Galleries

Can an Art Fair Ever Be More Than an Art Fair?

by Jillian Steinhauer on December 7, 2012

Devon Dikeou, “Not Quite Mrs. de Menil’s Liquor Closet” (detail) (click to enlarge) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

MIAMI — NADA art fair has a reputation in Miami: it’s thought of by a lot of people as one of the best, most interesting art fairs in town. It upholds its claim to newer and more cutting-edge work on its website: “Each December in Miami, NADA runs a renowned art fair to vigorously pursue our goals of exploring new or underexposed art that is not typical of the ‘art establishment.’”

NADA is, in fact, a welcome alternative — or perhaps the better phrase is “accompaniment” — to Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB) and the other blue-chip fairs. But at the end of the day, an art fair is still an art fair — and NADA is one. Which is to say: there are some very good, striking, thoughtful works on view at this year’s NADA, and there are also a lot of boring ones.

The fair actually seems surprisingly similar to ABMB in its penchant for 2-D works; painting, in particular, is present in strong doses. Quirky, self-conscious plays on geometric abstraction can be seen every two or so booths, which struck me as something of a throwback. A few examples stood out, all of them practices that deviate from the rules by playing with and calling attention to their materials: Joe Fyfe‘s collage pieces incorporate fabric shapes alongside painting; Shila Khatami uses lacquer on aluminum to create unconventional surfaces; and Jess Fuller turns lines into blotches and rectangles into patches, as well as shredding her material selectively but mercilessly.

Work by Jess Fuller at Martos gallery

Tomoki Kurokawa’s paintings at Nanzuka gallery

Like these works, much of the best art at the fair seemed to have a sense of humor. Not to the point of shtick, mind you, but there’s just so much seriousness, and self-seriousness, in Miami, that the artists avoiding it were the ones who drew me in. Tomoki Kurokawa‘s small paintings at Nanzuka gallery, for instance, borrow visual tropes from manga but remix them into something surreal. One of my favorite pieces was an installation by Estonian artist Marko Mäetamm at the booth of Temnikova & Kasela Gallery. Mäetamm created blue watercolors and accompanying text for a series called Our Daddy Is a Hunter, and while the story sings the praises of the unnamed father, with his hunting gun and knife and big pants, the images show him hunting and ultimately netting his family. It’s dark stuff, but also funny; as the gallerist told me, “You know, it’s Estonia, not Greece. They don’t take everything so seriously.”

Marko Mäetamm, “Our Daddy Is a Hunter”

Another fantastic installation came from artist, collector, and Zing magazine editor Devon Dikeou. For NADA, Dikeou created a standalone, walk-in installation called “Not Quite Mrs. de Menil’s Liquor Closet.” The piece is inspired by, and very loosely modeled on, famed collector Dominique de Menil’s liquor closet, in which she apparently keeps miniature artworks mixed in with the glasses and drinks. Dikeou has created her own version of the closet, its mirrored shelves filled with bottles, glasses, and artworks from her own collection — drawings, postcards, photographs, and more by the likes of Marcel Dzama, Dan Colen, and Sarah Staton. Despite its hodgepodge nature, everything comes together perfectly. I mean it purely as a compliment when I suggest that this is what many people wish their Tumblrs and Pinterest boards would be: a portrait of the creator by way of a curated showcase of her aesthetic sensibility.

The exterior of Devon Dikeou’s “Not Quite Mrs. de Menil’s Liquor Closet”

Inside the faux liquor closet

A handful of other galleries are showing work that similarly springs from clever or smart ideas, with great aesthetic results. Justin Berry‘s mini solo booth at Interstate Projects, in the Nada Projects section of the fair, features three digital prints. For one of them, Berry photographed two covers of the same book side by side and then digitally manipulated them to remove the text. The resulting, nearly twin pictures are pastel landscapes that in any other context would probably look cheesy; somehow, here, they’re entrancing. His two other photos appear at first glance to be simple black-and-white landscapes, but it turns out they’re nature scenes shot within video games. Virtual space has rarely looked so real.

One of Justin Berry’s video-game landscapes

John Houck is also moving from the digital realm to the physical, and his mesmerizing prints command a wall at On Stellar Rays. Houck has a long, intense process for these works: He uses software that he wrote to generate every possible combination of a given number of rows, columns, and colors. He then uses another program he wrote to create an index print of the combinations on a single sheet of paper. Finally, he creases the paper, lights it, and photographs it a number of times. The final print looks like an infinitely dotted, striped rainbow, and it contains both illusionistic creases and real ones.

Work by John Houck at On Stellar Rays

Houck told me that he enjoys transforming his digital process into more traditionally tangible art objects, since he often doesn’t really know what the works will look like until they’re printed. “That was the best part — that it had to live outside the computer,” he said. But it seems notable that some of the best and only “digital” art at NADA exists on paper. Maybe for now, at least, there’s only so alternative an art fair can get.

NADA Miami (The Deauville Beach Resort, 6701 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach) continues through December 9.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/brianmoz Brian Fernandes-Halloran

    Art fairs deserve far more criticism and should not be accepted as a necessary evil. All that wonderful work becomes trite in cubicles bellow a high looming ceiling. Its like we collectively forget what we know about presenting and activating art so we can take part in an event that forcibly defines the art community, art market, our times?

    Of course we need physical spaces to figure out what the contemporary art market is all about but we cannot just lazily accept the forms of presentation that market forces produce. Art fairs are blatantly designed around everything but the works. It is unfortunate how this way of interacting with art leads us to think that revolutionary concepts are somehow decipherable and able to be valued through their internal aesthetics.
    There is an increasingly starved relationship with art as an active object in real communication, that breaks our norms or at least ads a unique element to them. We act as though it is sufficient to use Creative Time, (TED talk) formats to evaluate socially engaged art separately. While art fairs utilize the false sterility of the white cube-icle. This dichotomy makes for some very boring experiences that have everything to do with conformity and nothing to do with art.
    Come on , muster some guts and call a spade a spade. Art fairs are inexcusably shitty in how they pretend to properly “display” art in a setting that is designed to house elitism and commercialism. If a writer passes over these conditions as a necessary evil in order to inform us of what new interesting art is being shown, then the writer has surrendered any sense of idealism that deserves being fought for. If art can be truly transforming, if it can truly brake social norms, and pervasive ways of thinking through its design, then any form of presentation that decidedly stifles these possibilities gives a false sense of an art experience. It is unfortunate that art fair spaces are leveraged to falsely negotiate artistic value but it is crushing when art publications take them as a necessary evil or, worse, a fun opportunity to see whats out there.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      Brian, I don’t think that’s accurate. Not all art fairs are shitty, and they are definitely not all created equal. And I think it’s unfair (pardon the pun) to compare an exhibition to an art fair. Obviously collectors and others prefer art fairs or else art fairs wouldn’t be required. Also, the art fair is as old as art and actually predate the modern exhibitions.
      The Paris salons of the 18th C were more like our art fairs than any exhibitions of today, so they are part of the ecosystem of the art world and that’s ok by me. We do need a better way to write about them but that’s what we’re trying to do every time we write about an art fair … now, if we could only crack that code.

      • http://www.facebook.com/brianmoz Brian Fernandes-Halloran

        Yeah I can say I honestly have not been to a wide enough range of art fairs to generally trash the concept, though the trends I have found in the ones I have visited were pretty undeniable. I just finished reading The Gentrification of the Mind by Sarah Schulman and have gotten fired up by her cautioning to controlled/bland art experiences when they are entangled in a network of investments.
        Still, I don’t see how art fairs can possibly pretend to be opportunities to evaluate art. They are such controlled environments that, especially when repeated as a normative way of experiencing work, give a truly distorted, narrow perspective of art. They don’t stand out vulgarly against a backdrop of standard art commercial exhibiting but they are vulgar to me as an artist. I appreciate skepticism in writing about art fairs. Chaykas piece really hit home. He ended with “The greater problem might be that the social, commercial extravaganza of Miami Basel as a whole also fails. It is fun, though.”

        I would say his critique does not only apply to an art fairs ability to properly house authentic social critique but rather any authentic art experience. If a viewer’s comfort level is dictated mostly by how she fits in such a charged social environment, then how can works properly get through? We look at most work and think “How would this move me in the proper setting?” We become accustomed to experiencing the theoretical potential of works and start thinking it is enough because, frankly, at a party it is enough.The works that really shine are cool. But like the people that shine at parties, they are not always the best ones to go home with or develop a relationship with.

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