Friday, October 18, 2013

The Lithium Art Fair, part 1

Robert Boyd

It's been a week since the Texas Contemporary Art Fair happened, and it already seems like a distant memory. If I hadn't taken so many photos, I'm not sure I'd be able to tell you what art I saw. Sometimes the most memorable things have nothing to do with the art, unless it's art's destruction. On Friday at TCAF, I was chatting when I heard a loud bang. Sports Car on Earth, In Space by Debra Barrera, one of the featured installations at the show, had fallen over. It looked pretty bad. This piece, under a different name, had appeared as one of the Blaffer Art Museum's Windows on Houston projects. It was a piece I really liked. Apparently someone taking a photo had backed into it. And it was pretty seriously damaged. TCAF wasn't all bad news for Barrera, though. She sold a great drawing, Sno-cat.

Debra Barrera, Sno-cat, 2013, graphite and stabilo pencil on paper, adhesive, 33 1/2 x 18 1/2 inches at Moody Gallery

It isn't always art that sticks in your mind. It might be the gallerist from Charest-Weinberg with the big fro.

Or big crowd on opening night--almost all of whom were complete strangers. It's like there is another art world about which I know nothing. Houstonia and Culture Map both had photo features of the opening night and I counted the people I recognized in them. I knew who 12 of the 61 people featured were.

Or the walk from the entrance to the selling floor.

Ann Wood (left) and Sharon Engelstein (center and right)

The Ann Wood house and two giant beautiful inflatable blobs by Sharon Engelstein made a big impression, as did the Clayton Brothers' antic Wishy Washy.

Clayton Brothers, Wishy Washy, 2006

Clayton Brothers, Wishy Washy, 2006

In fact, if those four pieces had been grouped together, they would have formed a surreal diorama--two buildings in front and two "mountains" in the distance.

Clayton Brothers, Wishy Washy, 2006

The fair attendee saw some of the coolest pieces in the show before she saw a single booth.

This is not to say the art in the booths was bad. Far from it; I was very pleased by the overall level of quality. But people kept asking me if I had seen something that really impressed me, and I couldn't think of anything. This is in sharp contrast with the Houston Fine Art Fair, where there were several booths and individual artworks that really blew my mind. But the HFAF also had a lot of really terrible art. You would see some beautiful, unearthly Xul Solar paintings, then turn around to see your seventh Marylin Monroe portrait of the day--it had very high highs and very low lows. TCAF, by contrast, hewed to the middle. Sure there were a few really nice pieces and a few really horrible ones, but the level of its extremes was a lot less than HFAF. In the language of statistics, we would say that TCAF had a small standard deviation while HFAF had a large one. In terms of psychology, HFAF was bipolar, TCAF a little more stable. But leaving behind metaphor, what I think we see is that TCAF was better curated in terms of its exhibitors. And that makes a lot of difference in terms of the experience one has at an art fair.

So let's take a look at some of the art at TCAF, going more-or-less alphabetically by gallery.

left, Mike Beradino piece and right, me wearing a Jim Nolan-designed temporary tattoo.

At Art Palace, Mike Beradino had a piece that took the Cremaster films and ran facial recognition software on them. The piece was composed of two physical parts--the computer on the bottom and the monitor above. The monitor had an image of Cremaster playing inset in the upper center, and you could see red facial recognition squares pop up anytime a face appeared. Surrounding this inset image were free-floating faces (presumably captured by the facial recognition software).

I found it pretty perplexing, and gallerist Arturo Palacio's explanation comparing Beradino's solo (but high-tech) craft work with the collective high-budget Hollywood-like production of Cremaster didn't help me to understand it better. But as I thought about it, I was reminded of what Ben Davis wrote about the middle-class aspirations of art in 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (recently reviewed on this site by Paul Mullan). Comparing visual art to the art of a Pixar movie (in which the awesomely talented skilled laborers subsume their individuality to operate within a framework of total teamwork--as presumably the film personnel in the Cremaster films did), Davis writes, "the uniquely middle-class nature of creative labor in the visual arts would seem to explain its alternative emphasis on the individual, that is, on the virtues of personality and small production." Beradino is therefore quite specifically positioning himself in opposition to large-scale productions requiring talented but anonymous cultural laborers.

The other piece of art in this photo is on my neck. It's a temporary tattoo by Jim Nolan that reads "Le Va," as in Barry Le Va, the pioneering process artist. Nolan had two such tattoos--one for Le Va and one for Beuys.

Joseph Cohen at Avis Frank

It like new piece by Joseph Cohen at Avis Frank. It gets away from the shimmery perfection of his monochrome paintings. The asymmetric canvas, the hanging flaps of paint--it feels like a Rauschenberg except with Cohen's typically intense, glittery color. It combines glamor and grunge in one piece. Lovely.

Willie Cole, Downtown Goddess, 2012-13, bronze, edition of seven, 36 x 9 x 9 inches at Beta Pictoris Gallery

Even since Picasso made a bull's head out of a bicycle seat and handlebars, artists have been taking manufactured things and making more-or-less realistic sculptures out of them. Willie Cole took women's shoes and made these faux-tribal sculptures out of them. It's a witty appropriation.

Norman Bluhm, untitled, 1961, oil on paper on canvas, 50 x 36 inches

Birnam Wood Galleries has some of my least favorite art in the show (several flags by David Datuna). But they also had some handsome high-modernist pieces--one of the only galleries that had such work at TCAF. I loved this Norman Bluhm painting.

Linda Matalon, untitled (four parts), 2013, wax and graphite on paper, 27 x 22.5 inches overall

I saw these fairly subtle pieces (and more by Linda Matalon) at Blackston. I liked them a lot, but what really made me think was how atypical they were for an art fair. They are small and feature relatively few black and grey marks. They don't jump off the wall. Considering the visual cacophony of the art fair, one wonders whether bringing art like this--even if it's beautiful like this art is--makes sense. On the other hand, maybe the way it stands apart from the typical art fair bombast is its virtue in this environment.

Peter Halley at Carl Solway

Even though I'm going in alphabetical order, this Peter Halley piece at Carl Solway Gallery illustrates my point above about art fair art. With its intense fluorescent colors and textured paint surface, it practically burns itself into your brain. You can't not see it as you stroll down the aisle.

Fernando Mastrangelo,  37 inch medallion, 2013, sugar, sprinkles. 37 inch diameter x 2 inches

Fernando Mastrangelo mediallions

Charest-Weinberg only showed work by one artist, these groovy medallions by Fernando Mastrangelo (who had a striking show in Houston last year). I'm not sure what the sales calculus is here. It makes for a fantastic-looking booth, but it also means all of your eggs are in one basket. Plus, it also means bringing no work by your other artists (Charest-Weinberg lists 10 artists in their stable), which they might resent. A tricky business, I imagine.

a bunch of paintings by Cheryl Donegan

David Shelton Gallery had a really nice "walk-through" booth (quite a few of the booths had two entrances, which allowed you to use them as short cuts to other aisles). He packed it full of some of the best work his gallery has, and it showed. I liked the flannel-shirt-style patterns of Cheryl Donegan as well as Kelly O'Connor's colorful "cover song" versions of Brancusi's Endless Column. (They remind me of when Bananarama covered "No Future.")

Kelly O'Connor sculpture

Keegan McHargue, Nymph of Lo, 2013, oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches

Painter Keegan McHargue won the best in show prize of $10,000, which caused some griping among the commentariat at Glasstire. I liked McHargue's paintings a lot, but I would have rather that Fredericks & Frieser had brought down some Gary Panters instead, as they had in the past.

Brad Tucker, Ham Shack, 2013, acrylic and enamel on wood, 32 1/2 x 21 x 4 inches (below) and Butter Dish, 2013, acrylic on wood, 16 x 12 x 3/4 inches (above)

Brad Tucker, Hashmack Tray, 2013, acrylic and enamel on wood, 31 x 25 x 2 1/2 inches

Brad Tucker, Generator, 2013, acrylic on wood, 4 1/2 x 4 x 7 inches and Regenerator, 2013, acrylic on wood, 4 1/2 x 4 x 7

Inman Gallery had a large booth, but still it was surprising (and pleasing) that they devoted one separate enclosed space to a single artist, Brad Tucker. His colorful sculptures depict actual things in a more-or-less abstract way. Some are familiar (TV trays) while some are less so, but they all were delightful and played around with the notion that you could be confused about what you were seeing. Were they sculpture or just colorful found objects? Until you read the label, it wasn't clear. The ordinariness of the subject matter and the colors made me think a bit of Jessica Stockholder.

Dan Douke, Gunk, acrylic on canvas, 10 3/4 x 8 x 8 3/4 inches

The Dan Douke trompe-l'oeil boxes at Jerald Melberg Gallery were amazing but struck me as "stunt art." They were designed to make you say "wow."

Dan Douke, Meguiar's, 2006, acrylic on canvas, 10 1/2 x 11 1/2 x 10 1/2 inches

Dan Douke, Meguiar's, 2006, acrylic on canvas, 10 1/2 x 11 1/2 x 10 1/2 inches

In fact, the artist seems so proud of his ability to fool the viewer that he shows us how the trick was done by making the canvas stretching apparatus visible. After all, he could have easily made that part the bottom of the sculpture. (I'm blaming the artist, but it could be the gallery. Maybe the hole is meant to be on the bottom, but the gallery wanted no one to mistake these for actual boxes.)

I visited Jayne Baum's apartment gallery (JHB Gallery) in New York last spring and was delighted to see her here. She had several Ellen Carey photos, as well as a lot of pieces by other artists. Carey is a photographer from Connecticut who specializes in photography not using a camera.

Ellen Carey, Pull with Flares and Rollback #7, 2006, polaroid color positive print, 72 x 22 inches

Guy Laramee at JHB Gallery

This canyon carved out of books by Guy Laramee at JHB also verged on being stunt art, but I was really drawn to it. It's clever and beautiful. But when I see work like this (or work by Cara Barer or Brian Dettmer, who also had work at TCAF at Toomey Tourell Fine Art--sorry I didn't get a photo of it), I feel a pang for the books that were destroyed. These pieces, though beautiful, represent a culture that doesn't value books at physical objects. For Laramee, books are just another piece of modern detritus from which he can fashion a work of art.

Guy Laramee at JHB Gallery

Why do collectors collect art? Thorstein Veblen had some pretty convincing ideas about it, and Pierre Bourdieu's notion of "cultural capital" is probably right, too. But for some collectors, particularly those who establish "egoseums" with their names on them to house their collections--Frick, Barnes, Menil, Broad, etc.--there is a quest for immortality.

Tim Etchells, Live Forever, 2010, neon sign, 6 x 78 inches

Tim Etchells' You Will Live Forever at Jenkins Johnson Gallery cuts to the chase and panders directly to collectors' desire for immortality. This is less a work of art than an ironic fetish with fake magical powers. I can't tell whether to be appalled or amused.

Kris Kurski at Joshua Liner

Kris Kurski's detailed and beautiful pieces at Joshua Liner Gallery just look wrong on a white wall. They need a more "goth" setting. If Miss Havisham had art on her walls, you might expect it to look a little like this. Although obviously it is carefully designed and constructed, it has the feeling of being the result of some quasi-natural entropic process. Creepily beautiful.

Allison Schulnik, Lace Curtains, 2012, oil on linen, 72 x 60 inches

Even though I'm going in alphabetical order by gallery (this is from Mark Moore Gallery), Allison Schulnik's Lace Curtains work well with the Kris Kurski above. They both have a feeling of neglect. Schulnik's bilious colors and thick impasto give this piece an unnerving feeling.

Yoram Wolberger, Blue Cowboy #3 (Double Gun Slinger), 2008-2013, reinforced cast fiberglass composite with pigment, 75 x 75 x 22 inches

Changing the vibe completely (but still in the Mark Moore Gallery) is Yoram Wolberger's Blue Cowboy. The scale of this sculpture is what makes it--it's your basic "take something really small and trivial and make a huge sculpture out of it" move that has been a part of contemporary art since Claes Oldenburg. And it sure does look cool. Apparently it was purchased at the show for $100,000! I'd love to know who bought it. I wonder if a sale that size signals to blue chip galleries that TCAF might be worth a try.

John Chamberlain at McClain Gallery

The thing about Houston galleries like McClain Gallery being at the fair is that I've often seen the work they're showing before. But I had never seen this festive John Chamberlain, looking like a tumbleweed at a birthday party. I love it.

Marc Burkhardt, Bridle, 2011, acrylic on wood, 30 x 21 7/8 inches

I included this painting by Marc Burckhardt (from Mindy Solomon Gallery) not just because I like it (which I do) but also because it's in a genre that is kind of a small minority here--realistic painting. Burkhardt engages in some deliberately antique classicizing, and the rope adds a surreal (which is to say modern) touch to it. Still, it's fundamentally a nice painting of a horse.

Mixed Greens had several pieces by Joan Linder, including a bunch of drawings of her sink. It seems like a rather banal subject to draw over and over, but then some of the greatest art of all time involved artists returning to the same banal subject over and over (Cezanne and Morandi, for example).

Joan Linder, Sink (Kiss My Face), 2012, ink on paper, 32 x 58 1/2 inches

Joan Linder, (clockwise from upper left) Green Sink, Yellow Sink, Pink Sink, Purple Sink, 2011 and 2012, colored maker on paper

Joan Linder, Counter, Sink, 2013, accordion book, ink on paper, 31 x 26 3/4 inches closed, 31 x 156 1/2 inches open

Joan Linder, Counter, Sink (detail), 2013, accordion book, ink on paper, 31 x 26 3/4 inches closed, 31 x 156 1/2 inches open

Her drawing has a children's book illustration vibe, which I quite like. These are fun, homey pieces.

Joan Linder, FedEx Box, 2010, watercolor on paper, 16 1/2 x 12 x 3 inches

Interestingly, Linder also did a trompe-l'oeil box. After seeing similar pieces at Frieze by J├╝rgen Drescher and Andreas Lolis, I am willing to declare "realistically rendered life-size three-dimension depictions of boxes" to be an official trend.

Joan Linder, FedEx Box (detail), 2010, watercolor on paper, 16 1/2 x 12 x 3 inches

OK, this post has gotten a little long. I'm going to stop here and publish a second part--there's still a lot more art from TCAF to plow through.


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