The May art fairs that took place this past weekend, from the massive Frieze tent on Randall’s Island to the smaller satellite fairs spread throughout the city, reminded me of what it’s like to attend New York Fashion Week. While there’s more wrong with the proceedings than right, we grudgingly disregard commercial excess in pursuit of seeing or buying exciting and enticing works of art. Even my gynecologist, a wealthy, multiple-house-owning, art-collecting Upper-East-Sider, explained to me recently that while he doesn’t like buying art at art fairs because they are “impersonal” and “predictable,” he attends them nonetheless.
Frieze New York might have been particularly joyless this year as compared to last, but Pulse, accommodating over 50 exhibitors and located in Chelsea’s versatile Manhattan Pavilion, seemed to deliver the same overall experience; it’s nothing if not consistent. Pulse feels vibrant, energetic, and young. It’s colorful and materially experimental, and there are enough differences between the galleries to ensure a variety of aesthetics. The DIY look that’s prevalent at so many art fairs doesn’t dominate at Pulse — it’s more of a place where highbrow meets lowbrow and everything in between. Not all of the artwork at Pulse is interesting, but it’s also harder to become numb to one particular kind.
Despite the upsides of Pulse, I found myself perusing the fair and wondering what has happened to conceptual art, or even just art with concepts. I encountered engaging surfaces, unfamiliar textures, experimental techniques, and some unusual imagery, yet much of the work didn’t seem to be about anything. The vast majority of the artwork leaned toward the visually decorative; almost nothing was political, sexual, provocative, or even abstruse. By the end of the day I would have settled for something simply confusing, a piece I had to stand in front of for a while to figure out. It’s worrisome that the closest Pulse came to being avant-garde was Sean Fader’s “Wishing Pelt.” Rubbing the hairy chest of a man and whispering into his ear might have felt provocative and meaningful in the 1970s, but it certainly didn’t resonate this weekend.
A few artists, while not submitting entirely to the definition of “conceptual,” evoked ideas or aesthetics that at least felt current and relevant — the least we can ask of a piece of art. Mia Rosenthal’s quirky freehand drawings of our beloved gadgets — tablets, keypads, computer desktops, ]cellphone screens — on view at the Philadelphia-based Gallery Joe had a simple, sketchbook quality. Delicately drawn in ink, graphite, and gouache, the renderings by the Philly-based artist depict 21st-century life in a decidedly un-21st-century manner, giving our disturbing dependence on smart devices a romantic beauty. There’s also an interesting parallel between the amount of time Rosenthal spends on the drawings, which are detailed to the point of obsessive, and our time-consuming commitment to screens.
Martina Bacigalupo’s photographs at Camilla Grimaldi came the closest to political artwork at Pulse. The Italian photographer, who lives and works primarily in East Africa, showed found images from a box of discarded head shots used for official identification cards in Gulu, Uganda. In each photograph the face of the sitter has been extracted, leaving a hastily cut white rectangle behind. The sitters’ clothing, posture, and surroundings are all the visual clues that remain, creating a fascinating new narrative. Without faces, the images are beautifully anonymous but incredibly specific portraits of a village. Viewers can speculate about who these people are and were and what might have happened in this place, projecting their own ideas and prejudices onto an ordinary routine in Gulu.
The Mexican-American artist Abel Alejandre’s rooster portraits, shown at the booth of LA gallery Coagula Curatorial, similarly deal with issues of culture, race, identity, and immigration. Subtly drawn with graphite and presented in a grid, Alejandre’s roosters read like a study in the practice of cock fighting — a collective portrait of Mexican-American culture as well as a confrontation of stereotypes. Born in Mexico but moved to California in the 1970s, Alejandre deals with his own immigrant identity and sense of isolation in his work. In the same booth, the work of Leigh Salgado, another Chicana artist, tackled identity from a different perspective, using labor-intensive techniques like cutout, burning, and layering to create abstracted female forms. Salgado creates wonderfully complex surfaces made up of fleshy colors that deal with clothing, female anatomy, and body image, and how all of these elements contribute to, or constitute, feminine identity.
Sabrina Gschwandtner’s sewn Film Quilts at LMAKprojects are more material than conceptual, but they also address the ongoing hierarchies endorsed by the art world and the distinctions still made between art and craft. Using 16mm historical films that focus on textile crafts and traditionally feminine techniques like knitting, sewing and quilting, Gschwandtner cuts, manipulates, and sews the films together in traditional quilting patterns. The resulting pieces, displayed in light boxes, also reference painting, abstraction, and minimalism, giving the work interesting dichotomies of masculine and feminine, art and craft, and the decorative and the conceptual.
Aside from these standouts, the art at Pulse seemed less thoughtful than usual. Though art fairs don’t always show the most challenging work, I came away with the impression that many artists, galleries, collectors, and even viewers need to challenge themselves and strive to say something worthwhile about the current state of culture. Art for art’s sake, it turns out, is boring.
Pulse New York 2014 took place May 8–11 at the Metropolitan Pavilion (125 W 18th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan).