty of setting the long drink line in front of the Steve Jobs/Pam Anderson things. It's not just that they were awful Vegas inspired work, they were also about 10 feet tall which is especially maniacal.

  8. Cody, I live on Fairview St.September 17, 2012 at 2:38 PM

    Don't ever question the quality of Spencer's. EVER

  9. That's the thing about taste, it comes in all sizes. I'm not going to criticize or agree but I did want to add something to the discussion. This was my first art fair experience (I exhibited) and the one thing that united all of the folks there from punters through gallery owners and up to the organizers was the need for Houston to have an annual art fair experience. I hope that in the future they arrange the dates of the Fine and the Contemporary fairs in such a way that we can have an art week (like Miami....19 venues) where we attract an international crowd and help Houston get the credit it deserves for both its artists and its galleries.

  10. My understanding is that the people behind HFAF and TCAF hate each other's guts, so we shouldn't expect cooperation from them. If Houston is to have a multi-fair weekend, someone else will have to step up to the p,ate.

  11. I am with you on all the art you call BS on except for the stuff by Chul Hyun Ahn. I really kind of dig that.

  12. Love your posts, now I have to go scrub myself with gasoline, and a SOS pad.